From Shapin and Schafer, we know that the stage where experiments are performed – what we today call the laboratory – is central to the production of facts as confirmed by the experimental community. In the two articles for today (Knorr Cetina and Latour), the laboratory is portrayed as “improving” natural orders as well as “upgrading” social orders.
The reality of laboratories is that they are not as distinct and separate a space from the rest of society. See the Richard Harris series: “Glomski’s problem was that he could only get funding to do very predictable, unexciting research. When money gets tight, often only the most risk-averse ideas get funded, he and others say” (Harris 2014). Instead, let’s view the laboratory as reconfiguration of nature: “Laboratories are based on the premise that objects are not fixed entities that have to be seen “as they are” or left by themselves.” (Knorr Cetina 1999:26). Latour goes further and says that laboratories challenge both nature and society; have a “destabilizing role” (Latour 1999:262). However, please note: there is a difference in field observation methodologies (astronomy) and experimentation; this discussion of the lab in Latour is based upon experimental methodology.
Three aspects of the laboratory as reconfiguration of nature
Latour identifies three ways in which the laboratory is a reconfiguration of nature.
- the object is not as it is in its natural sense, it can be transformed and substituted for in the lab. For Latour, the object is the thing being studied (e.g., the farm). This transformation or substitution is how “interest” is generated – while a lab in Paris and a farm in rural France may not have much in common, the lab goes out there, and then the farm is brought into the lab in the form of growing anthrax bacillus – this is an act of translation.
- the object is not where it is in its natural environment. this is Latour’s main point, in that laboratories are made to blur this distinction between inside/outside, micro/macro; this is also the “destabilizing” point
- events need not occur when it normally happens. Latour uses the Pasteur example to demonstrate that they were able to mimic the variation of virulence. But the trick is to bring back the variation from the laboratory to the field through field trials.
Through these three reconfigurations, the social “is capitalized upon and upgraded to become an instrument of scientific work. Laboratory processes align natural orders with social orders by creating reconfigured, workable objects in relation to agents of a given time and place.” (Knorr Cetina 1999:29). So while we already have talked about experimentation in the lab as staging in Shapin and Schafer, we need to add that experimentation in the laboratory involve acts of manipulation and symbolization. As Knorr Cetina writes, as sites of staging, manipulation, and symbolization, laboratories need to be seen as “relational units that gain power by instituting differences within their environment: differences between the reconfigured orders created in the laboratory and the conventions and arrangements found in everyday life, but of course also differences between contemporary laboratory setups and those found at other times and places. Laboratories, to be sure, not only play upon the social and natural orders as they are experienced in everyday life. They also play upon themselves; upon their own previous makeup and at times upon those of competing laboratories.” (Knorr Cetina 1999:44)
This is why the title of Latour’s paper comes from Archimedes motto: “give me a laboratory and I’ll move the earth.” Latour’s point is that the laboratory becomes a way for scientists like Pasteur to recreate the world through a chain of displacements: “The specificity of science is not to be found in cognitive, social, or psychological qualities, but in the special construction of laboratories in a manner which reverses the scale pf phenomena so as to make things readable, and then accelerates the frequency of trials, allowing many mistakes to be made and registered” (Latour 1999:272).
Note: adequatio rei et intellectus – the intellect of the knower must be adequate to the thing known. This quote highlights the correspondence of mind and reality; the truth is out there and it is knowable.