A fascinating experiment

Likely hypotheses have been put forward on the trigeminal (Loewenstein et al., 1930), bitrigeminal (Von Aitick, 1940), quadritrigeminal (Van der Deder, 1950), supra-, infra- and inter-trigeminal (Mason & Ragoun, 1960) afferents, as well as on the macular (Zakouski, 1954), saccular (Bortsch, 1955), utricular (Malosol, 1956), ventricular (Tarama, 1957), monocular (Zubrowska, 1958), binocular (Chachlik, 1959-1960), triocu-lar (Strogonoff, 1960), auditive (Balalaika, 1515) and digestive (Alka-Seltzer, 1815) inputs.

On first reading this passage, it seems to be an extract from a bona fide scientific article. But as one reads the text that follows, the realization dawns that the aim of the experiment described was to determine the effect of tomato throwing on the voice volume of sopranos. The article is thus evidently a parody, the work of the French writer Georges Perec (Perec, 1991). But the fact that it is possible to write a parody of this kind, and that the reader may find it humorous, demonstrates that the scientific article - the so-called 'paper' - is by now a well-established genre of text and discourse, with precise codes and expressive rules as regards the abstract, the graphs, the tables, the acknowledgements, and so on.

The process involved in construction of a scientific article on the basis of informal conversations in the laboratory, experimental trial and error, ad hoc adjustments of hypotheses and explanations, has been examined since the mid-1970s by a series of studies which have sought to resolve the difficulties of the 'strong programme'. Such studies no longer take a certain scientific theory and set it in relation to a specific historical and social context; rather, they delve into the process itself that leads to the theory's formation, isolating its components and placing them under a magnifying glass.

This distancing from a certain naturalism and positivism - however paradoxical it may seem - apparent in the Edinburgh school, and in the strong programme in particular, has merged since the 1970s with stimuli from certain currents of sociological inquiry - notably ethnomethodology.1 The founder of ethnomethodology himself, Harold Garfinkel, published an article in 1981 in which he analysed the discovery of a pulsar by a group of American astrophysicists, using for the purpose recordings that he had made of their conversations while they performed their observations and measurements (Garfinkel et al., 1981).

This new approach therefore flanks the macrosociological and causal analysis of the strong programme with detailed inquiry into the contingent processes that constitute scientific activity. The method does not consist of attempts at systematic theory-making a la Bloor but, rather, of case studies whose minute reconstruction is often so complex that it takes up an entire book. The scientific fact is no longer seen as the point of departure; it is now the point of arrival. Scientific knowledge is not only socially conditioned - that is, social forces enter the internal procedures of science at a certain stage -instead, it is from the very beginning 'constructed and constituted through microsocial phenomena' (Latour and Woolgar, 1979: 236).

Unlike in the strong programme, analysis does not deal with historical cases but concentrates instead on contemporary science. The main setting for this microsociological and ethnographic observation is, therefore, the laboratory. In Laboratory Life, the first classic in this strand of studies, Latour and Woolgar (1979) spent two years observing the work of a research group at the Salk Institute of La Jolla, California - work which later led to discovery of a substance called TRF which earned Guillemin the Nobel prize. Latour and Woolgar analysed laboratory notebooks, experimental protocols, provisional reports and drafts of scientific papers, while carefully recording the conversations that went on during experiments and among the members of the research group. What were the conclusions of this and similar studies? According to another proponent of this approach, laboratory studies have shown that there are no significant differences between the search for knowledge that takes place in a laboratory and what happens, for example, in a law court. In scientific research, too, everything is, in principle, negotiable: 'what is a microglia cell and what is an artefact, who is a good scientist and what is an appropriate method, whether one measurement is sufficient or whether one needs to have several replications' (Knorr-Cetina, 1995: 152).

Involved in these negotiations are not only scientists but also the agencies that finance them, the suppliers of apparatus and materials, and policy makers, so that some scholars have been prompted to talk of 'transepistemic' networks. The across-the-board nature of these negotiations and the 'decision-impregnated' character (active, therefore, rather than being the passive recording of natural phenomena) of scientific research entail, according to Knorr-Cetina, the use by researchers of 'nonepistemic arguments' and their 'continuously crisscrossing the border between considerations that are in their view "scientific" and "nonscientific"' (Knorr-Cetina, 1995: 154). Playing a significant part in the construction of a scientific fact is the rhetorical dimension: discourse strategies, representation techniques, forms of data presentation. In this respect, Latour and Woolgar give particular importance to two groups of rhetorical items: 'modalities' and 'literary inscriptions' (Latour and Woolgar, 1979). Modalities are the elements that qualify the researcher's statements and which are gradually eliminated as a set of assertions or results is transformed into a scientific fact.

A sentence in a paper given to a seminar or a conference:

The research group headed by Prof. So-and-So believes that there is some probability that beta-carotene may be involved in the prevention of some types of tumour.

In a textbook, or even more so a news magazine, this sentence will be transformed into:

Beta-carotene prevents cancer.

Inscriptions are the 'evidence' - tables, graphs, microscope images, X-rays - that the researcher cites in support of his/her claims, almost as if to say, 'You doubt what I wrote? Let me show you' (Latour, 1987: 64). For Latour and Woolgar, therefore, a scientific instrument is nothing but an 'inscription device', an item of apparatus - whatever its technical sophistication, cost or size - able to produce 'a visual representation in a scientific text'.

The final outcome of this process is the article published in a scientific journal, where the researcher's progressive adjustments and zig-zag path are straightened out, purged of all traces of contingency, and stuffed with inscriptions so that they can be considered robust and incontrovertible results. Latour and Woolgar call this a 'splitting and inversion' process whereby:

a an object is separated - and thus acquires a life of its own - from the statements about it: justification for the statement 'AIDS is caused by the HIV virus' no longer needs a basis in experimental evidence or results, but ensues from the fact that 'AIDS is indeed caused by the HIV virus' (splitting); b the research process is reversed: the relation between HIV and AIDS has always existed; it was only waiting to be discovered (inversion).

Thus, Knorr-Cetina distinguishes between the 'informal' reasoning which characterizes the laboratory and the 'literary' reasoning that informs the writing of a scientific paper. Far from being a 'faithful' report on the completed research, a paper is a subtle rhetorical exercise which 'forgets much of what has happened in the laboratory' and reconstructs it selectively. For example, a researcher may find him/herself studying a certain problem or using a certain method for reasons which are relatively fortuitous or dictated by the availability of certain resources. But the process will be rationalized in the paper, and the researcher's every move will be made to ensue systematically from specific objectives fixed at the outset.

The two principal sources used by Garfinkel to analyse the discovery of the pulsar by the group of astrophysicists - on the one hand their conversations and the notes jotted down during their observations, on the other the official paper in which the discovery was presented - differed substantially. The work materials revealed a laborious process of successive approximations, adjustments, elaborate discourse practices and common-sense arguments by which the researchers reached agreement on the meaning of what they had observed. But in the article that the astrophysicists published, all this disappeared, being replaced by a presentation of the scientific fact -the pulsar - as 'natural' and independent of any intervention by the observers: a sort of a posteriori rationalization which carefully removed any semblance of 'local historicity' from the process.

The pulsar is depicted as the cause of everything that is seen and said about it; it is depicted as existing prior to and independently from of any method for detecting it and every way of talking about it.

In entirely similar manner, Gilbert and Mulkay have analysed numerous conversations, discourses and texts by scientists to identify two rhetorical repertoires. The first, what they call the 'contingent' repertoire, dominates informal discussions, laboratory work, notes and intermediate accounts; the second, the empiricist repertoire, is used in every form of official presentation, from a conference paper to the official speech made by the scientists when receiving an award (Gilbert and Mulkay, 1984).

Although the laboratory studies approach does not deny that scientific activity tends to standardize methods and procedures, an aspect constantly stressed is the strongly local and idiosyncratic character of the procedures by which a scientific fact is created. Every experimental setting, every laboratory, even the performance of the same experiment by different researchers, is characterized by a specific pattern of skills, manual techniques and materials.2 Apparently insignificant events like the escape of a laboratory guinea pig may sometimes significantly alter the entire course of a research project. For his celebrated public experiment on the anthrax vaccine, Pasteur had to use sheep instead of the cows that he had planned because the latter were much dearer to the hearts of the farmers who had volunteered to make their animals available for his experiment (Cadeddu, 1987; Bucchi, 1997; see also Section 3, pp. 70ff.).

This aspect marks a result but also a methodological shortcoming of laboratory studies in regard to the generalizability of observations made in specific settings.

However, the criticism most frequently brought against laboratory studies obviously centres on the concept of 'construction of scientific fact'. The extent to which this criticism is justified depends among other things on which version of the argument is selected, because the degree of 'constructivism' varies from author to author - and, indeed, even among studies made by the same author (Hacking, 1999). It ranges from an extreme version according to which 'facts are consequences rather than causes of scientific descriptions' to more moderate versions which claim that 'what does indeed come into existence when science "discovers" a microbe or a subatomic particle, it is a specific entity distinguished from other entities . . . and furnished with a name, a set of descriptors, and a set of techniques in terms of which it can be produced and handled' (Knorr-Cetina, 1995: 161).

Constructionism did not argue the absence of material reality from scientific activities; it just asked that 'reality' or 'nature' be considered as entities continually rentranscibed from within scientific and other activities. The focus of interest, for constructionism, is the process of transcription.

(Knorr Cetina, 1995: 149)

At a more specific level, it is certainly possible to question the explanatory capacity of these studies. Beyond their undoubted punctiliousness in describing the routine of scientific work, it is not alway easy to discern their ability to explain how this tangle of micro-interactions and negotiations can be unravelled into a set of shared practices and results. In other words, it is not always clear how consensus, or even communication, is possible in a specific sector of research.

It is possible that this limitation is due to the substantially 'intramural' standpoint taken by these studies (Knorr-Cetina, 1995: 162), by which is meant a view restricted to the laboratory and to scientific actors. It would be important from this perspective, for example, to explore how processes of negotiation and construction are tied to the broader social context. If construction of the scientific fact does occur, it is clear that it does not cease with publication of a scientific paper but continues in numerous further settings and with the participation of multiple actors.

The conversation between doctor and patient about an illness, the production of a technology based on a scientific discovery and its use by consumers, the teaching of a scientific theory in a school classroom, the taking out of an insurance policy based on the estimated probability of a certain event: all these situations are integral parts of this construction process, and contribute to making a scientific fact increasingly solid.

It is not entirely a paradox to say that, in this sense, the laboratory studies approach has been scarcely 'sociological', and that it is driven by a theory centred on science's 'internal' processes rather than on its relationship with society. In rejecting the structural approach to the relationships between science and society, and ultimately the distinction itself between science and society, the ethnographers of scientific knowledge render the social dimension more pervasive but at the same time more difficult to identify. Society penetrates the laboratory, but in the form of an invisible gas. As we shall see, scholars engaged in laboratory studies have responded to these criticisms in various ways.

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