Text Laboratory

The term ‘text laboratory’ is attractive for describing the work that was carried out in this research project. This methodology is one of the contributions that Science and Technology Studies have made to the range of methodologies in social science, Nevertheless, it is unclear what the precise methodologies of such a laboratory might be. In ‘A prologue in form of a dialogue between a Student and his (somewhat) Socratic Professor’ Bruno Latour describes the methodology of the text laboratory as an integral part of Actor Network Theory (ANT) (Latour 2003). The professor in this text argues that in good social science the text functions as the laboratory.

He argues that social science is not about applying a theory to a social reality. It is about following the links and relationships between apparently incommensurable things. It is about giving actors (and these can be objects, concepts and human beings, professional roles, a certain practice) the space to express themselves and reveal the variety of meanings and relations they produce. Especially in situations where things are changing quickly, like in science and technology studies ‘where the boundaries are so terribly fuzzy’, it is appropriate to use this methodology. Primarily it is about description, a radical form of empiricism, as the professor says to his student:

“describe, write, describe, write.. (…) To describe, to be attentive to the concrete states of affairs, to find the uniquely adequate account of a given situation.” (Latour 2003, 62–76).

In Science and Technology Studies the design and implementation processes of technologies are described. The actors involved, including the producers, are often interviewed and understood from a semiotic perspective in terms of the way they partake in the network that surrounds them. Actor Network Theory aims to describe as well as possible this network of relationships and interactions around a certain actor, be this actor a person or an object or an innovation. Little research is actually carried out by these actors themselves, and in this sense their inner dialogues and parresiatic truths and opinions are not presented. For example, in any innovation process a great deal of personal frustration is also part of the process, it influences relationships, it influences the solutions that are chosen and that are discarded. Such dynamics are generally understood from a political perspective, but there is plenty of other truth to be found in the personal experience as well.

Text Laboratory is presented as a method that one can use to understand the world better by describing it more and more accurately. No scheme or description of the process of research is formulated, apart from the fact that creating a good description “requires an incredibly imaginative protocol”. Bruno Latour in his discussion with a student reveals his ideas about the text laboratory: “The text, in our discipline, is not a story, not a nice story, it’s the functional equivalent of a laboratory. It’s a place for trials, experiments and simulations. Depending on what happens in it, there is or there is not an actor and there is or there is not a network being traced. And that depends entirely on the precise ways in which it is written —and every single new topic requires a new way to be handled by a text.” (Latour 2004, 62–76).

I have continually written and described within this research trajectory, as will become clear in the section about research design. I used multiple sources to inspire the writing: published material, experiences and theory. The experience of writing resonates with the description of the text laboratory as Latour describes it. Having been inspired by a great number of materials, theory, systematic analysis and by the recollection of perceptions at the time, the act of writing the text then induced new insights and unexpected findings. Once one begins to describe a scene, the description itself induces new memories and induces new links to other elements that were previously unseen and these descriptions trigger new links and insights. It is at first sight a strange experience to be able to surprise oneself in the writing of one’s own text. This happens the moment that one enters into inner dialogues through a process of inquiry. A process of self–investigation, as is required for acts of parresia, demands such an inquiry. One has to be receptive and courageous enough to know and find out what is perceivable and thinkable. When the findings of such processes of inquiry are confronted with multiple sources, fixed inner images begin to change and other perceptions become available.

By paying attention to the question posed, by going deeper and deeper into perceptions, by writing and describing these, one finds new links and insights. Any formulated perception gives rise to more sensorial memories and to more questions. What happened, what did I literally see, what did I think was happening, what did I feel, what did I sense? How should I understand this in the context of the theory I read and the archive material I uncovered? The text itself suggests the next questions and the next writing. According to Latour a text laboratory also suggests ‘trials, experiments and simulations’, which includes analysis of these trials, experiments and simulations. They have to be contextualized against earlier and other research; values like verification and falsification should be part of this. Latour states that a text laboratory is the most radical empiricism one can apply.

The fact that in Actor Network Theory the ultimate goal of social sciences is to write and describe, has to be understood within its context. It is applied to innovation processes where things “change fast and the boundaries are terribly fuzzy” (Latour 1983, 62–76). The events that are described in this study were dealing with new issues at the time, which were also explored in a format not seen before. And the focus of attention in this study, ‘presence’, is a ‘fuzzy’ concept in itself.