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Michael Lynch / Part I: Coming of Age

Michael Lynch in conversation with Lucy Suchman

27 September, 2016

Note: The dialogue transcribed below occurred on September 3, 2016, at the Presidential Awards ceremony of the 4S/EASST conference in Barcelona. In keeping with the numerous experiments in format that characterized this year’s conference, the ceremony was organized as a series of conversations, rather than in the traditional style of presentation and acceptance.  What follows is the extended transcript of a conversation between 4S President Lucy Suchman and award recipient Michael Lynch, who was presented with the 2016 4S Bernal Prize for his distinguished contribution to the field of science and technology studies.  For those not able to attend the ceremony, and for those who might want to re-visit it, Backchannels will publish the interview in three parts over the next three days.  - Ed.


A wide shot of Michael Lynch and Lucy Suchman in conversation at the 2016 4S/EASST Presidential Awards ceremony. The top half of the image shows a powerpoint slide with the header
Photo courtesy of Govert Valkenburg. Image may be used freely, in its original form, for non-commercial purposes.



LS I thought I’d begin, Mike, with our common coming of age in the 1970s and 80s under the influence of ethnomethodology; for example, your early collaborations with Harold Garfinkel and Eric Livingston in ‘The Work of a Discovering Science’ published in 1981 in the journal Philosophy of the Social Sciences,[1] and ‘Temporal Order in Laboratory Work’ published in 1983 in the collection Science Observed.[2]  And then of course your own dissertation, published in 1985 as Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science (Routledge & Kegan Paul).  Can you talk about this early connection between ethnomethodology and science studies?



ML: I started my PhD studies at UC Irvine in 1972.  That university was only a few years old at the time, and the School of Social Sciences was not yet differentiated into separate departments.  James March, an organization theorist,[3] had been Dean of Social Sciences, and (I understand from Alan Irwin) March was one of the architects of the Copenhagen Business School, where 4S/EASST met 4 years ago.  March wanted to foster innovative research collaborations in an environment freed from disciplinary restrictions. The experiment didn’t last long – many faculty, administrators and students hankered for disciplines, and eventually got them.  But while it lasted it was a fine environment for developing ethnomethodology and conversation analysis (briefly, the study of practical actions and interactions performed on specific occasions in distinctive environments), and I think it also was conducive to the kind of research that became characteristic of STS.


I had a background in sociology, but had become frustrated with discipline’s imposition of similar conceptual frameworks on all social institutions, and I wanted something that addressed the distinctive activities that such abstractions glossed over.  I was advised to go to UC Irvine, and did so.  Harold Garfinkel was visiting in the School of Social Sciences (his permanent position was at UCLA), and he happened to be developing a program of studies of work that aimed to address situated activities[4] – the actions and interactions of playing music; the performance of legal work in courtrooms and negotiations; diagnostic encounters in hospitals and psychiatric institutions; the investigative practices of police and coroners; and even the doing of routine research tasks in sociology.


At the time, Garfinkel contrasted this program to disciplinary sociology, saying that sociologists spoke about such activities while investigating practitioners’ social backgrounds, conflicts with management, attitudes, aspirations, mobility patterns, etc., while largely taking for granted the performance of the relevant practices.  In the sociology of science at the time there wasn’t much attention to the doing of science. How scientists set up and manipulated equipment, how they extracted phenomena from noisy data, how they argued with one another, and so forth, wasn’t considered sociologically interesting. 


The theme that drew me to studying scientific practices was Heidegger’s ontological category of “ready-to-hand” – a phenomenological property of tools and other material things that we act through, which are extensions of embodied action and perception. It occurred to me that optical instruments enable the visualization of phenomena that are discontinuous with ordinary embodied perception, and that for at least a short time they present contemporaries with the problem of integrating previously unseen things (and possible illusions) with consensual reality. Melvin Pollner, who was a member of my committee, coined the term “reality disjunctures” to characterize confrontations between incommensurable versions of a presumed common world.[5] There are, of course, notable historical episodes involving Galileo with the telescope and Leeuwenhoek with the microscope, but I was interested in day-to-day interactions in which practitioners address instrumentally mediated phenomena.  I was advised that such disjunctures could be found at the “cutting edge” of research, and through contacts at UC Irvine I was able to make regular visits to a neurosciences laboratory on that campus that was doing novel anatomical and physiological studies of brain plasticity, using among other instruments electron microscopy.


Initially, when I began my ethnographic study of electron microscopy projects in the laboratory, I was unaware of what was happening in Britain, with the Strong Programme at Edinburgh and early Sociology of Scientific Knowledge at Bath, York, and elsewhere, and I also wasn’t aware until later that Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Karin Knorr Cetina, and Sharon Traweek also were conducting ethnographies of laboratories in California.[6]  By the time I completed my dissertation in 1978-1979, I had become aware of those studies, and had read and met some of the authors. There were a number of convergent themes, and generally there was a common interest in what David Bloor called “the very content and nature” of the sciences and mathematics as social and historical phenomena, not to be consigned to philosophy and specialized methodology alone.[7]


So, to get back to your question, ethnomethodological studies of work in the sciences and mathematics began independently from the “new” sociology of scientific knowledge, However, both reacted to lack of attention in the social sciences to the material performance of practices that compose scientific and mathematical activities. Differences remained, which I’ve addressed in exchanges with Bloor and constructivists, but at the time there was a set of converging interests in scientific practices as a neglected topic in the social sciences.



[Check back later this week for Parts II and III of this conversation.]


[1] Vol. 11: 131-158.

[2] Lynch, M., Livingston, E., & Garfinkel, H. (1983). Temporal Order in Laboratory Work. In K. Knorr Cetina & M. Mulkay (Eds.), Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of Science (pp. 205-238). London: Sage.

[3] James March & Herbert Simon, Organizations. Wiley, 1958.

[4] Harold Garfinkel (ed.), Ethnomethodological Studies of Work. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

[5] “‘The very coinage of your brain’: The anatomy of reality disjunctures." Philosophy of the Social Sciences 5 (1975): 411-430.

[6] Research for these ethnographies began in the mid-to-late 1970s, though some of the publications came out years later:  Bruno Latour & Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life.  Sage, 1979; Karin Knorr Cetina, The Manufacture of Knowledge. Pergamon, 1981; Sharon Traweek, Beamtimes and Lifetimes. Harvard University Press, 1988.

[7] David Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery.  Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976, p. 3.


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Backchannels / Reflections/ Report-backs

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.

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