Forty Years after Laboratory Life

Philosophy, Theory, and Practice in Biology 12 (2020)
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There is an ongoing and robust tradition of science and technology studies scholars conducting ethnographic laboratory studies. These laboratory studies—like all ethnographies—are each conducted at a particular time, are situated in a particular place, and are about a particular culture. Presumably, this contextual specificity means that such ethnographies have limited applicability beyond the narrow slice of time, place, and culture that they each subject to examination. But we do not always or even often treat them that way. It is beyond common for us to speak about what one or another laboratory study reveals about the laboratory, or “science” much more broadly. Given the contextual specificity of our ethnographic laboratory studies, what justifies this presumed generalizability? Initially, this manuscript surveys typical responses to this question, but then it pursues an unusual one: the potential replicability of ethnographic results. This potential is hereby explored, via an ethnographic replication attempt—one designed and conducted in order to test the generalizability of a particular laboratory study, that of Latour and Woolgar’s classic Laboratory Life. The results of the ethnographic replication attempt are reported, and a remarkable degree of replicability is established.

Author's Profile

Joyce C. Havstad
University of Utah


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