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The Necessity of Field Methods in the Study of Scientific Research

  • Robert S. Anderson
Part of the Sociology of the Sciences a Yearbook book series (SOSC, volume 5)

Abstract

Field methods involving prolonged presence in research institutions are still not as common in social studies of science and technology as they should be. Though they have limitations, and are time-consuming, they offer the ideal means through which to become immersed in one’s subject and to see the dynamic relationship of variables or issues which are often studied separately on the outside. Drawing on my work in a number of research institutions, I emphasize here why we cannot afford to neglect the potential of these methods, while acknowledging the debate in anthropology surrounding their limitations. The stress here is on the sequence of questions to be asked about the relationship of internal and external influences within the research institution. These questions locate the research institution as the mediator between “the scientific tradition” and individual researchers’ contributions to it, and national policies and socio-cultural systems. In concert with other kinds of study, we will thus be in a position to discuss the variations in the evolution of science and technology under different social and cultural conditions. The objective is not simply to understand one level or another (tradition or policy) but to understand the process of the interaction of levels. Starting with the point of view of members of research institutions themselves, the focus is on the relation of these levels and the way in which the community in the research institution mediates this process.

Keywords

Field Work Social Study Field Method External Influence International Rice Research Institute 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    An interesting correlation between cities and production of scientific publications is Derek J. de Solla Price, ‘Measuring the Size of Science’, Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities IV, pp. 1–14 (read February, 1969).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    An example of this direction through funding, with striking effects in the rise of molecular biology is Robert E. Kohler, ‘The Management of Science: The Experience of Warren Weaver and the Rockefeller Foundation Program in Molecular Biology’, Minerva (1976).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For a fuller account, see Robert S. Anderson, Building Scientific Institutions in India: Saha and Bhabha, Montreal: McGill University Centre for Developing Areas Studies, 1975.Google Scholar
  4. 3a.
    Also, Robert S. Anderson, Community for Research: An Anthropologist in the Enrico Fermi Institute for Nuclear Studies, University of Chicago, Department of Anthropology, unpublished MA thesis, 1967.Google Scholar
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    Kenneth Pike, Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behaviour, Vol. I, California Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1954.Google Scholar
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     For a review of the ‘emic’ discussion, see Clifford Geertz, ‘From the Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding’, in K. H. Basso and H. A. Selby (eds.), Meaning in Anthropology, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1976.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    All my studies benefited from his pioneering work; Gerald M. Swatez, Social Organization of a University Laboratory, Space Sciences Laboratory, Social Science Project, University of California (Internal Working Paper 44), April, 1966. This is summarized in Swatez, Minerva, January, 1970, pp. 36–58. See also my comparison of research group organization in the Fermi Institute with Swatez’ account of the Radiation Laboratory, Minerva (1970), pp. 297–299. Of great value is Swatez’s historical analysis of the lab’s development of the cyclotron, the relation of the lab to the Manhattan project, the new instruments which followed, and the impact of Lawrence’s death on the ‘industrialization’ of basic research. This attention to the role of the past in the present life of science is, in my opinion, crucial to the success of these studies.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    Examples of differing kinds of crisis, of ‘strain’ (e.g., conflict over rising page costs for Physical Review, forcing Indian physicists to publish in Indian journals or publish in Physical Review while abroad), and of ‘confrontation’ (e.g., the opposition to installation of a computer in Calcutta University), are in Robert S. Anderson, The Government of Scientific Institutions: Case Studies of Two Research Laboratories in the late 1960s’, Contributions to Indian Sociology (NS) II (1977), p. 155Google Scholar
  9. 6a.
    Robert S. Anderson, The Government of Scientific Institutions: Case Studies of Two Research Laboratories in the late 1960s’, Contributions to Indian Sociology (NS) II (1977), p. 161. There are of course, more dramatic crises: for example the suicide of Dr. V. Shah in May 1972 at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, where he was principal investigator in a national maize improvement scheme, led to lengthy discussions in Parliament about the social relations and working conditions inside one of India’s main research institutions. This led to an Enquiry Committee into conditions in this institution and six other national agricultural research institutions with 187 witnesses appearing and a questionnaire replied to by 2667 scientists. This critical report required a lengthy explanation in Parliament by the Minister for Agriculture in November, 1973 in which he had to announce a new personnel system and salary scale for agricultural scientists. But in the course of this inquiry there had to be a reexamination of the claims made by the most powerful senior Indian agricultural scientist (M. S. Swaminathan) for the nutritional value of a wheat variety he had developed, and for which he received the prestigious $ 10 000 Magsaysay Prize in 1971.Google Scholar
  10. 6b.
    This resulted in 1974, in Joseph Hanlon ‘Top Food Scientist Published False Data’, New Scientist 64, p. 436. This criticism of Swaminathan’s work was rejected by Norman Borlang and Glen Anderson of another institutional agricultural research institute, CIMMYT in Mexico of which Swaminathan was then a member of the Board of Trustees. See ‘Defence of Swaminathan’, New Scientist, 30 January, 1975, pp. 280, 281. The whole affair, triggered by the suicide of one researcher, caused a crisis in his institution, rippled through the national scientific community, and caused international reassessment of the reliability of laboratory methods, the code of conduct for scientific publication, and Government’s regulation of genetic materials. More importantly, these issues were scrutinized by the Ministry of Law, and by Cabinet Ministers.Google Scholar
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  12. 8a.
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  13. 8b .
    Kenneth Read, The High Valley, New York, Scribner’s 1965.Google Scholar
  14. 8c .
    D. Maybury-Lewis, The Savage and the Innocent, Cleveland, World Publishing, 1965.Google Scholar
  15. 8d .
    J. L. Briggs, Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1970.Google Scholar
  16. 8e .
    P. Golde (ed.), Women in the Field: Anthropological Experiences, Chicago, Aldine, 1970.Google Scholar
  17. 9.
    Paul, Rabinow, Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1977.Google Scholar
  18. 10.
    Andre Beteille and T. N. Madan, Encounter and Experience: Personal Accounts of Fieldwork, Delhi, Vikas, 1975.Google Scholar
  19. 10a .
    For a thorough review of methodological issues in fieldwork, see P. J. Pelto and G. H. Pelto, Anthropological Research: The Structure of Inquiry, Cambridge Univerrsity Press (2nd ed.), 1978.Google Scholar
  20. 11.
    For a combination of approaches on this question, some of which should be followed by field methods, see Judith Wechsler (ed.), On Aesthetics in Science, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1978.Google Scholar
  21. 12.
    Ziman, John M., ‘The Proliferation of Scientific Literature: A Natural Process’, Science 208 (1980), pp. 369–371. The paucity of contributions to communication journals on these questions is striking.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 13.
    Gerald Holton, ‘Striking Gold in Science: Fermi’s Group and the Recapture of Italy’s Place in Physics’, Minerva (April, 1974), Holton’s observations on social organization, recruitment, the family-enterprise model, frugality and improvisation in research, long after the group had disbanded, and their relation to Rome and Italy are precisely what I am advocating here. My own studies show how work in nuclear physics in Calcutta was previously _odeled on the extended family.Google Scholar
  23. 14.
    For an example of the continuities in the concerns of physicists, see Charles Weiner, ‘Physics in the Great Depression’, Physics Today (October, 1970).Google Scholar
  24. 15.
    Anderson, ‘The Government of Scientific Institutions’ (1977), p. 137.Google Scholar
  25. 16.
    Knorr’s entire account of a year’s field work in a Berkeley biochemical laboratory among 300 scientists and staff, analyzes the process this way: “The dynamics of scientific production must be linked to a competitive struggle for scientific capital which takes through investments made in a field and in a local site of reproduction i.e., the research organization” (p. 26). But her account is largely etic, that is it does not seem to care whether anything she says is meaningful to the biochemists, and indeed we learn little about them or the history of their organization. Karin Knorr, Producing and Reproducing Knowledge: Toward a Model of Research Production, Vienna, Institute for Advanced Studies, 1977. On the other hand, her comments on the literature as scripture are insightful.Google Scholar
  26. For a study of ‘productivity’ in research without field methods, see R. E. Evenson, P. E. Waggoner, V. W. Ruttan, ‘Economic Benefits From Research: An Example From Agriculture’, Science 205 (1979), pp. 1101–1107. Two of the authors (Waggoner and Ruttan) have worked for years inside the agricultural research system, but ‘productivity’ is simply aggregated as ‘returns to investment’. The effects within the system of these calculations could best be evaluated by field methods.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 19.
    One of Watson’s astute fictional characters, Professor Kapelka confirms this to his research assistant in his institute in the USSR: “There are men of hard fact out there. And all over the world men of hard fact are growing frightened these days – at the drying up of wells, at the emptying mines. We have had freedom such as I never dared dream of as a young researcher, up till now. Because ours was truly a creative dream, and the men of hard fact had the sense to see we needed freedom to put our dream to work. But the committee is asking so many questions lately. How soon, how soon, is their dividend! Before we can put our model into production! How cost-effective is it? How efficient will it be? Oh all the jargon of capitalism, Katya! Oh yes, as in America, so here!” Ian Watson, The Jonah Kit, New York, Scribners, 1976.Google Scholar
  28. 19a.
    For a less passionate view, see Yakov M. Rabkine, ‘Naukovedenie; The Study of Scientific Research in the Soviet Union’, Minerva (Spring, 1976).Google Scholar
  29. 20.
    Everett Mendelsohn, ‘The Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge’, in Mendelsohn, Weingart and Whitley (eds.), The Social Production of Scientific Knowledge, Dordrecht, D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1977, p. 17.Google Scholar
  30. 21.
    J. George Harrar, ‘International Rice Research Center’ (memorandum), 5 October, 1958 (Rockefeller Archive Center).Google Scholar
  31. 22.
    ‘Indian Science Exhibit Sits in Limbo’, Science, 27 April, 1979, p. 393.Google Scholar
  32. 23.
    Mulkay also sees this difficulty: “Sociologists seem to have been noticeably lacking in _kepticism towards the public statements of scientists compared with those of other groupings — probably because sociologists accepted with question the covert epistemology from which the scientists’ accounts drew much of their strength”. Michael Mulkay, Science and the Sociology of Knowledge, London, George Allen and Unwin, 1979, p. 112. Latour and Woolgar agree: “The dangers of going native arise because as analysts, we are inevitably caught up in social ‘science’ traditions originating with explicit attempts to mimic the natural sciences and because of the currently widespread acceptance of the methods and achievements of science in the culture of which we are a part”.Google Scholar
  33. 23a. .
    Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, Beverly Hills, Sage Publications, 1979, p. 39.Google Scholar
  34. 24.
    I am grateful to Douglas McKegney for his comments on an earlier draft of this essay in light of his ‘The Relationship Between Informal and Formal Communication in Scientific Research’ presented at the Conference on Social Processes of Scientific Research, McGill University, October, 1979.Google Scholar
  35. Rabinow, op. cit., p. 151.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert S. Anderson
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of CommunicationSimon Fraser UniversityCanada

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