What makes a lab a lab?
By Benedict Lang
From the mid of August until the end of November, I had the chance to be a visiting scholar in the ETHOS Lab. I was working mostly on my master thesis about hackathons and how they promise solutions that they do not deliver. Coming from the Munich Center for Technology in Society from Munich, where I am studying the RESET program, it was also super exciting to get to know ITUs teaching methods and styles, as I had the chance to work as a teaching assistant in the DIM-course “organizational change and change management” with Thorben Simonsen and Louise Harder Fischer.
During this stay, I often asked myself what a lab actually is. Approaching people on the streets and asking them what a lab looks like, one would probably get answers that are mainly imagining natural science labs. People wearing lab coats, operating with chemicals and handling Erlenmeyer flasks. Search results for “lab” on Google Images resonate with this imagination, consisting of pictures of sterile and highly technical environments.
From this impression of Labs, we learn that they are first and foremost a space. This space is used by researchers and scientists to make experiments, conduct measurements, and explore new knowledge. To facilitate these activities, it is usually constructed in specific ways that optimize it for its usually very specific purpose. Air vents, durable surfaces, and easy cleanability ensure that the handling of toxic chemicals can happen safely.
Within the natural science lab, there are a lot of instruments that allow the scientists to conduct their experiments. They help them measure, they allow them to see things that you could not see with your bare eyes and they determine the experiment’s success or failure. In order to use the instruments, security and usability instructions are necessary. For outsiders, that do not possess the necessary domain knowledge, those instruments mean nothing and their purpose is unclear. For the insiders, who work with them every day, they are essential and necessary devices and tools.
But a lab not only lives as the physical and material space but also in virtual environments like institutions’ websites. A lab website groups the researchers and visualizes their affiliation to the lab as well as their projects and common interests. In lab meetings, the researchers come together to collaboratively discuss the stages of their projects and to give and get feedback. The lab represents and binds together a community, working on common topics and allows exchange and ideas. It is an entity that is able to host events and panel discussions and provided a name that can be put on a letterhead.
In the lab, that comes to our mind when we hear the term lab, we can observe scientists working together and interacting. While the space of the lab can exist without its scientists, they are an essential part that brings the lab to life and that allows the lab to fulfill its purpose as a scientific entity. So people and their relationships – both professionally but also personally – are an integral part of the lab. It is not only this blog posts question, how labs work and how they are part of social practices, but Science and Technology Studies deals a lot with questions of that kind. Very influential in these debates was the book by Latour and Woolgar (2003) that is an anthropological study of work in a lab.
But what makes a social science lab?
What would happen, if we would ask the same people on the street that told us about the measurement instruments and scientists in lab coats, how a social science lab looks like? What makes the social science lab a lab and how is it different?
In my experience as a visitor in the ETHOS Lab, it is the very same things that constitute the natural science lab, that are the decisive elements for the social science lab. Although, the different components might have different importance and might take a different shape.
The ETHOS Lab is very much a physical space, located in 3A320. Instead of robust surfaces and air ventilation, it provides furniture on wheels that is able to adapt to the different needs that it is able to cater to. It’s very special light and the star ceiling makes it a warm and inviting physical space, that is standing out in the otherwise quite uniform ITU building.
While it does not have physical measurement instruments, the ETHOS Lab is full of tools, methods, and equipment. This includes not only helpful tools, books, and software for the research process but also approaches and mindsets that guide and help you through your projects. Those methods and tools are on the one hand contained in the extensive library of ETHOS but even more so in the heads of the lab’s community. They become visible through post-it notes, quotes on the whiteboard, pictures of inspirational figures, and alike. When they become enacted and practiced, they come to life from our thoughts, we can see and observe them, discuss them and elaborate them together with others.
ETHOS spends a lot of effort on community building and making sure that people feel safe and well within the lab. This includes not only the tea corner but also methods for meetings that live up to the fact that the researchers do not only consist of their brains but are human beings that are dependent on their bodies and a healthy mind and soul. That results in even stronger bonds between people and highlights the importance of interpersonal relationships. The people in the lab become an even more vital part of the lab, at the same time the researchers are able to understand one another’s’ research better, making it possible to commonly improve the work, that is done in and around ETHOS. It is this warmth and kindness that makes the ETHOS lab not only a social science research lab but also a social space in itself.
Feminist theory and methodologies as well as the feminist mindset of the responsible persons that ran the lab during the time, I had the opportunity to be a part of it add to this social-ness of the lab. Understanding projects as experiments that can fail, empowering people in their individual choices and their interpretations, and supporting each other while appreciating and acknowledging the support of others are the distinctive factor for ETHOS Lab.
I am grateful for the time, I could spend in the lab, that is, not only my desk in the physical space but also being a part of the lively community and establishing relationships with amazing people. Thank you, Ethos LAB!
Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (2013). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. Princeton University Press.