University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Twentieth Century Think Tank > The case of social interaction in bioscience laboratories: a multi-site ethnographic study of design intent and user experience

The case of social interaction in bioscience laboratories: a multi-site ethnographic study of design intent and user experience

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The work done in science laboratories leads to significant scientific discoveries. This work is often translated into applied forms, impacting technology, medicine, society and the economy. Because of this, there is increasing pressure to make breakthroughs frequently, and scientific work is increasingly performed in multi-disciplinary teams. These pressures, alongside recent insights into cultures of work and of science (for example in sociology and human geography), have led to a focus on the design of laboratory architecture. As many labs built post-Second World War are renovated or replaced, and new labs are planned, the scientific committees managing existing buildings and commissioning new ones often seek to increase social interaction amongst laboratory groups and scientists: the Modern agenda for social engineering through design is resurging.

The overarching research question of this project is: are contemporary science buildings having the social effects intended by their designers?

Through multi-month placements in several US and UK laboratories, this research project employs in-depth ethnographic methods to study scientists at work, following in a long tradition of ethnographic work in laboratory contexts. These placements are complemented by the study of the design intent and process, involving document analysis and interviews. Multi-modal ethnography is undertaken in each lab, documenting the daily social practices of working scientists in order to understand their spatial culture. Spatial culture is here understood as the practical web of ways in which people use a place, and the tacit or explicit learned rules or paradigms which shape those uses within a given group, as they co-evolve (following anthropologist Clifford Geertz).

I will present a brief overview of the project and discuss selected themes from the analysis (currently ongoing), and discuss the implications of empirical research in this sphere.

This talk is part of the Twentieth Century Think Tank series.

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