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Michael Lynch / Part II: That Delicate Balance

Michael Lynch in conversation with Lucy Suchman

28 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. Part I of this conversation can be found here.  - Ed.


Photo courtesy of Govert Valkenburg. Image may be used freely, in its original form, for non-commercial purposes.


LS:  In the late 80s, early 90s there were a series of publications that I’ve drawn on gratefully in my own work, most notably your 1988 papers ‘The externalized retina’ published in Human Studies,[1] your attention to human/animal relations in ‘Sacrifice and the transformation of the animal body into a scientific object: Laboratory culture and ritual practice in the neurosciences’ published in Social Studies of Science,[2] the collection Representation in Scientific Practice with Steve Woolgar (recently revisited in the collection with Steve, Catelijne Coopmans and Janet Vertesi),[3] as well as your brilliant book Scientific Practice and Ordinary Action.[4]  In the latter you write:   "As soon as the ‘statements' associated with the various natural sciences (the utterances, speeches, equations, writings, citations and other documents collected in the archives) are (re)collected and placed in semiotic schemes, stable representations of historical lineages and semantic networks, social historical and ethnographic narratives, cognitive maps, and so forth, they become dissociated from the varieties of deeds that give them their life” (p. 270). What do you see as the implications of this for STS?



ML: The early papers you mention were developed from my dissertation research on laboratory practices for rendering specimens into analyzable displays of neuroanatomical data. Studying ethnomethodology and conversation analysis attuned me to the spatio-temporal and sequential organization of language-use and embodied practice, in contrast to the overwhelming preoccupation in philosophy of science with the correspondence between signs and referents, and this is something that has stayed with me throughout my career. In connection with that interest in the temporal production of analyzable and presentable data, I was interested in the epistemic hygiene involved in controlling for and eliminating “artifacts” that were deemed to interfere with the clarity and intelligibility of material displays.  I conducted what I called an “archaeology of artifacts” – inverting the practitioners’ aversion to artifacts to treat them as research objects that provided insight into the form of life that produced them. 


In 1983, I participated in a meeting organized at l’Ecole des Mines in which Bruno Latour, John Law, Karin Knorr Cetina, and a very interesting collection of historians, art historians, and semioticians met to discuss visualization in science.[5]  I never was a fan of semiotics, and I only go some of the way down the path with Actor-Network Theory, but I did pick up from that meeting the importance of textual displays as a focal point and end-product of scientific practices. I began to pay closer attention to the interface between the embodied wet lab work with sacrificial animals and the literary display of analyzable data. Following the lead of Husserl’s essay on Galileo’s mathematization of nature,[6] I was particularly interested in the way phenomenal fields were progressively shaped into data points and graphic displays, becoming analyzable in terms of matrices and grids that enabled counting, categorization, comparison, and statistical analysis. 


As for the quote from my 1993 book that you read, it is a rather long sentence, but a couple of points can be drawn from it.  First, in line with many constructivist and other versions of objectification, it suggests that intelligible data are not starting points for analysis, but are tentative outcomes of collectively performed, interactionally contingent, and instrumentally mediated practices.  Second, in line with ethnomethodological understandings, the quotation suggests that erudite interpretations of the recipes for, and reports of, such activity cannot possibly recover the contingent work that goes into their material production. In a way, this is akin to saying that “tacit knowledge” is hidden in the form of representations, but the contingencies of practical action aren’t necessarily matters of anybody’s knowledge, at least not in a cognitive sense. The line about “deeds that give them their life,” alludes to Wittgenstein’s quotation from Goethe’s Faust, “In the beginning was the deed,” which, in turn, is a transformation of the line at the start of the Gospel of St. John, “In the beginning was the word” – itself a profound way to present human origins. The much-abused themes of language games, performativity, and indexicality subordinate signs and meanings to contexts of action (practical routines, sequences of interaction in particular environments) that (as your own work shows with great lucidity[7]) are far too situated and interactionally contingent to be resolved by general logical rules or cognitive structures. 



LS:   In the 2000s, building on these studies of technical practices and rendering artefacts, your work turns to questions of truth and the politics of evidence, including collaborations with your former student Aryn Martin in which you set out what you describe as the ’numeropolitics’ of counting,[8] and your 2008 collaboration with Simon Cole, Ruth McNally and Kathleen Jordan Truth Machine: The Contentious History of DNA Fingerprinting.[9]  Can you talk about this orientation, and where it will take you next?



ML:  This interest in what you call the politics of evidence goes back to my first position after finishing my PhD, which was a postdoc at the Centre of Criminology at the University of Toronto in 1979.  At the time, there was no STS as we now know it, and the job market was very bad, and it seemed necessary to gain a foothold in other social science fields. At the U of T, I was part of a team studying tape recordings of plea bargaining sessions, and I found that I could adapt my research on scientific data production, to negotiations about evidence in court cases.  Gus Brannigan (another refugee from science studies) and I later co-authored a paper on credibility in connection with a perjury trial we observed.[10]


Following that year, I remained interested in legal practices, and the distinctive way that evidence, truth, credibility, facts, tests, and testimony are handled in legal settings. David Bogen and I later published a book on testimony at the Iran-contra hearings, in which we examined the politically charged interrogation of Oliver North and other witnesses from the Reagan Administration in an investigation of their conduct of secret arms trades with Iran in order generate funds for an illegal war in Central America.[11] In that book David and I took up the themes of plausible deniability and “sleaze” (which we defined ‘technically’ as suspected wrongdoing that remains below the threshold of “proof” in formal investigations). We analyzed the use of discursive “failure to recall” claims by witnesses who acknowledged having destroyed records that might have been used to “refresh their memories.” Ian Hacking coined the term “memoropolitics” in his book on multiple-personality disorder,[12] and in a different sense the Iran-contra hearings made up a spectacle of memoropolitics.  Failures to recall were so common in testimony that a popular magazine dubbed them “the Contra Mantra”. Such memory lapses were set up by the shredding of documents and “deniable” government actions designed to produce undecideability about the facts and culpability in official investigations. Needless to say, this is still topical today.  We wrote the book at a time when postmodernism was fashionable, and it seemed that Oliver North and other witnesses for the Reagan and Thatcher administrations were very skilled practical postmodernists, who could exploit interpretative flexibility in a way that evaded official charges against them while avoiding culpability for evasion. 


When Aryn Martin and I discussed “numeropolitics” we addressed practices in science and public political life through which counting and categorizing (counting something as something) are inseparably tied to strategic efforts to demonstrate and dramatize events and produce political effects.


Very briefly, on where I’m going next with this sort of work, I can mention a couple of things.  First, Wes Shrum and I currently are starting discussions for a possible report to the 4S Council on the uses of “metrics” in academic administration. Members of 4S who are interested in that topic should talk to Wes or me.


I’ve also begun a study of viral videos of police shootings and uses of excessive force in the US. The issue is that these videos immediately convince massive numbers of viewers that they show obvious evidence of racialized police abuse, but when subjected to formal legal investigations they rarely result in indictments and convictions. As part of that study, I’m re-analyzing Chuck Goodwin’s well known study of “professional vision” in which he examines the devices used by the defense of police accused of excessive force in the 1991 Rodney King arrest.[13]


In the longer term, I plan to address an aspect of the politics of STS that puzzles and fascinates me, which is the often-surprising way that STS-ish arguments about the contingent and uncertain status of scientific “facts” get politicized and deployed to generate controversies (including ‘manufactured’ controversies), sometimes in ways that those of us in this field are likely to find disconcerting and even appalling.



LS:   Finally, many of us are deeply indebted to your editorial service to STS scholarship, most notably a decade as editor of 3S as well as the third Handbook.  How does this work fit into your own life as an STS scholar?



ML: For this question, I must acknowledge David Edge, who many of us remember fondly as the editor (initially co-editor with Roy MacLeod) of Social Studies of Science from its first issue in 1971 until 2002.  David was a unique editor (and wonderful person) who poured himself passionately into all aspects of editorial practice and communication, including the most routine tasks.  From him, I gained a deep appreciation of editorial work as an important higher-educational activity. David and his collaborating editors used revise and resubmit advice as tutorials – and not just about English composition, journal citation form, and the like, but also as a way to instruct novices on multifaceted aspects of “knowledge” and “content” conveyed through writing. Like many of us, I benefitted from David’s advice on some of my early publications, I also found that my own editorial work was an important part of cultivating my own writing.  When working on my PhD, I mastered the dubious arts of writing with that odd combination of defensiveness and intellectual pretense that is so common in academia. With gentle advice and nudging from David and his collaborating editors, who handled some of my early publications, I have tried to attain that delicate balance between saying something original and avoiding obscurity.   




[1] Vol. 11, nos. 2/3: 201-234.

[2] Vol. 18, no. 2: 265-289.

[3] Michael Lynch & Steve Woolgar (eds), Representation in Scientific Practice.  MIT Press, 1990; Catelijne Coopmans, Janet Vertesi, Michael Lynch & Steve Woolgar (eds), Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited. MIT Press, 2014.

[4] Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[5] Workshop on Visualization and Cognition, Centre de Sociologie de l'Innovation, Ecole Nationale Superieure des Mines de Paris, (12-15 December 1983).

[6] Edmund Husserl, “Galileo’s mathematization of nature,” §9 of The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.  Northwestern University Press, 1970.

[7] Lucy Suchman, Human-Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions, 2nd ed.  Cambridge University Press (2007 [1987]).

[8] Aryn Martin and Michael Lynch, “Counting things and people: The practices and politics of counting,” Social Problems 56(2) 2009: 243-66.

[9] University of Chicago Press, 2008.

[10] Augustine Brannigan and Michael Lynch, “On bearing false witness:  Perjury and credibility as interactional accomplishments,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 16(2):115-146, 1987.  

[11] Michael Lynch & David Bogen, The Spectacle of History:  Speech, Text, and Memory at the Iran-Contra Hearings. Duke University Press, 1996.

[12] Ian Hacking, Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory. Princeton University Press, 1996.

[13] Charles Goodwin, “Professional vision,” American Anthropologist 96 (1994): 606-633.


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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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