Visual Representation In Science Research Paper

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Scientific knowledge is represented in many forms: spoken and printed words, graphs, formulae, tables, drawings, engravings, diagrams, photographs, charts, maps, models, diorama, demonstrations, and many other more specialized renderings. Visual and graphic renderings are deployed at every stage of scientific production, from initial data collection through final publication. Often, diverse forms of rendering are combined in complex assemblages. For example, figures in scientific texts frequently incorporate mathematical, verbal, and pictorial expressions in a single frame, so that cross-referential relations are at least as significant as the particular graphic forms and formats. Since the mid-1970s, a growing body of research in science and technology studies (S&TS) has examined the production of visual evidence, and this has led to a radical revision of standard epistemological conceptions of observation and representation.



Two related senses of the term ‘visual representation’ are important for current historical, literary, and ethnographic studies of science. A passive or static sense of the word ‘representation’ refers to an image, inscription, or sign that depicts, signifies, or symbolizes something else. A large body of recent studies of the forms, interpretive meanings, and cultural implications of particular representations pursue this sense of the concept. A more active or dynamic sense of the word refers to the practice of making images and the action of doing representing. The term ‘visualization’ signals these more active connotations. Studies of visualization in laboratory and field science have contributed some of the most influential and challenging ideas in the S&TS literature, and these are emphasized in the remainder of this research paper.

1. Representing And Visualizing

The study of visual representation in science crystallizes lines of work from diverse academic disciplines. In the 1970s and early 1980s historians of science began to pay close attention to nonverbal representations and nonpropositional forms of reference (Rudwick 1976). At about the same time art historians took greater interest in the broad array of what Elkins (1995) calls ‘images that are not art’: pictures and models that are crafted as products and by-products of scientific and medical work, but which are rarely considered as art (Edgerton 1976, 1991, Alpers 1983). This led to a convergence of scholarly attention on the role of artisan skill, craft technique, and visual technology in the scientific revolution, and on the continuing place of visual arts and crafts in day to day laboratory work.

1.1 Visual Representation

Studies of visual representation in science include analyses of published and unpublished images, and of the historical crafts and technologies responsible for their production. Currently, there are numerous disciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches to visual representation. Representation is simultaneously a philosophical, historical, and cultural concept. Social, cultural, and literary studies of science include a bewildering array of historicist, semiotic, feminist, cognitivist, epistemological, pragmatist and other lines of interpretation. All of these appear, often in combination, in studies of visual representations. As many cultural and literary studies have emphasized, visual representations do not simply resemble natural objects: they express normative assumptions about natural and cultural worlds; they incorporate historically and culturally specific artistic conventions; and they mediate political and cultural relations of patronage, commodity exchange, and subjugation (Newman 1996, Haraway 1997).

1.2 Visualization

When considered in a more active sense, representation includes a broad array of practices and technologies for making, producing, and shaping images and relations among images. In the S&TS literature, this active sense of representation is signaled by the term ‘visualization’ (Latour 1990). This means more than ‘seeing’ or ‘depicting,’ as it refers to any of the broad array of research tools and practices for making natural objects visible: practices for uncovering hidden features; magnifying objects and enhancing analyzability; facilitating measurement and comparison; and making things publicly witnessable, intelligible, and accountable. Visualization includes efforts to convince as well as to exhibit. Consistent with a programmatic aim to investigate the content of natural science knowledge (Bloor 1976), ethnographers, ethnomethodologists, and social-historians closely examine the situated practices, inscription devices, and textual forms through which scientific data and pictorial representations are exhibited, analyzed, stabilized, objectified, and disseminated (Latour and Woolgar 1979, Shapin and Schaffer 1985, Lynch and Woolgar 1990). These studies stress the significance of visualization as a crucial aspect of a continuing scientific revolution. This revolution involves the incessant invention, adaptation, and use of novel instrumental and literary technologies for revealing invisible objects, expressing abstract relations, and disseminating knowledge.

Renaissance innovations in print and engraving technology, together with novel optical devices and artistic conventions, enabled natural philosophers to inscribe and reproduce ‘faithful’ representations of observational experience. Latour (1990) uses the expression ‘immutable mobiles’ to capture the dual sense of stability and mobility attributed to imprinted representations. Scientific matters of fact, while still controlled by those who had the means to purchase, build, and operate equipment like the telescope, microscope, and Robert Boyle’s air pump were communicated widely in expanding networks of co-investigators, patrons, and other ‘virtual witnesses’ (Shapin 1984, Shapin and Schaffer 1985). In most cases, virtual witnesses who read Boyle’s experimental reports were in no position to replicate the original experiments. Boyle tried to get around this communicative problem by composing prolix descriptions illustrated by engravings of observed phenomena and laboratory instruments. This literary technology en-abled Boyle to disseminate experimental knowledge widely, while sparing all but a few well-equipped adepts from the difficulties and uncertainties involved in actually trying to replicate the experiments. The dissemination of printed and engraved representations facilitated, but did not guarantee, the stability (or ‘immutability’) of the knowledge in question, since printing, engraving, and publication compounded the contingencies of knowledge production, enlarging the circle of potential disputants as well as adherents. The stability and mobility of images were no better than the instruments and persons involved in their production and distribution. Instruments, like the microscope, and persons, like engravers, printers, and publishers, were subject to variable degrees of trust and distrust (Johns 1998). Consequently, whether located in a gradual historical process or in the temporal production of a late-modern laboratory project (Knorr-Cetina and Amann 1990), ‘immutable mobiles’ depend upon incessant efforts to control sources of distortion, disruption, and misinterpretation at every point of production and distribution.

2. Image And Object

Numerous S&TS works have examined the historical, conceptual, and interpretive problems associated with the production of visual images, and they have also described the communicative and community-building work facilitated by such images. By elucidating the practical handiwork and collective labor process hidden behind the grand polarity of image and object, these studies furnish detailed cases that challenge existing conceptions of the scientific image, the natural world, and the relations between image and object.

Studies of visualization address classic philosophical questions about observation, representation, and objectivity, but they give these questions an original twist. Instead of addressing these questions abstractly, S&TS researchers investigate specific cases in which scientists encounter practical dilemmas and devise provisional solutions. Hanson (1958, p.4) furnishes an ideal-typical version of such a dilemma:

Consider two microbiologists. They look at a prepared slide. When asked what they see, they may give different answers. One sees in the cell before him a cluster of foreign matter: it is an artifact, a coagulum resulting from inadequate staining techniques. This clot has no more to do with the cell, in vivo, than the scars left on it by the archaeologist’s spade have to do with the original shape of some Grecian urn.

In this example, the observational instrument is both a material thing and a transparent medium through which other things appear. Depending upon what the microscopist sees on the slide, the instrument will be judged a source of ‘subjective’ illusion or a means for revealing an ‘objective’ cellular structure. One of Hanson’s microscopists sees an artifact, but in the particular research context it is less like an artifact uncovered at an archaeological site (a Grecian urn) and more like the unwanted traces on that artifact left by the spade that uncovered it. This example suggests that the distinction between objective structure and artifact can be contentious and difficult to resolve. In their restricted domain, the microscopists are faced with a standard philosophical question: ‘How do you know that the image stands for a real object?’ A nonstandard philosophical answer is given by Hacking (1983). Hacking rejects the picture of a static image standing for a natural object, and points to the practical interventions performed in the laboratory. These interventions include crosschecks, calibrations, and probes that compare and contrast the outputs from different instruments and techniques. Convictions about reality inform, and develop from, a microscopist’s competent handling of the laboratory instruments and materials.

Hacking remains focused on the philosophical problem of knowing natural reality, but he places the solution in the competent hands of the microscopist. The classical confrontation between object and subject is supplemented and mediated by instruments and skills. They are part of the means of perception, and like our eyes and our minds they sometimes are deemed untrustworthy, as sources of ‘subjective’ illusion. In microscopy and other laboratory sciences, correct judgment involves a mastery of technique as much as clear eyes and an educated mind. A whole chain of preparatory actions precedes and sets up the dramatic confrontation between microscopist and cell. These preparatory practices include cell culture, fixation, staining, counterstaining, thin-sectioning, mounting on a slide, and many other techniques (Lynch 1985a). If the microscopist sees a ‘foreign’ body—an artifact—in the cell, one or another of the preparatory techniques may be held responsible for the illusion. What the microscopist sees (or does not see) is thus bound up with a labor process that includes much more than looking down the tube of the microscope and focusing the eyes on an object. Hacking treats instrumental design and technique as sources of practical solution to philosophical questions about the reality of ‘invisible’ entities, whereas ethnographers and social historians tend to defer the question of reality while examining situated practices for enhancing or undermining the credibility of visual evidence.

2.1 Chains Of Industry And Credibility

The S&TS treatment of visualization as temporal, embodied, material labor opens up a domain of investigation that is not covered by mentalistic and perceptual accounts of scientific observation. It ties in with a sociological, rather than cognitive or idealist, legacy, by treating the appearance of the scientific object as being bound up in a temporal process, typically involving many hands in a division of labor. Marx famously credited Feuerbach with having stood Hegel on his feet, meaning that he placed Hegel’s abstract dialectic on a firm footing in historical materialism. Less famously, Marx suggested a related way to bring history of science down to earth:

… historiography pays regard to natural science only occasionally, as a factor of enlightenment and utility arising from individual great discoveries. But natural science has invaded and transformed human life all the more practically through the medium of industry; and has prepared human emancipation, however directly and much it has had to consummate dehumanization. Industry is the actual, historical relation of nature, and therefore of natural science, to man (Karl Marx, Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts 1844).

A further inversion from feet to hands can be inspired by studies of visualization in science. For Marx, industry, rather than history of ideas, embodies Western ‘man’s’ actual, historical relation to natural science. For S&TS, natural science not simply the historical basis for modern industry and its relations of production. The laboratory’s own labor process is itself a site of collective handiwork facilitated by instruments and exhibiting variable degrees of complexity, automation, and historical development. Marx speaks of the ‘working up’ of raw materials into the form of a product: an artifact that embodies human purposes and provides a resume of the labor that produced it: ‘The product is after all but the summary of the activity of production.’ Among the products of laboratory work are data—carefully framed and emplotted observations and measurements which stand to nature much in the way that processed food does to raw ingredients. Scientists sometimes speak of ‘raw data’ collected in the field or from electronic instruments, and they distinguish such data from processed images that result from ‘working up’ the data into presentable form.

Likening the visualization of scientific data to a manufacturing process may seem to miss an essential point: that the object of scientific investigation is not an artifact, even though it may be difficult to establish the difference between the two in particular cases. Described in the vernacular of laboratory science, the object is found, or found out. It is not made, and it is distinguished from both deliberately constructed tools and inadvertently produced scratches, residues, and deformations. Close studies of day to day laboratory work have furnished many examples of how research materials are cultivated, handled, and reconfigured, but to conclude, for example, that all cellular structures are artifacts collapses a vernacular distinction that provides laboratory work with a fundamental task and tension. Such a conclusion also invites the sterile polarity and tired polemics of the realist– contructivist debate. Latour tries to avoid the polemics by devising a neologism that straddles the polarity. Where, according to Marx, the industrial product becomes a ‘fetish’—a commodity whose exchange value hides the work of its production —according to Latour (1999, p. 272) the laboratory product becomes a ‘factish’—a fact whose solidity and epistemic significance hides the day to day work of establishing and maintaining that solidity and significance. For Latour, the ‘factish’ is never independent of its manufacture, but this does not reduce it to an empty screen for projecting arbitrary beliefs. The robust credibility of ‘fact’ remains in place, not because it exists in an eternal space remote from human activity, but because of the way it is fashioned.

Latour’s creative vocabulary is less instructive than his examples. In an ethnography of a Brazilian field project, Latour (1995) closely examined the series of practices through which a field site was made graphically analyzable. The project was concerned with a boundary between rainforest and savanna. The team of researchers addressed the question of whether the forest was advancing into or retreating from the grassland. As scientific projects go, this one was simple. It involved only a few researchers, a down-toearth problem, no complex equations, and relatively commonplace technology. Nevertheless, it involved a complicated series of representational practices for marking out a field site into a systematic grid, selecting and tagging plant specimens, collecting and analyzing soil samples, plotting data on paper graphs, and amassing files for every stage of the project. The field site, the tagged specimens, the binned and color-coded soil samples, and countless other materials used in the project were hybrid objects. None of these things were purely natural or artificial, concrete or abstract, material or symbolic, real or imaginary, but a great deal of care was taken to preserve selected aspects of specimens, keep track of identities, and cross-check measurements and records. The project resulted in a publication in which a graphic figure represented the forest–savanna boundary, and the data collected during the project were used to support conjectures about the movement in question. Again, this was not a massive or powerful project, and it resulted in tentative findings, but it served well enough to illustrate an important point about the credibility of the project’s evidence. The researchers staked the credibility of their data on a complex network of accountability in which no single representation corresponded to an independent natural object, and yet all of their materials, in different ways, contained, encoded, traced, or preserved a tenuous relation to the natural field site. The credibility of the production was more like the strength of a rope, weaving together separate strands, and less like the compelling realism of a photographic image. Perhaps another example will help elucidate this point.

The police in the United States use the expression ‘chain of custody’ to refer to the continuity of evidence as it is collected and transported from one place to another. So, for example, blood evidence collected at a crime scene by a police employee or pathologist is placed in a tube and transported to one or more labs, where it is analyzed with DNA profiling methods. Such evidence typically travels a complicated route, and it is transformed and repackaged several times in the process. The potential consequences of such evidence, and the possibility of courtroom challenge, has led police organizations and forensic labs to use a whole series of administrative procedures for checking, cross-checking, and validating the identity of evidence samples. Standardized forms, tamper-evident bags, stickers with bar codes on them, automated scanners, filing systems, laboratory protocols for recording and ‘witnessing’ the movement and handling of evidence, and many other mundane bureaucratic artifacts create an administrative envelope that protects the credibility of evidence against courtroom challenge. In addition, courtroom presentations make use of some of the techniques of visualization that have been documented in scientific labs and field studies (Goodwin 1994). The credibility of DNA profile evidence stands only as long as the devices of visualization and their administrative envelope resists challenge. None of the forms, bar codes, and protocols that make up the chain of custody guarantee that it will resist adversary efforts to expose significant gaps. Even an elaborately documented and impressively consistent chain of custody does not guarantee the truth of the evidential result against all possibility of error, mishap, fraud, and conspiracy, but when the numerical indices, signatures, and analytic results tell a story consistent with public and judicial conceptions of good ‘scientific’ practice, they are more likely to resist adversary challenge (Lynch and Jasanoff 1998)

It often seems natural to employ metaphors of vision, perception, and cognition when discussing scientific observation and representation, but the analogy with an industrial labor process suggests a more material, and less ocular and mental, conception of visualization and its natural products. Consistent with the paradigm of the assembly line, a scientific project is organized into a chain of tasks performed by a series of technicians. Specimen materials are collected, selected, prepared, rendered, and reorganized to expose, enhance, and encode relevant features, to upgrade analyzability, and to frame data with instrumental and graphic fields (Lynch 1985b, Latour 1995, Knorr-Cetina 1999). Nature and culture pervade every link in the chain, and there is never a pure confrontation between and object and its representation.


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