Framing Statement

Since the nineteenth century, an array of sciences have constituted “fields” as objects of study and as sites for knowledge production, data collection, and self-discovery. “Fieldwork” has come to designate a diverse set of research methods across human, environmental, life, and physical sciences. And yet, basic facts about fields and fieldwork — including just what a field is and how fieldwork is related to other kinds of scientific activity — remain contested, contingent, and open to change. Even within a single discipline, the status of field concepts and fieldwork practices can vary profoundly.

This workshop will explore how concepts of the field have organized scientific activities and how fields have been given different material forms through the use of various instruments and research practices. Examining both historical and contemporary fields, it will explore the relations of fieldwork and the field to adjacent modes and sites of scientific activity, including experimentation in the lab, observation in the observatory, and collection in the museum.

The workshop builds on a large and diverse body of scholarship that has developed since the 1990s, when historians and sociologists of science turned their attention to “science in the field” as a way of upending taken-for-granted taxonomies in the history of science (Kuklick & Kohler 1996; see also Kohler 2002; Kuklick 2011; Vetter 2012, 2016). These scholars influentially argued that the field was an important and distinctive site of scientific activity, and that field sciences such as anthropology and ecology were just as deserving of scholarly attention as laboratory sciences such as physics and chemistry — indeed, that they were especially revealing of science’s social, economic, and political entanglements.

Subsequent scholarship has amply fulfilled the promises of this turn to the field (see Kohler & Vetter 2016) while also expanding beyond its initial analytic aspirations. In particular, this scholarship has revealed material complexities and conceptual entanglements that render it increasingly difficult to maintain distinctions between “the field” and “the lab” that hold true across all times and places. Historians have demonstrated how, since the nineteenth century, biologists, ecologists, and meteorologists have variably referred to their research sites as “outdoor laboratories,” “field stations,” and “laboratories in the field” — hybrid labels that only begin to suggest the diversity of research practices that cross, blur, and even dissolve the lab/field border (Coen 2009; de Bont 2014).

This complexification of the history of the field sciences and of the lab/field distinction leads us to the fundamental question of this workshop: What, after all, is a field?

The workshop approaches this question with the help of both the literature on the history of the field sciences and several other bodies of scholarship, some dating back decades, that engage critically with concepts of the field. These include work on how field concepts derived from the physical study of electromagnetism, gravitation, and light-wave propagation were taken up in biology and psychology in the early twentieth century (Haraway 1976), work on the ways that the virtues and practices of field observation influenced the formation of human and nonhuman behavioral sciences (Kuklick 1991; Burkhardt 2005), and efforts to conceptualize the organization of knowledge and knowledge-production in terms of scientific fields (Bourdieu 1975; Knorr-Cetina 1981). Finally, the question “what is a field?” brings our attention to anthropologies and sociologies of laboratory sciences that have, since the 1970s, constituted labs as fields or places for fieldwork — a curious twist in the history of the “field sciences” that has yet to receive the attention it deserves (Latour & Woolgar 1986; Lynch 1985; Traweek 1988; cf. Schaffer 1994).

By putting the history and sociology of the field sciences in dialog with this broader body of scholarship on fields, we hope to prompt a reconsideration of concepts of the field and understandings of the field sciences within the history, anthropology, and sociology of science. We anticipate a lively set of presentations and discussions around the following questions and themes:

  • When, where, and how did concepts of [the] field emerge in particular sciences? How have field concepts moved between sciences?
  • How have particular scientists and scientific disciplines conceptualized “the field” at
    different times and places, and with different purposes?
  • How have concepts of the field been materialized? How do particular fields emerge from configurations of places, devices, infrastructures, and social relations?
  • How have fields been constituted by the movements of scientists and scientific materials among connected yet geographically dispersed sites?
  • How has the field been related not only to labs and museums, but also to the home
    and other domestic spaces?
  • How have fieldwork practices changed over time in particular sciences?
  • How are concepts of the field at stake or in question today in specific sciences? How
    are the lab and the field defined and valued in these sciences?
  • How have practices of anthropological and sociological fieldwork changed since labs were made into field sites for research in STS and the history and anthropology of science?
  • How is the meaning and materiality of the field negotiated between researchers and the (human and nonhuman) subjects of research?
  • How are new technologies of remote, virtual, and distributed data collection, new spaces and social formations for research, and new questions about reliability, authority, attribution, and responsibility changing the character of fields, field sites, and fieldwork today?

Works cited

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Specificity of the Scientific Field and the Social Conditions of the Progress of Reason.” Social Science Information 14, no. 6 (1975), 19-47.
  • Burkhardt, Richard. Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.
  • Coen, Deborah. “The Storm Lab: Meteorology in the Austrian Alps.” Science in Context 22, no. 3 (2009), 463-486.
  • De Bont, Raf. Stations in the Field: A History of Place-Based Animal Research, 1870-1930. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.
  • Haraway, Donna. Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors That Shape Embryos. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1976.
  • Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
  • Lynch, Michael. Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science: A Study of Shop Work and Shop Talk in a Research Laboratory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.
  • Knorr-Cetina, Karin. The Manufacture of Knowledge: An Essay on the Constructivist and Contextual Nature of Science. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1981.
  • Kohler, Robert. Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  • Kohler, Robert and Jeremy Vetter. “The Field.” In A Companion to the History of Science, edited by Bernard Lightman. West Sussex (UK): John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2016.
  • Kuklick, Henrika. The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Kuklick, Henrika and Robert Kohler, eds. Science in the Field. Osiris Vol. 11. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Kuklick, Henrika. “Personal Equations: Reflections on the History of Fieldwork, with Special Reference to Sociocultural Anthropology.” Isis 102 (2011), 1-33.
  • Schaffer, Simon. From Physics to Anthropology — And Back Again. Cambridge: Prickly Pear Press, 1994.
  • Traweek, Sharon. Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1988.
  • Vetter, Jeremy. “Labs in the Field? Rocky Mountain Biological Stations in the Early Twentieth Century.” Journal of the History of Biology 45, no. 4 (2012), 587-611.
  • Vetter, Jeremy. Field Life: Science in the American West During the Railroad Era. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016.