McGehee Post 5: Fact or Fiction?

Last week, we visited the Media Archeology Lab, and many of us were left with questions about the nature of the lab. It became apparent that several of us (especially me) did not have clear apprehensions of what a scientific lab actually looks like on the inside or what these labs might do. I would describe my own limited, collegiate experience in scientific labs as stereotypical, something right out of a television show.

fuck you scienceI never latched onto science outside of anthropology, which seemed like a separate and dissonant beast from chemistry and biology. I couldn’t help but gain the impression that anthropology, along with psychology and sociology, were border fields with less merit than other sciences. I felt in my undergraduate that many academics around me treated these fields the same way most people treat astrology, essentially as pseudoscience.

This is why I became so enamored by the philosophical approaches and anthropological analyses presented in Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1979).

Latour and Woolgar remind us that while we have reached outside of our own culture to study, what is implied as “primitive” cultures and tribes, we have yet to turn the lens on ourselves, or on our scientists, rather. “The most naive (and perhaps least common) reaction is that nonscientific outsiders simply have no business probing the activities of science” (19). This view within the scientific community smacks of the neo-liberalism we discussed last class. And indeed, Latour and Woolgar make a point of this when discussing the lack of cross-examination by scientists into their own work.

Similarly, “many of these [anthropological] approaches have too often accepted the products of science and taken them for granted in their subsequent analysis, rather than attempting to account for their initial production” (18). It is then understandable why scientists might resist outsider analysis, in addition to their institutional training encouraging them to ignore the self as a factor of analysis during research and data collection.

One of the most insightful and intriguing discussions by Latour and Woolgar surround the labels of these investigative fields attempting to study scientists and their practices:

“It is perhaps tempting for an outside observer to present his interests in terms of established categories of scholarly investigation, rather than in a way which might exacerbate participants’ curiosity or sense of suspicion. For example, the label of “historian” or “philosopher” might be more readily acceptable than either “sociologist” or “anthro- pologist.” The term “anthropologist” is readily associated with the study of “primitive” or “prescientific” belief systems. The term “sociologist” gives rise to a plethora of different interpretations, but essentially it can be seen by the working scientist to concern a range of phenomena, all of which impinge in some way on matters of social and political intrigue” (20).

It seems that the sciences are flawed in wanting to exclude social factors from scientific inquiry, as they are, without a doubt, affected on some level by social conduct. The very perception of these fields by scientists, as outlined above, speaks to a certain neo-liberal view. How can scientists create neutral, factual work without acknowledging anthropological factors such as a particular labs placement in the world and relation to others? The lab then positions itself in a position of autonomy and unquestionable authority. This reminds me specifically of the tendency by Western culture to speak from a position of neutrality, as if the West is the dominant or standard lens to view the world from. This has also been an issue in anthropological, sociological, psychological, literary, and historical scholarship, reflecting colonial structures and a lack of awareness of such structures.colonialism

One thing to consider is whom exactly we find in the lab. Its no surprise that we often find women steered towards the humanities and men towards science and mathematics. We frequently observe a dismal amount of people of color with access to both of these spaces as well.

“As Tanner Higgin contends, ‘issues of cultural politics are downplayed or, more commonly, considered a given within DH. There’s a disposition that the battles of race, gender, class and ecology have already been won, their lessons have been learned, and by espousing a rhetoric of equity everything will fall into place’ (Higgin)” (Spiro 28).

How then do these social factors affect the lab, research proposals, and collected data produced by the lab? These questions seem to rear more in Digital Humanities, but how often do they appear in science labs? Not at all, it seems. The pervading notion that adding cultural theory to scientific fields of research somehow invalidates the production, continues to hurt these fields.

“Yet, the binary [between hack and yack] persists, both in questionable arguments that cultural criticism targets a discursive construction of the field alone and invalid claims that an emphasis on building makes digital humanities untheoretical. The relationship between theory and praxis is integral to the digital humanities. Connections between the two appear in the archives built, corpora analyzed, oral histories recorded, and geographies mapped” (Risam).

It is my opinion, formed from my own research, that cultural theory and examination strengthen these fields, and help us to create more accurate information and practices. Of course, cultural theory is not without pitfalls. Westerhumansn feminism is not without pitfalls. Latour and Woolgar suggest that these fields don’t need to stand in opposition with one another, and that to rely on one without the other is folly. We are able to form cultural theory through collected data. Scientific research is formed around cultural interest.

Digital Humanities then becomes a complex space and an interesting subject of investigation. As a field living on the border of scientific method and anthropological study, it holds the key to everything. If we can include political and social factors when collecting scientific data, we stand a greater chance of creating “fact.”

Works Cited:

  • Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986. Print.
  • Roopika Risam. Beyond the Margins: Intersectionality and the Digital Humanities. Salem State University. Web.
  • Jamie “Skye” Bianco. Man and His Tool, Again? Queer and Feminist Notes on Practices in the Digital Humanities and Object Orientations Everywhere. New York University. Web.

One thought on “McGehee Post 5: Fact or Fiction?

  1. cdeagon says:

    Liz, I really appreciate how your always able to bring cultural theory into your discussion of DH; and, in that way, keep the human in humanities. Like you, I was also interested in Latour & Woolgar’s anthropological approach to the lab. For me, reading this study helped reinforce an idea that I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks now: anthropology and literary studies are very similar fields. As a Victorianist, studying literature necessarily means looking at artifacts to study people from a historical (as well as critical and theoretical) perspective. And, as you suggest, I think we can—indeed, should—approach DH similarly while also being self-reflexive. That is, we strive to conduct our work so it involves humans/society as much as it is about humans/society.


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