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  • On Method in the Humanities
  • Grant Wythoff (bio)

From October 1975 to August 1977, Bruno Latour and Steve Wool-gar conducted two years of ethnographic fieldwork within the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. They were interested in two main questions: first, how are "facts constructed in the laboratory," and second, "how can a sociologist account for this construction?"1 Starkly departing from conventional notions of scientific discovery in which insight flashes up in moments of inspiration or serendipity, Latour and Woolgar painstakingly catalogued the everyday minutiae of laboratory life to portray the processual nature of science, from researchers perusing copies of Nature over lunch, to colleagues yelling down the hall with questions about solvents, to the transcription and mailing of the day's lab notes.

The challenge of this project for Latour and Woolgar was one of triangulation. While as sociologists they were busy staking their claims relative to competing models and arguments within their own discipline, the biologists they observed similarly positioned their claims relative to the evolving models produced by others in their field. They write,

The observer has to base his analysis on shifting ground. He is faced with the task of producing an ordered version of observations and utterances when each of his readings of observations and utterances can be counterbalanced with an alternative. … We argue that both scientists and observers are routinely [End Page 289] confronted by a seething mass of alternative interpretations. Despite participants' well-ordered reconstructions and rationalisations, actual scientific practice entails the confrontation and negotiation of utter confusion.2

With these complexities in mind, Latour and Woolgar attempted to draw upon what they called "socially available procedures for constructing an ordered account out of the apparent chaos of available perceptions."3

As we learned in the first installment of this forum with the Journal of Literature and Science, a similar set of moving targets are in play for scholars in our field.4 But if it proved a challenge for Latour and Woolgar to pin down the parallax movement of competing claims between sociology and biology, then the multiplicity of humanities approaches to the sciences presents an even more dizzying array of cultures to study. Method in the humanities spans quantitative and qualitative models, inductive and deductive approaches, collaborative and solitary forms of inquiry. We have mixed methods practiced by interdisciplinary scholars, each of whom arranges the variety of their influences in unique ways. And we have artists and tinkerers who value entirely different outcomes from a particular inquiry, than, say, a historian or a linguist might. Put another way, our methods are perhaps too varied to count and compare.

And yet, Latour and Woolgar's seminal work highlights some of the key issues I would like to keep in view here. If we begin with their two original questions as starting points, we quickly begin to see how they open out onto new issues for us as humanists. First, the question of how facts are constructed leads us to wonder: do we in the humanities have any special investment in the value of facticity itself, along with all of its corollaries like discovery, corroboration, and replicability? And second, the question of how to produce an account of this construction of fact leads us to wonder how capable humanists themselves are at studying the workflows of other humanists.5 Ironically, Latour and Woolgar use what they call "literary description" to describe lab practices, an approach not unfamiliar to the pages of this very journal.6 But I am left wondering: is it possible [End Page 290] to produce an account of a representative instance of humanistic inquiry in a way that resembles the project of Laboratory Life? What would the value of such an account be today?

Readers of Configurations no doubt chart entirely unique paths through various constellations of interdisciplinarity. My particular path has been guided by the common objects and concerns of media theory, science studies, digital humanities, and the history of technology. Among these styles of inquiry, one commonality I have seen emerge over the past few years is an interest from scholars of many backgrounds in the history and state of the humanities. These scholars are interested in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6520
Print ISSN
1063-1801
Pages
pp. 289-295
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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