Laboratory Life

Laboratory Life

Infobox Book
name = Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts
title_orig =
translator =

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author = Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar
illustrator =
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country = USA
language = English
series =
genre = Sociological study
publisher = Sage Publications, Beverly Hills
release_date = 1979
media_type =
pages =
isbn = 0-80-390993-4
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts" is a 1979 book by sociologists of science Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar.

This influential book in the field of science studies presents an anthropological study of Roger Guillemin's scientific laboratory at the Salk Institute. It advances a number of observations regarding how scientific work is conducted, including descriptions of the complex relationship between the routine lab practices performed by scientists, the publication of papers, scientific prestige, research finances and other elements of laboratory life.

The book is considered to be one of the most influential works in the laboratory studies tradition within Science and Technology Studies. It is inspired but not entirely dependent on the ethnomethodological approach. In turn, it served as the inspiration for Actor-Network Theory (or ANT); many of ANT's core concepts (like transcription, inscription, translation, and the deployment of networks) are present in "Laboratory Life".

Introduction and Methodology

Latour and Woolgar state that their work “concerns the way in which the daily activities of working scientists lead to the construction of scientific facts” (40). "Laboratory Life" therefore stands in opposition to the study of scandalous moments in which the so-called “normal” operation of science was disrupted by external forces. In contrast, Latour and Woolgar give an account of a how scientific facts are produced in a laboratory "in situ", or as it happens.

An Anthropologist Visits the Laboratory

The initial methodology of "Laboratory Life" involves an “anthropological strangeness” (40) in which the laboratory is a tribe foreign to the researcher. The study of the lab begins with a semi-fictionalized account of an ignorant observer who knows nothing of laboratories or scientists. In this account, Latour and Woolgar “bracket” (44) their previous knowledge of scientific practice and ironically ask seemingly-nonsensical questions about observed practices in the laboratory, such as “Are the heated debates in front of the blackboard part of some gambling contest?” In the asking and answering of these questions, the observer’s understanding of laboratory practices is gradually refined, leading to a strong focus on the significance of paper documents.

The observer soon recognizes that all the scientists and technicians in the lab write in some fashion, and that few activities in the lab are not connected to some sort of transcription or inscription. The foreign observer describes the laboratory as “strange tribe” of “compulsive and manic writers ... who spend the greatest part of their day coding, marking, altering, correcting, reading, and writing” (48-9). Large and expensive laboratory equipment (such as bioassays or mass spectrometers) are interpreted as “inscription device [s] ” that have the sole purpose of “transform [ing] a material substance into a figure or diagram” (51). In this way, the observer works to organize and systematize the laboratory such that it “began to take on the appearance of a system of literary inscription” (52).

Having concluded that the “production of papers” for publication in a scientific journal is the primary focus of a laboratory, the observer next aims to “consider papers as objects in much the same way as manufactured goods” (71). This involves asking how papers are produced, what their constituent elements (or raw materials) are, and why these papers are so important. First, the authors recognize that in papers, “some statements appeared more fact-like than others” (76). From this observation, a five-element continuum of facticity is constructed, which spans from type 5 statements which are taken for granted to type 1 statements which are unqualified speculations, with various intermediate levels in between. The conclusion reached is that statements in a laboratory routinely travel up and down this continuum, and the main purpose of a laboratory is to take statements of a one level of facticity and transform them to another level.

However, Latour and Woolgar recognize that this semi-fictionalized account of an ignorant observer aiming to systematize the alien laboratory has several problems. While the observer’s rich descriptions of activity in the lab are taken as accurate, the observer has not established that the interpretation of this data in terms of literary inscription is exhaustive or the only way in which laboratory life can be analyzed. In the authors’ words, the observer’s account is not “immune from all possibility of future qualification” (88).

The Construction of a Fact: The Case of TRF(H)

The next chapter aims at giving a precise account of the way in which this process operates with respect to a single scientific fact: the pepide TRF(H). This historical account, which Latour and Woolgar admit is, like all histories, a “necessarily literary fiction” (107), has the ostensible purpose of qualifying the initial account given by the observer. To this end, the chapter focuses on the specific way in which TRF(H) was constructed as a fact, describing how one scientist, Guillemin, “redefine [d] the TRF subspecialty solely in terms of determining the structure of the substance” (119). As sequencing TRF(H) required far more sophisticated equipment and techniques than merely determining its physiological effects, Guillemin raised the cost of entry to this field and cut his potential competitors by three-fourths.

The authors next claim that the fact regarding TRF(H)’s structure progressed by decreases in the number of “’logically’ possible alternatives” (146) However, Latour and Woolgar critique the explanation that “logic” or “deduction” is a satisfactory and complete explanation for the specific way in which a scientific fact is constructed. Instead, as their historical account of TRF(H) shows, the “list of possible alternatives by which we can evaluate the logic of a deduction is sociologically (rather than logically) determined” (136). Specifically, the material, technical, and human resources of a laboratory affected what kinds of challenges and counter-facts could be constructed and formulated, leading Latour and Woolgar to later conclude that “the set of statements considered too costly to modify constitute what is referred to as reality” (243).

In the previous section, Latour and Woolgar used a semi-fictional observer to describe the laboratory as a literary system in which mere statements are turned into facts and vice-versa. The most sound and established facts were those statements which could be divorced from their contingent circumstances. The authors next aim to interrogate how this process operates on a very small and specific scale by looking at how this process operated with respect to the molecule TRF(H), whose molecular structure went through various stages of facticity both in and out of the laboratory Latour studied. In this section, Latour and Woolgar aim to “specify the precise time and place in the process of fact construction when a statement became transformed into a fact and hence freed from the circumstances of its production” (105).

Instead of trying to construct a “precise chronology” of what “really happened,” in the field, they aim to demonstrate how “a hard fact can be sociologically deconstructed” (107) by showing how it emerged in what they call a network. A "network" is “a set of positions within which an object such as TRF has meaning” (107), and they recognize that TRF only has meaning within certain networks. For example, outside of the network of post-1960s endocrinology, TRF is “an unremarkable white power” (108), which leads to the claim that a “well-established fact loses its meaning when divorced from its context” (110). Latour and Woolgar stress that “to say that TRF is constructed is not to deny its solidity as a fact. Rather, it is to emphasize how, where, and why it was created.” (127).

The Microprocessing of Facts

Cycles of Credit

The Creation of Order Out of Disorder




*1979. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications. ISBN 0-80-390993-4.
*1986. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-69-102832-X, oclc|4775088.;French
*1988. "La Vie de laboratoire : la Production des faits scientifiques", Paris: La Découverte. ISBN 2-70-714848-2, oclc|19298021.

See also

* "Politics of nature"
* "Science in action"

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