Laboratory Studies Research Paper

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1. The Origin And Meaning Of ‘Laboratory Studies’

The term ‘laboratory studies’ dates back to the late 1970s, when it began to be applied to studies of the production of scientific knowledge at its ‘natural’ site, the scientific laboratory (Latour and Woolgar 1979, Knorr Cetina 1981, Lynch 1985, Traweek 1988). Not all natural scientific knowledge is produced in lab-oratories, but the laboratory nonetheless epitomizes modern science and knowledge. It is what the factory was to industrialization, the place where particular forces of production are brought together, organized, and unleashed. Laboratories do not produce industrial commodities, but, according to laboratory studies, they do create products, the objects and facts of science. A first characteristic of the original laboratory studies was that they refocused questions of knowledge on the context of knowledge production, moving them away from questions of the validity and representational correctness of scientific findings. Philosophers of science, until then the main authorities on matters of scientific procedure and content, had largely neglected the context of knowledge production, which they called the context of discovery. Historians often defined issues of scientific content as questions pertaining to the history of ideas, detached from local settings. To be sure, both groups also enriched their accounts with studies of crucial experiments, but experiments, as we shall see, are not laboratories. The whole process of knowledge production in the contemporary fact factory of the natural sciences, and the role of the fact factory itself, were, up to the late 1970s, untrodden territory in the social and behavioral sciences. One reason for the interest generated by laboratory studies lies in the fact that they ‘conquered’ this new territory, that they unlocked a hidden and central chamber in our understanding of know- ledge and science. It needs to be recalled that the development of scientific method and the ensuing advances in knowledge are often associated with the transition from traditional to modern societies, carrying much of the burden of explaining the dynamics and the progress of industrialization. Knowledge and technology also lie at the core of the current trend to global systems and transformation to a ‘knowledge society.’ Any perspective that contributes to the understanding of these forces will be of interest in the larger context of these developments. A second characteristic of laboratory studies is that they grounded their analyses empirically, using a mix of ‘molecular’ level methods, most importantly observation and ethnography, ethno methodological techniques, and discourse analysis. Since much of the knowledge that experts have of their own ways of working is implicit, interview methodologies are not conducive to clarifying these. This empirical approach to knowledge environments and their embedded processes stands in contrast to postmodernist and transformation theory perspectives and their theoretical assessments and critiques of science. It also contrasts with much of the knowledge society literature (Bell 1973), which tends to render knowledge and technology the independent variable—for example, it treats knowledge as the engine of economic change, responsible for such widespread changes as shifts in the division of labor, the development of specialized occupations, the emergence of new enterprises, and sustained growth. In these accounts, ‘knowledge’ is sometimes conceptualized to fit in with long-standing beliefs about science (an example is Bell’s attempt to explicate knowledge in terms of theory, 1973, p. 44), but it is in effect the last thing to be explained and has no reality outside an analyst’s models (Stehr 1994).

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If the interest in opening the black box of scientific practice is what distinguishes laboratory studies, then the interest in not restricting what is to be looked at inside the black box distinguishes them from previous studies of scientific experiments. The third characteristic of laboratory studies is their inclusiveness with respect to all practices and events implicated in knowledge processes. Experiments have been largely defined methodologically in the history and philosophy of science, where they were investigated; notions like the testing of theories, experimental design, blind and double-blind procedure, control group, factor isolation, and replication are linked to experiments. Students of laboratories focus on a space rather than on particular experiments. This brings to the fore the full spectrum of activities going on in this space and involved in the production of knowledge. Studies of laboratories have shown that scientific objects are not only ‘technically’ created in laboratories but also symbolically and politically construed. For example, they are construed through the literary techniques of persuasion that one finds embodied in scientific papers, or through the political stratagems of scientists in forming alliances and mobilizing resources. An implication of this has been the awareness that, in reaching its goals, research ‘intervenes’ not only in the natural world but also—and deeply—in the social world. Another implication is that the products of science have come to be seen as cultural entities rather than as natural givens ‘discovered’ by science. If the practices observed in laboratories are cultural in the sense that they cannot be reduced to the application of methodological rules, the ‘facts’ that result from these practices must also be seen as having been shaped by culture.

2. The Laboratory As A Theoretical Notion

The significance of the notion of a laboratory lies not only in the fact that it has opened up this field of investigation and offered a cultural framework for ‘plowing’ this field. It lies also in the fact that the ‘laboratory’ itself has become a theoretical notion in our understanding of knowledge. Accordingly, the laboratory is not only a ‘house’ for the conduct of experiments or the physical setting in which knowledge processes take place, but the locus of mechanisms and processes which can be regarded as necessary for the ‘success’ of science and knowledge.

2.1 Laboratories As Reconfigured Environments

Characteristically, these mechanisms and processes are nonmethodological and mundane. One hallmark of the mechanisms and processes with which the notion of a laboratory has been associated is that they imply, to use Merleau-Ponty’s terminology, a reconfiguration of the system of ‘self-others-things’ (‘MoiAutrui-les choses,’ 1945, p. 69), and a reconfiguration of the phenomenal field in which experience is acquired in science. The system of ‘self-others-things’ is not the objective world independent of human actors or the inner world of subjective impressions, but the world experienced-by or the world-related-to agents. Laboratory studies suggest that the laboratory is a means of changing the world-related-to-agents in ways which allow scientists and other knowledge workers to capitalize on human constraints and sociocultural restrictions. The improvement derives from the malleability of knowledge objects. For example, there are at least three features of natural objects which a laboratory science does not need to accommodate: first, it does not need to put up with the object as it is; it can substitute all of its less literal or partial versions. Second, it does not need to accommodate the natural object where it is, anchored in a natural environment; laboratory sciences bring objects ‘home’ and manipulate them ‘on their own terms,’ in the laboratory. Third, a laboratory science does not need to accommodate an event when it happens; it does not need to put up with natural cycles of occurrence, but can make them happen frequently enough for continuous study.

Laboratories, then, allow for some ‘homing in’ on natural processes; the processes are ‘brought home’ and made subject to the conditions of the local social order. The power of the laboratory (but, of course, also its restriction) resides precisely in its ‘enculturation’ of natural objects. The laboratory subjects natural conditions to a ‘social overhaul’ and derives epistemic effects from the new situation. Social forms, to be sure, are also subject to ‘overhauls’ in laboratory processes. Questions raised in this context are, who ‘is’ the epistemic subject, and how is this subject configured in a particular setting? The epistemic subject is the bearer of knowledge, the unit that is productive of scientific findings. This unit cannot be automatically assumed to be the individual scientist, nor even a division of labor among laboratory leader, postdoc, grad student, and technician. In some areas, for example in experimental high-energy physics, this ‘unit’ now encompasses collectives of considerable size (up to 2,000 physicists), a large and complex machine (a detector), and a level of distributed cognition in which machine analysis and human analysis merge into a single, continuing, circulating discourse. The productive role of the detector in this joint discourse is recognized by participants, who attribute to it the sole epistemic authority to observe and describe the particle processes instigated in its internal environment. But the productive role of discourse as a platform for integrating machine analysis and human analysis and for creating a collective consciousness that is at the same time material and human also needs to be recognized; it is a circulating consciousness that appears to replace the individual as the bearer of knowledge. More generally speaking, purely human orders appear to be transformed in laboratory processes into object-relation regimes in which the objects are machine complexes, organisms, and the like. Laboratory studies have approached these through network notions, where it is assumed that the creation of links between the nodes in a network of human and nonhuman entities is also what stabilizes and universalizes scientific outcomes (e.g., Callon 1986, Latour 1987). They have also looked at these regimes in terms of their contribution to understanding a more general shift toward object relations in contemporary society—a shift fueled and sustained by an enormous expansion of object worlds within the social world and by an erosion and ‘emptying out’ of primordial social relations. Objects, in this approach, are thought to be the winners of the relationship risks that are manifest in the problems of married and family life and that many analysts find inherent in contemporary human relations (Coleman 1993, Knorr Cetina 2000).

Laboratories can be distinguished from organizations along similar lines. Organizational sociology is relevant to laboratory studies since most laboratories are or are part of complex organizations. But the concept of organization in the social sciences is essentially a concept of the coordination of human groups. Laboratory studies, on the other hand, have tended to see governance structure as inseparable from patterns of coordination that are obtained between persons and objects of investigation. The sociology of organizations pays attention to organizational ‘subdivisions,’ the sort of formal units and subgroups into which organizations can be decomposed. The subdivisions of interest to the laboratory approach are alternate knowledge environments that are not hierarchically but ‘ontologically’ related to the larger framework of a lab: the difference between alternate knowledge environments derives from the line of reality developed and ‘farmed.’ One example of such an alternate reality and of a laboratory within the laboratory is a simulation environment. In experimental high-energy physics, simulation constitutes a parallel world in which nearly all aspects of the physical detector, the particle clashes, and the physics analysis are recreated and worked out. Such ‘detour’ environments need not be of a different nature, for example, symbolic rather than physical, as in simulation. They may also emerge from particular natural forms that are articulated further in the laboratory. For example, in molecular biology the fruit fly and the slime mold have become worlds of investigation in their own right and have evolved as model realities separated off from the rest of the biological universe. The emergence of alternate realities has brought with it the emergence of special knowledges and new specialists who are the ones dealing with the environment. In the case of the fruit fly, these include a ‘Drosophila elite’ of several generations bound together by formative psychosocial relationships; they are distinguishable from other scientists who pass through fly rooms during their training through their careers, their gender, and the problems they work on (Kohler 1994, 92ff.).

2.2 The Constructionism Of Laboratory Studies

A second feature associated with laboratories pertains more to knowledge processes within them, which are seen to be constructive rather than merely descriptive. Constructionism was one of the first and most important results of laboratory studies, and the analytic answer these studies gave to the microprocesses they observed in real-time episodes of scientific work. Constructionism has been taken as a principle of investigation in laboratory studies: one asks how much of the success of a knowledge claim can be explained in terms of the relevant productive processes before this success is attributed to the representational content of the claim. Given that most knowledge claims that are considered true will eventually become false, it is the representational hypothesis which is thought to be implausible by students of laboratories. The constructionist thesis has also been taken as a substantive assertion about natural reality being humanly constituted in a wider sense. Science, in this view, secretes an unending stream of entities that make up ‘the world’—it holds, one might say, a monopoly on specifying and delimiting the material world in which we live. What exists before scientifically delimited objects are culturally delimited objects, those which humans pick out, shape, and deal with in everyday life. In both cases, the ‘material world’ flows from human designations. Laboratory constructionists have also granted the existence of an unspecified material world beyond cultural and scientific designation; but this presupposed world has to be distinguished from concrete objects and forces which can be said to exist only after they have somehow been designated and distinguished, built into our accounts, and inserted into daily practice. In that sense constructionists subscribe to an ontology that anchors existence in social and cultural life, not outside it. While the existence of the material world as a physical entity independent of us is granted on principle, the existence of specific objects identified in terms of their character cannot so be granted.

Constructionist thinking in general existed before laboratory studies, but it had not been extended to science. First, as already implied, constructionist metaphors take on a much stronger flavor when they are applied to natural reality, to knowledge and science. To say that kinship systems or gender relations are social conventions and cannot be attributed to ‘human nature’ is widely accepted—what undergirds this understanding is, among other things, the cultural variation of these systems. But to make the same claim for scientific facts is a different matter, raising the specter of relativism and skepticism. Constructionism, though, should not be assimilated with these doctrines. It is best understood as the attempt to carve out a middle ground between relativism and realism, or as an attempt to point at space beyond the two poles. This space is the one where the complex chains of laboratory transformations of natural and social objects take place, each link involving alternative options, perspectives, interpretations, negotiations, strategies, conflicts, resources, obstacles, and surprises (e.g., Latour and Woolgar 1979, Knorr Cetina 1981, Lynch 1985, Latour 1987)—as well as frequently social, economic, and political groups outside science (e.g., Fujimura 1996, Rabinow 1996). Only if this space remains invisible and the beginning of an experimental series is short-circuited with its end, do realist interpretations become plausible, as do relativist interpretations of knowledge—which interpretation results depends on whether one cuts human work or material recalcitrance and resistance out of the picture. Constructionism, on the other hand, is the view that the space in which a particular intermesh between human work and material recalcitrance is forged holds the key to understanding knowledge.

3. Knowledge Cultures

More recent laboratory studies have supplemented the interactional and writing-centered articulation of the constructive character of knowledge processes with a measure of aggregate-level analyses, and they have also unfolded further the material side of laboratories. At the same time, a more narrowly defined interactional model of knowledge production has been expanded in several directions, for example, in the direction of taking into account contextual cultures. The notion of culture had been used in the early laboratory studies to describe the intent of the work; it was also indicative of the methodology used in these studies (ethnography) and of the phenomenon that laboratories appeared to involve whole cultural worlds, that is a large variety of factors not reducible to sociological variables. Nonetheless, there is a sense in which the early laboratory studies lacked a cultural perspective. They limited themselves to one knowledge area and, as a consequence, ignored the cultural diversity of knowledge. They were concerned, one might say, with knowledge rather than with knowledges. With one exception (Traweek 1988), they also investigated laboratories in only one country, the USA; the studies of Latour and Woolgar (1979), Knorr Cetina (1981), and Lynch (1985) were all done in California. Thus these studies also ignored the possible influence of national cultures. Traweek (1988) compared the Stanford Linear Accelerator laboratory with its equivalent in Japan (the KEK near Tokyo), contrasting the two settings with respect to laboratory organization, detector design and building, leadership style, and models for good working conditions in the science she was studying—high-energy physics.

This study also addressed the aspect of the making of a male physics culture, in addition to analyzing specificities having to do with the way institutions are set up in different countries; but it did not extend the analysis to questions of whether and how knowledge cultures differ between sciences. The assumption long made of the unity of science may in fact not be warranted, and may have been sustainable only in the face of a lack of comparative investigations of knowledge. A recent comparative study of high-energy physics and molecular genetics locates differences between these fields in the understanding of measurement and experiment, in the general epistemological approach of a field, in the ontology of objects and machines, and in the conception of epistemic subjects (Knorr Cetina 1999). For example, the study finds a ‘liminal’ approach in which the regions of positive, phenomenal knowledge are studied and narrowed down through investigating the errors and limits of knowing in place in one science but not in the other. Liminal epistemologies forge a coalition with the evil that bars knowledge by turning these barriers into a principle of knowing. ‘Referent’ epistemologies, on the other hand, enhance the role of natural objects in selecting experimental results, and are committed to the use of experiential registers as strategies of knowing. Such ‘epistemic cultures’ may be contextualized by investigations of ‘epistementalities’ that prevail in the larger society—beliefs and attitudes about the correct distribution of knowledge, the rights of access to it, the requirement and meaning of transparency, etc. The importance of further research on these topics can be linked back to the idea of a knowledge society as one where expert systems penetrate all areas of contemporary life. In such societies, knowledge cultures may in fact become what territorial cultures had been to industrial society: defining environments which enable and shape social and economic development.

4. Types Of Laboratories

A second expansion of laboratory studies beyond the inclusions of knowledge cultures concerns the fact that diverse types of laboratories are now recognized to exist and are included in the analysis. The spaces of knowledge vary historically, ranging from the ‘houses of experiment’ in seventeenth-century England investigated by historians (Shapin 1988) to the virtual collaboratories stretching across continents in astronomy today. The locally situated benchwork laboratories of molecular biology have to be distinguished from laboratory ‘centers’ that tie a whole field to a place, and those from interlaboratory fields of interconnected but functionally differentiated stations of work.

4.1 Benchwork Laboratories

Benchwork laboratories correspond to the most common idea of what a laboratory is: a repository of processing materials and instruments in rooms in which research tasks are performed continuously and simultaneously, typically by more than one researcher and by technicians. Such laboratories are specific to particular sciences such as molecular biology (e.g., Lynch 1985, Fujimura 1987, Jordan and Lynch 1992). They can be found at any university but they are also the core units of large research institutions. One characteristic of such laboratories is a two-tier organization differentiating between the laboratory level and the experiment level of activities. On the first level, such laboratories become focused on and identified with their leaders, who spend much time representing and promoting ‘their’ laboratory, and recruiting resources and personnel for it. On the level of scientists, the laboratory fragments into projects associated with individual researchers around which other components are assembled. Together, these create small lifeworlds comprising— besides a scientist—materials, instruments, bench space, and help from technicians and students. A second characteristic of such laboratories is the embodied character of the work and the intervening technology of experimentation. Intervening in a lab setting can be contrasted with the technology of experimentation in the social sciences, which is based on a theory of nonintervention: in blind and double-blind designs, researchers attempt to eradicate the very possibility that the outcome will be influenced by the scientists involved.

In benchwork laboratories, on the other hand, this tendency is reversed: one of their most notable features is that the objects of experimental work are subject to almost any imaginable procedural intrusion and physical manipulation. A third characteristic of benchwork laboratories is that they encapsulate within themselves a continued traffic of substances, materials, equipment, and observations that spills beyond laboratory boundaries and ties single laboratories into interlaboratory fields.

4.2 Center Laboratories

With the second type of laboratory, such fields may become more strongly structured in terms of centers and peripheries and semiperipheral units. One identifying detail of center laboratories appears to be that resources important to a field become centered in a particular location and space (see also Hilgartner 1995). One reason for this may be the sheer size and expense of the equipment needed. High-energy physics provides an example; in this area, there have long been regional and continental centers explicitly motivated in terms of the resources needed to build the accelerators and detectors that can provide and deal with the energy levels of particular forefront experiments. Given the further rise of energy levels, there is now a global center; perhaps for the first time in the history of science there is one laboratory worldwide (at the turn of the millennium the CERN in Geneva, Switzerland) in which resources and expertise from Europe, the USA, and Asia have been concentrated. This laboratory provides access to groups from all countries and continents equipped to participate in the respective experiments. Such centers are line items in national budgets; they are maintained through regular contributions dedicated to the lab, which is itself the size of a village (for a history of big science, see Galison and Hevly 1992, Galison 1997). Global center laboratories of this sort very nearly absorb within them a whole field, with as yet largely unstudied consequences for epistemic questions such as how consensus is formed about scientific outcomes when fields are interiorized in laboratories.

If their structural position in a field and the interiorization of scientific communities are characteristic features of some center laboratories, the role of experiments in them is another. In the benchwork laboratories considered, experiments have little ontological identity. They simply dissolve into ongoing streams of experimental work that is also continuous with the service work provided for the laboratory. In high-energy physics, on the other hand, experiments are highly visible units which dispose over their own financial resources, which are separate from those of the larger laboratory. As a consequence, laboratories and experiments are technically, organizationally, and socially divorced from each other. Technically, laboratories build, maintain, and run accelerators and colliders which provide particle clashes that experiments investigate. Experiments, on the other hand, build, maintain, and run the detectors in which the clashes leave their mark. Organizationally, experiments are run by large ‘collaborations,’ comprising, at the turn of the millennium, up to 2,000 physicists from up to 200 physics departments and laboratories located worldwide, who join up for the purpose of conducting the experiment. Laboratories, on the other hand, dispose over a permanent staff of accelerator physicists, computer specialists, technicians, and others, who conceive of and tend to the scientific and technical infrastructure of the laboratory. Researchers on both sides of the divide depend on one another but often know little of one another. Experiments become relatively closed, total units that may also decide, as independent collaborations and collective actors, to migrate between laboratories (to submit an experimental proposal to another laboratory).

4.3 Network Laboratories And Distributed Laboratories

Though the specific configuration of such center laboratories may be historically distinctive, the idea of a central big science laboratory is not distinctive. An early example is Tycho Brahe’s observatory, begun in 1576, where a dozen assistants, along with mechanics and others, collected great quantities of data from which a ‘computing division’ derived parameters of planetary motion (Heilbron 1992). The Danish king financed this empire, and cheap labor from the surrounding inhabitants took care of its construction, tended Tycho Brahe’s garden, and raised his crops. A second example may have been the Society of Jesus, which maintained seminars and collections and which possessed a network of scientific collaborators with whom they conducted extensive correspondence. Perhaps surprisingly, similar ‘network’ and ‘platform’ laboratories have reappeared today in a variety of settings. They can be seen as a third type of laboratory, which may be distinguished from bench laboratories and center laboratories by two features: the laboratory is no longer situated in a particular place but extends to and involves a number of parties and locations, and what happens between these locations is central to understanding the outcomes of the lab.

One example of network laboratories is the electronically mediated ‘virtual laboratory’ exemplified by work in mathematics, theoretical physics, and astrophysics, where scientists use electronic linkages and e-mail communication to join their research efforts on symbolic objects. The notion of a laboratory here captures the phenomenon that the electronic space becomes a workbench for participants; a space in which transitory research objects may be stored, particular resources can be found, and dispersed materials can become interactively related and integrated. Center laboratories, when they involve territorially dispersed collaborating groups, also intermittently expand into such e-mail co-laboratories, but the groups also frequently meet at the center, where they spend prolonged periods of time tending to machines and where a local workforce is maintained. Special cases of such virtual laboratories are beginning to appear in the humanities and social sciences, for example in history, where digitization projects erect interactive platforms for historical research. These platforms make available archival materials that are categorized, cross-linked, and presented with navigation systems for research uses. Such platforms are not simply electronic versions of alphabetically stored books and archival materials. Through carefully thought out and theorized category systems and through the interlink ages they allow for, new questions open up, comparisons become possible, and contextual information can be called forth and integrated with other pieces of information. In addition, the platforms offer possibilities of virtual manipulation, for example, the virtual reconstruction of historical sites or experiments that cannot easily be reconstructed in naturalistic ways. Interestingly, the history of laboratories may be elucidated further through some of these platforms, which assemble information on sites of knowledge production in previous centuries.

5. The Laboratory Perspective

A third extension of laboratory studies takes its lead from family resemblances between laboratories and other physical and virtual spaces. In this case the notion of a laboratory, and the concepts emerging from laboratory studies, are transferred to areas that are not literally laboratories but can be seen as spaces of knowledge. When the above mentioned platforms make available material on historical research sites they include among the sites clinics theaters, lecture rooms, field stations, and even farms—places into which knowledge crossed from laboratories or from whence practices moved into them. Such sites can be studied using a laboratory perspective. This perspective also simply brings into view the phenomenon that matters with which students of laboratories have concerned themselves, for example, the construction of facts, are actually ongoing occurrences in a variety of settings. This is the sense in which the industrial factory itself begins to resemble a laboratory as a site for invention and intervention in which new realities are created (Miller and O’Leary 1994).

We can illustrate this use of the laboratory approach by means of two examples, one from transsexual research and one pertaining to the factory. In the first case the new sex of a person who desires to have a different sex from the one he or she is born with is seen as a ‘fact’ that is being constructed in a laboratory made up of the different stations of the treatment program that transsexuals undergo (Hirschauer 1991). The laboratory approach sheds light on the multiplicity of stations that make up the lab, on the constructive and transformative work contributed by the stations, and on the heterogeneity of the frameworks of knowledge involved. In the second case, that of the factory, Japan is brought to Illinois, as it were, in the attempt to reconfigure the American factory in the image of global factory modernization, by redesigning shop floors, recalculating new spatial orderings of production, and molding the worker according to the ideal of a ‘new economic citizenship’ for plant personnel. Here the factory itself becomes a laboratory for acting upon its own assemblage of locales and internal relations and for refashioning the person who participates in the assemblage (Miller and O’Leary 1994).

The notion that we now live in a knowledge society is relevant here once again. If this view is correct, the range of applications of laboratory studies as a particular perspective along the lines just indicated is large. In a knowledge society, the sites where knowledge is produced and applied multiply, creating an open series. These sites are not limited to science, but rather move outside science. As the above examples also indicate, the laboratory approach is not concerned with knowledge processes as defined in terms of an end result (‘correct knowledge’) but with what could be called the epistemic attributes embedded in, and, in a knowledge society, conferred upon, many processes—exemplified by institutional reality construction, by object relations, and by the reconfiguration of human subjects. The three extensions of the laboratory approach described here indicate the transformation of what was originally an approach to particular natural sciences into a perspective applicable to such broader questions.


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