This week I’ve been reading the first half of Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s book Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Like many of the other pieces I’ve been reading lately, this book argues for a social contructivist theory of scientific knowledge, which is a perspective I’m really starting to identify with. What I’m finding most interesting about this book is the ethnographic approach that was taken to observe the creation of scientific knowledge. Basically, Bruno Latour spent two years observing in a biology lab at the Salk Institute. Chapter 1 begins with a snippet of a transcript covering about 5 minutes of activity in a lab – all the little seemingly insignificant bits of conversation and activity that, taken together, would allow an outside observer to understand how scientific knowledge is socially constructed.
The authors emphasize that real sociological understanding of science can only come from an outside observer, someone who is not themselves too caught up in the science – someone who can’t see the forest for the trees, as it were. They even suggest that it’s important to “make the activities of the laboratory seem as strange as possible in order not to take too much for granted” (30). Why should we need someone to spend two years in a lab watching research happen when the researchers are going to be writing up their methods and results in an article anyway, you may ask? The authors argue that “printed scientific communications systematically misrepresent the activity that gives rise to published reports” and even “systematically conceal the nature of the activity” (28). In my experience, I would agree that this is true – a great example of it is #overlyhonestmethods, my absolute favorite Twitter hashtag of all time, in which scientists reveal the dirty secrets that don’t make it into the Nature article.
I’ve been thinking that an ethnographic approach might be an effective way to approach my research, and I’m thinking it makes even more sense after what I’ve read of this book so far. However, this research was done in the 1970s, when research was a lot different. Of course there are still clinical and bench researchers who are doing actual physical things that a person can observe, but a lot of research, especially the research I’m interested in, is more about digital data that’s already collected. If I wanted to observe someone doing the kind of research I’m interested in, it would likely involve me sitting there and staring at them just doing stuff on a computer for 8 hours a day. So I’m not sure if a traditional ethnographic approach is really workable for what I want to do. Plus, I don’t think I’d get anyone to agree to let me observe them. I know I certainly wouldn’t let someone just sit there and watch me work on my computer for a whole day, let alone two years (mostly because I’d be embarrassed for anyone else to know how much time I spend looking at pictures of dogs wearing top hats and videos of baby sloths). Even if I could get someone to agree to that, I do wonder about the problem of observer effect – that the act of someone observing the phenomenon will substantively change that phenomenon (like how I probably wouldn’t take a break from writing this post to watch this video of a porcupine adorably nomming pumpkins if someone was observing me).
This thought takes me back to something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, which is figuring out methods of indirect observation of researchers’ data reuse practices. I’m very interested in exploring these sorts of methods because I feel like I’ll get better and more accurate results that way. I don’t particularly like survey research for a lot of reasons: it’s hard to get people to fill out your survey, sometimes they answer in ways that don’t really give you the information you need, and you’re sort of limited in what kind of information you can get from them. I like interviews and focus groups even less, for many of the same reasons. Participant observation and ethnographic approaches have the problems I’ve discussed above. So what I think I’m really interested in doing is exploring the “artifacts” of scientific research – the data, the articles, the repositories, the funny Twitter hashtags. This idea sort of builds upon the concept I discussed in my blog last week – how systems can be studied and tells us something about their intended users. I think this approach could yield some really interesting insights, and I’m curious to see what kind of “artifacts” I’ll be able to locate and use.