Q2. Ethnography embeds the author into the environment they are studying. How may the subjectivity of the observer influence their eventual project? Does the position of Traweek as a scholar among scholars present additional challenges in a laboratory environment that might not be present in a more traditional site of anthropological study? Do these challenges weaken the idea of an ethnography of science?

If the knowledge produced in the laboratory is constituted by social relations, then we cannot expect the knowledge produced by ethnography to be any different. As contemporary/postmodern ethnography recognizes, the subjectivity of the researcher is an important factor in the research process, including the collection and interpretation of data, and conclusions drawn from them. In the mid-late 1980s in particular, when Traweek was writing her account of high-beam physics, anthropologists were especially concerned about what this meant for the truth-claims of ethnographic texts. In their influential 1986 text Anthropology as Cultural Critique, George Marcus and Michael Fischer identified what they termed a “crisis of representation in the human sciences,” which arose from “uncertainty about adequate means of describing social reality” (7-8). Anthropologists of that time, like Traweek, could not deny the role of their subjectivities in the construction of their accounts; Traweek explicitly addresses this, writing that “inquiry by participant-observation cannot maintain the distinction between subjective and objective knowledge…to the contrary, it requires the investigator to have a close and complex relation to the subject, and to be rigorously conscious of her ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ understanding of the community as well as the interaction between her observations and her affective responses” (11). The particular subjectivity and positionality of the ethnographer (including his/her past experiences, and social categories like race, gender, class) influence not only his/her interpretation of the observation data, but also impact the data itself - what is observed, recorded, and the nature and scope of interactions with informants and other participants. Traweek’s particular history and experience working at the SLAC meant that she had already established rapport and trust with the participants at the site, but it also meant that because she was so embedded in the culture, some of its important aspects may have been taken for granted — comparative study with a Japanese site, according to her mentor, would assist in making SLAC seem “strange.”

At the same time her new role as an anthropologist meant that some of her “key informants” were very conscious of the information they divulged to her. The senior physicists, having had experience with other social science researchers, could direct the conversations towards her getting “the right picture” of lab processes and had their own ideas of which questions were important. This no doubt influenced the information they divulged to her. However, the junior researchers were much more open with her, assigning much less power to her role as a female social scientist. Her role as a (female) scholar among (mostly male) scholars, therefore, both enabled and limited the scope of her data, as well as her interpretation. It is unlikely that she would have been as cognizant of the gendered aspects of the lab had it not been for her female status. Furthermore, as Traweek notes, postmodern anthropology’s approach to the subjectivity of the knower and its knowledge contrasts with physics’ claim to objective truth. Because they are attuned to this key difference, anthropologists and other social scientists may be able to better describe the approach to knowledge production within physics and other fields of science with similar epistemological stances.

Overall, I do not get the impression that the situated, subjective nature of ethnography limits its study of science; what it requires, however, is sustained reflection of that subjectivity during the research process and in the resulting reports. Ethnographies, therefore, can at most claim to be “partial truths,” to use James Clifford’s words (1986, 6), but that does not mean that they are “wrong.” While no one ethnography of science can claim to objectively represent its subject, a collection of various ethnographic perspectives still leads to a closer approximation of its culture.

Additional References

Marcus, George, and Marcus Fisher. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Clifford, James. “Introduction: Partial Truths. In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George Marcus. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986. 1-26.

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