Post 5 Kirtz: The Power Structures in Labs and their Narratives

Woolgar and Latour briefly discuss the incident regarding Dame Jocelyn Bell and her then-supervisor Dr. Hewish. In 1967, as the authors note, Bell detected the “scruff” which ultimately was the detection of the first radio waves or pulse from a neutron star, i.e. the pulsar (33). However one of the largest controversies associated with this discovery (widely known in Physics) is not addressed, namely that Bell was not given the Nobel prize for her discovery while her supervisor Dr. Hewish was awarded one in 1974 for contributions to Radio Astronomy on Pulsar detection (“Jocelyn Bell Burnell”). Many physicists were outraged that her supervisor essentially took credit for the work Bell had completed over the two to three years she worked with the Cambridge group, including tasks such as building the radio telescope, monitoring data, interpreting data, detecting the first pulsar and correctly identifying it (“Jocelyn Bell Burnell”). Why this story is important to Latour’s and Woolgar’s thesis is because it illustrates how the social informs the process of scientific knowledge formation and circulation. As they state, “our discussion concerns the social construction of scientific facts” (32) and part of the social construction results from the structures the constitute the way evidence or data is collected, interpreted and presented to audiences.

What is inherent throughout this story is the social and political hierarchies within the institution. Bell could not receive credit for the discovery as she was only a graduate student; Dr. Hewish had more cultural value or capital and thus greater agency. This is reflected in the laboratory and its politics described throughout the book seen through the observation that although the technicians visit the doctors in the lab, the doctors do not spend their time with the technicians (45). As the map the authors provide illustrates there are differences between areas A and B which reinforce these divisions and hierarchies. The papers which occupy space in the chemical lab portion (A) serve to support the hypothesis or ideas drawn by the doctors in the B space (47). The material manifestation of this emphases that redundancy breeds certainty and that certain jobs like “thinking” are valued over others like “doing.” This therefore produces certain types of knowledge that creates the category of scientific and in turn these categories structure further relations between individuals. This is witnessed in the interaction between two fellow researchers when one has to ask the other for peptides, but cannot do so without using rhetoric to illustrate dominance and the importance of his work in order to establish the worthiness of his request, without specifically stating a request (157). Thus, “epistemological or evaluative formulations of scientific activity are being made to do the work of social negotiation,” illustrating that the social and the scientific are not two things but originating from the same space (157). In thinking about practical applications of this how does this change in a space like a hackerspace? Is it possible for these hierarchies to evolve through modern lab spaces in humanities?

Furthermore, I believe this type of analysis illustrates the fallacies in thinking this way about knowledge production which lead to situations such as the one involving Bell. For example, Latour and Woolgar discuss that many scientists  construct or rely on a “discovery” narrative that describes a moment or thought that sparked their discovery, thus making their research a phenomenon rather than the ordinary drudgery described through most of the book (169). This narrative is evident throughout most fields of science and has inculcated culture from phrases like “Eureka!” to the story of Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone call. These narratives also serve to reflect the biases and hierarchies in scientific research which develop through the concept of autonomous research, individual intelligence (rather than collective), and ephemeral discovery (rather than over long periods of time). Even the story involving Dr. Hewish and Bell is implicated in this type of narrative, whereby Dr. Hewish noticed Bell’s observations that there were aberrant results. How do we desensationalize science? Why are narratives so important to science?

Works Cited

“Jocelyn Bell Burnett.” Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics. UCLA, 30 Apr 1997. Web. 5 Oct 2015.

Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986. Print

One thought on “Post 5 Kirtz: The Power Structures in Labs and their Narratives

  1. Jaime, thanks for this post! Science’s obsession with “discovery narratives” seems to mirror the humanities’ obsession with teleological climax. And having seen the realities of scientific authorship (500+ contributors in some cases), I can’t fathom the urge to assign credit to a single (“worthy”) individual. I wonder now if we’re reifying this system of silence by treating the Nobel Prize as the scientific Ideal. It reminded me strongly of a Seinfeld awards’ acceptance speech, which you’ve probably seen since it was on Reddit last week:


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