Reflexive Ethnography of Infrastructure

Useful, relatively unknown nugget of interest for ethnography of infrastructure, buried deep in a seminal text.

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After re-reading Laboratory Life — the 1986 paperback edition published by Princeton University Press not Sage Publishers, which published the original 1979 hardback — I am struck by a comment made in the postscript, which was published with the paperback 1986 edition only.

The authors respond to a few reviews of the book. For example, Westrum (1982, Knowledge 3(3):437-9) criticizes the format and presentation of the empirical materials; quoting Latour and Woolgar (1986:276),

Westraum speaks of a lack of a sense of unity, the lack of continuous action and the relative incoherence of the narrative. But our aim was precisely to avoid giving the kind of smoothed narrative characteristic of traditional constructions of the “way things are.”

The authors justify this move on the grounds of thier (anthropological) understanding of “ethnography” and the important role of “reflexivity”.

On ethnography, they choose it for the “analytical distance” it affords participant observers and elect “the presentation of preliminary empirical materials” (277) rather than a clean, sanitized research report.

On reflexivity, “Of course,” the authors write,

one interesting aspect of the exploration of reflexivity is that our writing is conventionally constrained by the use of report-like formats. This increases the tendancy of ethnographies to read as straightforwardly reporting on the “actual” state of affairs to be found in the laboratory. This kind of reading is not without use. … But such reading misses the point. We attempted (especially in Chapter 2) to address the issue of reflexivity by placing the burden of observational experiences on the shoulders of a mythical “observer.” We attempted to alert the reader to the nature of his relationship with the text (and by implication to the nature of readers’ relationships with all attempts to constitute objectivities through textual expression).

Now, I am not suggesting that ethnographic accounts of infrastructure — like habors, waterways, or information systems — adopt this second-order ethnographic reflexivity, although doing an ethnography of a sociologist doing an ethnography might be insightful. Instead, I am curious: how much hygiene/polish we should be putting into our research reports, especially ethnographic reports?

Here is why: As Latour enters the Salk lab he swears to report the truth about what happens in the lab, in particular, how scientists transform a series of personal observations into textual accounts called “articles.”

  • Being a reflexive ethnographer affords the observer certain advantages, especially in seeing how truths (and non-truths) are constructured and circulate, and they can do this analytically because the truth of the claim is not what self-selects it for construction or distribution.
  • Being a reflexive ethnographer also comes with another responsibility, which has, to this point, seemed more like a liability: being a reflexive ethnographer means that one must also be reflexive about one’s own ethnographic account.

As Latour and Woolgar (1986:275-6) put it,

The revision of epistemological preceptions about science raises awkward questions about the nature of its social analysis. Can we go on being instrumentally realist in our own research practices while proclaiming the need to demystify this tendency among natural scientists?

As the authors suggest, the reflexive turn seems to have reflexed only one way in the production of scientific accounts. What would further reflexivity get us in infrastructure studies? Insight into the sociological production of texutal accounts, or an infinite regress of sociolgists studying sociologists studying sociologists (and so on)?

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

One thought on “Reflexive Ethnography of Infrastructure

  1. Pingback: What Would Wallace Write? (if he were an ethnographer) | Installing (Social) Order

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