Skip to main content
Search form
  • 00:10

    So my name is Jamie Lewis.I'm a SAGE postdoctoral research associate hereat the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University.Essentially, I'm a sociologist and with a particular interestin the sociology of biomedicine.Some of my work relates to developmentsand social and ethical implicationsin genetics, genomics, stem cells, and bioinformatics.

  • 00:38

    And bioinformatics-- a glib definition of itis biology on computers.So I'm interested in science and technology and someof the ethical and social implications of developmentsin those areas.Loosely based, you could divide my workinto science and policy, which is very much whereI would use more interview methodsand documentary analysis.

  • 00:59

    I'm interested in the public understanding of science.But I'm most interested in science in practice.And it's here where I would use a much more ethnographicapproach, looking at how science is done in the every day.So ethnography comes from perhaps the Greek words"ethno" meaning people and nation,and "graph" meaning I write.

  • 01:21

    It involves some sort of heavy commitmentinto researching and observing cultures and groups of people.Often, ethnographers spend weeks upon months, sometimes years,in a particular research setting.Ethnographers look at social phenomena.They don't necessarily test hypothesisas you would in perhaps other types of methods.

  • 01:44

    It's very much dynamic and contingent, oftenused in what Glaser and Strauss would call a grounded theoryapproach.Ethnographers tend to write extensive field notes.It involves direct participation and observationsof a particular field or setting.

  • 02:11

    It's particularly difficult to date the start of a processor date a beginning.So professional ethnography, I think,you can turn to the start of the 20th centuryand anthropologists like Malinowski and Mauss,who studied tribes in the Pacific,particularly the Polynesian and Trobriand islands, wherethey were interested in aspects of exchange--how tribes exchanged, how they communicated with one another,and aspects of currency between these tribes.

  • 02:46

    From the 1920s and 1930s, then, wesaw the rise of the Chicago Schoolin Chicago, which was very much interested in urban ethnographyand examining their neighborhoodsand their streets.A lot of people from sociology but also criminologyworking in those fields.In the 1950s and '60s, you had some eminent ethnographiesof Asylums by Erving Goffman and someone like Julius Roth in TB.

  • 03:15

    But it wasn't until probably the 1970sthat you had the rise of the laboratory ethnography.And some of the standout ethnographers of the timewould have been people like Bruno Latour and SteveWoolgar's Laboratory Life.Harry Collins, Sharon Traweek, Karin Knorr Cetina,and Mike Lynch-- and these social scientistswere studying in laboratories-- diverse laboratories,from biomedical laboratories to physics laboratories.

  • 03:46

    Of course, people were studying the social and the historicalin science before this.In the 1950s and '60s, people likeRobert Merton looking at the social aspects of science,and Thomas Kuhn looking at the historical aspects of science.But it was probably in the 1970s that wesaw this sort of more anthropological andsociological type of laboratories.

  • 04:10

    So I've done quite of bit of ethnographic workin laboratories.In particular, I've spent time in a stem cell laboratory doingcutting edge research on Huntington's and Parkinson'sdisease.These scientists were using fetal tissueto look at potentially creating a sort of tissue transplantfor people with Huntington's and Parkinson's disease.

  • 04:40

    I spent a year in the laboratory there.And I'm particularly interested in the everyday practiceof science.So people that are some removed from sciencesometimes seeing it as very exciting, as very discovery.But I'm most interested in the mundane, the every day workof scientists, how they overcome the uncertaintiesand ambiguities of their practice.

  • 05:01

    Much of this is quite boring.It's quite repetitive.But that is what science is.And without laboratory ethnographies,we wouldn't get at this.So I'm interested in how scientists interactwith the technologies, the equipment, and regulation,how they interact with one another, and notjust the exciting aspects of science.

  • 05:22

    I've also done other sorts of ethnographic approaches.I wouldn't want to call these laboratory ethnographiesbecause they're not necessarily true to the conventionsof ethnography of observation and direct participation.But I've spent time at a psychiatric geneticslaboratory.In fact, I've spent much longer time there, but much of my workthere has been much more interview-based.

  • 05:43

    And I've actually worked closely with the centeron other projects.But spending time in that laboratoryhas certainly influenced my analysis of the interviews.Ethnography is hard.You have to be very committed to do ethnography.It involves a lot of energy and a lot of time.

  • 06:06

    But although it's hard, it's the most rewarding social sciencemethod around.And there's a Eels song which says"life is hard and so am I."I think ethnographers have to be hard.But, as I said, I think there are some big rewards from it.I remember the first day that I went to the laboratoryand I got access through their PI,the director of the laboratory.

  • 06:29

    And I punched in my card, as I was given the security card.It went up a few floors.And I came into the laboratory.And the laboratory itself, as you open the door, is openplan.And there's a table, and then there'soffices around the table, which a lot of the peoplewould stay in.

  • 06:50

    And behind the table, then, was this sort of false wallwhereby you get some of the laboratories--the histology lab, the cellular hoods,leading onto the GMP suite and then downstairswould be the animal house.So I've already done a presentationto the laboratory explaining who I was and to perhaps getrid of any worries anyone had.

  • 07:11

    As I turned up, there were peoplesitting on the table having tea and coffee.I opened the door, walked into the laboratory,and everyone went from the table, went into their offices,and shut the door.So I'm standing in the middle of this laboratory with everyonelooking at me, not really knowing what to do.I went to go to speak to the PI.But the thing about PIs is that they're very busy people.

  • 07:32

    And you might get access to the laboratory through the PI,but they're likely to not be in the laboratory itselfbecause they often go to conferences or meetingselsewhere.So I spent the first hour of my ethnographystanding around, pretending to read brain magazinesfrom the shelf behind, going to the toilet quitea few times to the point that I thinkthey thought I had a bladder issue--and whilst everyone else was watching me.

  • 07:57

    And the one thing I learned from thatwas that you might get access to a laboratory,but you haven't necessarily got accessto go and speak to people.One of the tips I would give anyone doing thisis to find yourself a buddy.As I said, your PI will be your access point, your gatekeeper,but your buddy is your main day-to-day person.

  • 08:21

    It's always useful to pick a buddy who's perhapsthe leader of their social activities, the tea person,because they're likely to be verysociable and likely to know everyone elseand introduce you to everyone else.My second tip is only a short tip,but it's to remember that science is often mundane.It's very repetitive.And you're there to look at, observe,and analyze everyday life.

  • 08:45

    Scientists, when they've agreed to observe you,want to show you something exciting and new,something out of the ordinary, something unusual.That's fine.But you also want to get at the every day-- what they usuallydo.So it's always a difficult sort of negotiationbetween the scientists and yourselfas to getting at what they do day-to-day.

  • 09:08

    And that would be my second tip, isto make sure that you get at the mundane as wellas the out of the ordinary.My third tip, again, relates to some experience I had,is that when I entered the laboratory I was oftenseen there as an auditor because I was there writingabout the work they were doing.What was quite obvious to begin withis that people don't like you standing therewith a pen and paper writing about what you're doing.

  • 09:32

    I think everyone feels uncomfortablein that situation.So try to find some legitimate spaceswhereby you can write down your field notes.Actually, in doing work on scientistsor working in the area of academia,you do find these legitimate spaces.And they may be in meetings and conferenceswhere everyone else is writing.They may not be writing the same things as you,but they're writing about something else.

  • 09:55

    So again, that would be a third tip that I would have,is store those things in your headand when you get the opportunity, wheneveryone else is writing, you can write downyour field notes.My fourth tip is that perhaps start usingthe language of the scientists.So what I mean by this is when I saidI'm going back to observe what they were doing, as mentioned,they perceived me as an auditor.

  • 10:17

    I never thought about using the language of shadowing,because of some dark connotations of what shadow is.But actually, scientists-- certainly the biomedicsunderstood what shadowing was where junior doctors wouldshadow surgeons, for example.So in explaining that I was there to shadow them,they seemed to feel more comfortable with me being thereand why I was I was doing.

  • 10:38

    My fifth tip is about building rapportand not to be afraid to have a laugh with the peopleyou're studying.If you are relaxed, the more relaxed they will be.And the more relaxed they will be,the more they will start to talk openly and with you.So the odd joke here and there, and sharing it with people,and to show that you're not a robot,you are a human being as well as an instrumentof method will allow the people you're studying to bemore open and frank with you.

  • 11:08

    My sixth tip is not to be afraid to ask stupid questions.Sometimes as social scientists, youfall into the hierarchy of disciplinesand think that a biomedic or a scientistis more important than yourself and that your question mightbe deemed to be stupid.But stupid questions reveal interesting answers.I got some of the more interesting answersfrom questions I wasn't sure whether to ask or not.

  • 11:32

    And the likelihood is if you ask it,someone else would've asked it before.So my sixth tip is don't be afraid to ask stupid questions.My final tip is to remember that the laboratory is not justthe four walls and the building.Sometimes you want to follow the phenomenaoutside the laboratory, whether that'sinto the conference setting where scientistsdo a lot of their work, or whether itmay be into a clinic, for example,if they're biomedic scientists, or elsewhere.

  • 11:57

    So it's just remember that the laboratory is more than justthe four walls of a building.You also get that sort of extended laboratorywhere a lot of science is conducted.


Dr. Jamie Lewis gives a definition and brief history of ethnography. He goes on to explain the challenges and tricks to conducting ethnography in the laboratory workplace.

Looks like you do not have access to this content.

Ethnography in a Laboratory Setting

Dr. Jamie Lewis gives a definition and brief history of ethnography. He goes on to explain the challenges and tricks to conducting ethnography in the laboratory workplace.

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website