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Strangers and Confidants January 30, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in Tactile History.
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Much tactile history of science is basically an attempt to get as close to past scientific practices and technical knowledge as possible, so as to transcend the lack of verbalization of tacit knowledge, techniques, material culture, and experience, which we fail to inherit through the textual record alone. Intriguingly, although tactile history is very much the opposite of “playing the stranger”, these motivations are quite similar to those given for treating science with an anthropological remove.

Perhaps our clearest articulation for an anthropological approach is to be found in Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar’s classic study of a Salk Institute laboratory, Laboratory Life (1979). In their introduction, they make their case for working in an anthropological mode, and are quite clear that this mode is particularly warranted on account of the social fact of the peculiar intellectual power of science, which threatens to subsume any analysis of its culture (29–30, their emphasis on “not”, mine on the last clause):

We take the apparent superiority of the members of our laboratory in technical matters to be insignificant, in the sense that we do not regard prior cognition (or in the case of an ex-participant, prior socialisation) as a necessary prerequisite for understanding scientists’ work. This is similar to an anthropologist’s refusal to bow before the knowledge of a primitive sorcerer. For us, the dangers of ‘going native’ outweigh the possible advantages of ease of access and rapid establishment of rapport with participants. Scientists in our laboratory constitute a tribe whose daily manipulation and production of objects is in danger of being misunderstood, if accorded the high status with which its outputs are sometimes greeted by the outside world. There are, as far as we know, no a priori reasons for supposing that scientists’ practice is any more rational than that of outsiders. We shall therefore attempt to make the activities of the laboratory seem as strange as possible in order not to take too much for granted.