5 December 2012

Latour and Woolgar's "Laboratory Life"

With Laboratory Life. The Contruction of Scientific Facts, published in 1979, Latour & Woolgar more or less launched the field of scientific anthropology. I think their constructivist view is a bit extreme, but I did find some very interesting observations, in particular in Chapters 4 and 5.

Here, however, I'm interested in the validity of the anthropological approach (as defined by the authors, pp. 27-30 in the 2nd edition, Princeton University Press, 1986) when applied to highly specialized fields.  In particular, they state explicitly (p. 28):

 We envisaged a research procedure analogous with that of an intrepid explorer of the Ivory Coast, who, having studied the belief system or material production of "savage minds" by living with tribesmen, sharing their hardships and almost becoming one of them, eventually returns with a body of observations which he can present as a preliminary research report.

On the face of it, Latour's claim that he can provide new insight into scientific activity even though (or, rather, precisely because) he is not trained in that specific discipline  is contradictory. The initial "bracketing" he invokes (p. 29) must at some point give way to familiarity, and this is not possible without (at least) the common language of the particular scientific domain.

Does the anthropological approach require a certain "simplicity" of the population under study? The anthropologist must on the one hand be "naive" enough, but on the other hand still be able to immerse himself in the culture in a few years. What happens if the subjects have a kind of specialized knowledge that is essential to their society ?

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