Qualitative Research and Laboratory Life

Posted: September 20, 2008 in Methods, Readings, School
Tags: , ,

This week, among a great amount of other things, I have been finishing Qualitative Research and reading Laboratory Life (The Construction of Scientific Facts) by Latour and Woolgar. Let me speak of them in order.

Designing Qualitative Research remained interesting, at least in theory, throughout the book. It’s a quick read, because I was really just trying to get the gist, to understand what was being said and to get a general idea of where in the book various topics appear. So I read about ethnographies, about action research, and more about what is apparently my favorite method of research: the literature review. Plowing through this book gave me a better concept of what we’re talking about when we talk about researching, but wasn’t so dense and difficult to wade through that I had any real trouble with it.

Most of all, I think what I would say about this book is that it is likely to be something I refer back to a lot. And that’s a good thing. That makes my first admittedly cursory reading of it acceptable. Knowing where things are and gettting a general idea of what qualitative research actually is should be very helpful to me. The book is written and presented as a handbook, and I feel I have a good enough grasp of it to use it as it was intended.

As for Laboratory Life, I have read the first three chapters, which amounts to about two thirds of the total book. It was not easy to get through. Taken as content, it was sluggish, unrelated to anything I’m interested in, almost criminally out of date, and very dense.

But I don’t think the purpose of reading this book was to especially pay attention to the content. What Laboratory Life does is demonstrate the ethnography, in terms that are easy to understand and in a context that is not as foreign as, say, a native aboriginal tribe. It’s an examination of one lab, with a deep emersion by an outsider reporting about the peculiar activities and concerns of the culture of the science community as it is represented within that lab.

In that sense, a meta sense, it was very interesting. The book begins by setting out the project at hand, which was to “provide a monograph of ethnographic investigation  of one specific group of scientists” (28). It treats the scientists in the lab as a separate society, doing everything in the observer’s power not to bring preconceived notions to the table and to just judge what is seen by the standards in which they are presented.

There are a lot of lessons on how to do an ethnography here. The observer, as we see in the second chapter, does not try to be discreet, but rather asks questions and observes openly. The entire lab knows the observer is there, and knows they are being observed. They are sometimes addressed openly, sometimes their every action and comment is recorded. The observer remains an outsider, but an interested outsider, asking questions and trying to understand, in at least layman’s terms, what is going on.

In that sense, I feel like it was a very valuable read and a very interesting thing to see. I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed reading it, but I can honestly say that I enjoy having read it.

Now I am off to read more. There may be another post today, if I can finish the articles.

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