In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Laboratories

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Textbooks, Handbooks, and Readers
  • Methods
  • Ethnographies of Laboratories
  • Laboratories as Places and Spaces
  • Postcolonial Laboratory Studies
  • Science as Practice
  • Language, Communication, and Sound
  • Feminism and Science
  • Gender, Body, and Reproduction
  • Biomedical Laboratories, Experiments, and Human Subjects
  • Politics of Technoscience

Anthropology Laboratories
Alison Cool
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0142


Laboratory studies—ethnographic research conducted in and about medical and scientific labs—are connected to movements within cultural anthropology, sociology, and women’s studies in the 1970s and 1980s that called for critical social scientific accounts of powerful Western institutions. Laboratories were identified as key sites for the transformation of both science and society as observers of laboratory work challenged representations of scientific institutions as isolated from the cultural, political, and economic concerns that animate everyday life outside of the laboratory. Ethnographers began to conduct fieldwork in laboratories, applying the insights of ethnomethodology, practice theory, discourse analysis, and other social science methods in order to analyze what scientists actually did and said, which revealed messier, more interesting versions of laboratory life than what could be found in official accounts or polished scientific publications. Ethnographies of labs, however, were never intended as mere descriptions. This work had important political implications—if science was more than a neutral recording of facts and a linear progression of individual accomplishments getting closer and closer to the truth about nature, then perhaps science could be done differently. If all scientists necessarily brought their cultural beliefs and values to bear on their work, then the exclusion of a wider range of perspectives—from women, minorities, and other groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences—could no longer be justified using the language of objectivity, rationality, or neutrality. As laboratories became better established as sites of social scientific research in the 1990s and 2000s, scholars began to expand their inquiries and pursue more specialized concerns. The focus on scientific discourse and practice that had been present since the beginning of laboratory studies deepened, and studies of scientific language, communication, gesture, practice, and pedagogy grew into subfields in their own right. Scholars continued to examine gender and science, developing strong research programs focused on the natural sciences, where questions of objectivity and perspective came to the fore, and biomedicine and the life sciences, where questions about bodies, representation in research, and interventions in reproduction were given particular attention. Another strand of research began to revisit the question of the laboratory itself—what kind of place is the laboratory, and is it always bounded by four walls? Scholarship on laboratory technology has been another productive area where interest in practice has met attention to values and valuing, as research on weapons science and biotechnology has opened up profound questions about nature, culture, and the limits of the human.

General Overviews

Laboratory studies sit at the intersection of anthropology and science and technology studies (STS), and scholarly overviews of laboratory studies offer different genealogies of the multidisciplinary development of this field. Fischer 2007 offers a thoughtful take on the multiple scholarly lineages that have informed anthropological research on laboratories and other sites of scientific and technological knowledge production, pointing to the connections and tensions that run across disciplinary divides. These tensions, some of which can be traced to the “science wars” of the 1990s, are also addressed in Fujimura 1999, which makes a compelling case for the need for anthropologists to analyze questions of scientific knowledge and authority. Franklin 1995, a meticulous overview of the scholarly origins of the anthropology of science, also discusses the controversies of the science wars, arguing that anthropology is uniquely positioned to offer a needed critical analysis of science as culture. Martin 1998 also takes up the question of science as culture in order to think about how cultural anthropologists might engage with science as simultaneously a sphere of meaningful social action as well as a locus of political and economic power. Woolgar 1982, Knorr Cetina 1995, and Doing 2008 are general overviews that specifically address laboratory studies, although they necessarily also engage with broader questions in anthropology and STS as they situate the laboratory as an object of analysis. Woolgar 1982 describes the emerging field of laboratory studies as characterized by its ethnographic and immersive methods of study and argues that the field would benefit from greater attention to reflexivity. Knorr Cetina 1995 shares this understanding of laboratory studies as defined through its ethnographic focus and further identifies the laboratory as theoretically significant in its own right as a powerful location for the reconfiguration of the natural and social order and the construction of facts. The problem of the laboratory’s role in the construction of facts is taken up again in Doing 2008, which makes a convincing argument that laboratory studies have not always lived up to their stated goal of accounting for the relationship between local practice and the production of enduring facts.

  • Doing, Park. 2008. Give me a laboratory and I will raise a discipline: The past, present, and future politics of laboratory studies in STS. In The handbook of science and technology studies. Edited by Edward J. Hackett, Olga Amsterdamska, Michael E. Lynch, and Judy Wajcman, 279–295. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    This comprehensive review looks at the problem of accounting for the relationship between local practice and enduring facts as a leitmotif in the history of laboratory studies and provides thoughtful syntheses of the major early works in this field.

  • Fischer, Michael M. J. 2007. Four genealogies for a recombinant anthropology of science and technology. Cultural Anthropology 22.4: 539–615.

    DOI: 10.1525/can.2007.22.4.539

    An insightful survey of the complex histories of anthropological engagement with science and technology that weaves together the diverse philosophical legacies and political concerns that have animated studies of scientific knowledge and practice.

  • Franklin, Sarah. 1995. Science as culture, cultures of science. Annual Review of Anthropology 24:163–184.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    This meticulously detailed overview of the development of the anthropology of science offers a particularly sharp reading of the political stakes of anthropological engagement with science as culture.

  • Fujimura, Joan H. 1999. Authorizing science studies and anthropology. American Anthropologist 101.2: 381–384.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1999.101.2.381

    This commentary, written in response to Steve Fuller’s remarks on Fujimura’s work on knowledge production, explicitly situates science studies within the disciplinary concerns of anthropology, arguing that anthropologists can and should attend to pressing questions of authority over knowledge, including those raised by the science wars of the 1990s.

  • Knorr Cetina, Karin. 1995. Laboratory studies: The cultural approach to the study of science. In Handbook of science and technology studies. Edited by Sheila Jasanoff, Gerald E. Markle, James C. Peterson, and Trevor Pinch, 140–167. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    This book chapter reviews ethnographic work on laboratories and describes the theoretical significance of the laboratory as a place where the natural and social orders are reconfigured and facts are constructed. The chapter concludes with a reflection on critiques of laboratory studies and outlines an agenda for future research.

  • Martin, Emily. 1998. Anthropology and the cultural study of science. Science, Technology & Human Values 23.1: 24–44.

    DOI: 10.1177/016224399802300102

    A thoughtful analysis of science as a site of cultural production and hub of social and economic power deserving of critical anthropological attention. Martin introduces three concepts—citadels, rhizomes, and string figures—that are useful for theorizing the complex relationships between science, culture, and society.

  • Traweek, Sharon. 1993. An introduction to cultural and social studies of sciences and technologies. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 17.1: 3–25.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF01380596

    This highlights the contributions of European and North American anthropology, sociology, social epistemology, philosophy, cultural studies, and gender studies to developing the cultural and social study of sciences, technologies, and medicine. The article also includes a comprehensive bibliography.

  • Woolgar, Steve. 1982. Laboratory studies: A comment on the state of the art. Social Studies of Science 12.4: 481–498.

    DOI: 10.1177/030631282012004001

    This article distinguishes laboratory studies based on immersive ethnographic experience with scientific activity and practice from earlier sociological studies of scientists, which often relied on secondary sources. Questions of methodology and reflexivity in the context of empirical social research are also discussed.

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