Laboratory ethnography during a pandemic: On temporality, instability and co-production

A laboratory ethnography is a method of studying scientific workplaces to understand how scientific knowledge is constructed within a complex interweaving of social, material, and discursive relations. The method developed within laboratory studies (Knorr Cetina, 1995) emerged in Science and Technology Studies in the 1970s and 1980s. The observations and discourse analysis of scientific practices were conducted based on case studies of neuroendocrinology (Bruno Latour), molecular biology (Karin Knorr Cetina), and high energy physics laboratories (Sharon Traweek). The fieldwork of laboratory practice means that researchers are physically immersed in day-to-day activities to observe social interactions, the structural forms of work, and the movements of knowledge and skills. The immersion allows them to identify habits and patterns in routine practices. The co-location approach – being with research participants in the same place – has been identified as the main feature of laboratory ethnography. However, what if the co-location is not feasible? 

The Covid-19 pandemic has put the ethnography of laboratory to the test, calling researchers to reconsider ethnographic practices and reformulate new ways of studying social communities from afar. Restrictions on travel and the returning lockdowns have presented new and unexpected challenges for those who rely on fieldwork methods. The pandemic crisis has brought a new set of methodological questions that have foregrounded issues of mediation (Beaulieu, 2017) and digitality (Hine, 2015; Pink et al., 2016). How can we re-design ethnographic methodologies for the study of “co-presence” (Beaulieu, 2010) rather than in “co-location”? How can a digital laboratory ethnography be conducted based on virtual immersion in lab work? How can we continue doing the ethnography of laboratory work that moved to online spaces overnight? What are the ethics of studying communities put in these difficult pandemic conditions? How do the temporality and extremeness of the situation affect the research findings? 

I have been thinking about these questions over the past few months with regard to my ethnographic study of a digital humanities laboratory (hereafter DH lab). I moved to London in October 2020 to conduct the ethnography of King’s Digital Lab (KDL) at King’s College London. I had delved into traditional laboratory ethnography and was ready to be physically immersed in one of the most recognized DH labs in the world. My plan to do an old-fashioned ethnography of DH laboratory work, however, clashed with the reality where in-situ observations have been simply impossible due to remote working. In the first week, I lived with the illusion that this situation was temporary, and the lab would return to normal working conditions on the campus from the new year. Soon I realized that this would not happen. From October onwards, many restrictions and various levels of lockdowns were imposed in the UK and at the time of writing this article, the UK is in its third lockdown. I had to not only re-adjust my methodology to new ethnographic conditions but above all prepare myself mentally to accept that my research might have to be continually redesigned as the pandemic goes on. What I plan today might not be feasible tomorrow. It is a difficult thing to deal with, particularly for people like me who rely on a fixed-period grant and are under pressure to produce high-quality outcomes in a short time. My only option is to accept the situation and ensure the new reality I inhabit becomes part of my research. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has problematised the empirical and conceptual meanings of temporality and normality. The state of waiting for coming back to normal life has turned out that to be the new normal. A permanent temporality and new normality have become features of our new reality. Under these conditions, I began the ethnographic study and embedded myself in the virtual environment of King’s Digital Lab. Slack, Microsoft Teams, and ActiveCollab have become my fieldwork as I connect and interact with the lab team. As I move forward, I can see that the pandemic is a highly difficult time for ethnography. The challenges often concern the methodological side of research (“how to do it and what to look at”) that requires researchers to implement co-location based ethnographic methods (e.g., observation, interviews, and written documents) to understand the online space. The most significant difficulties, however, stem from epistemological and ethical questions. How do critical factors like stress, uncertainty and anxiety experienced during the pandemic influence the way we conduct research and perceive others? How can we ethically study a lab that is dealing with many challenges resulting from the extraordinary times? How do we build knowledge about a lab when it not easy to separate situations and behaviours from the pandemic influences? 

These are thought-provoking questions and, when addressed, will lead to reformulation of ethnographic practices and the development of new methodological and ethical approaches to the study of communities working in uncertain and unstable conditions. These difficult times are, therefore, intellectually challenging but prompt us to search for new creative methods and solutions.  Ethnographic studies during the pandemic can help us to see things that would not be visible in stable conditions. They can tell us a lot about the lab community, culture and resilience. 

The idea for this post comes from the workshop I attended “International fieldwork during a pandemic: co-production and ethics” organized by Faculties of Social Science & Public Policy and Arts & Humanities at King’s College London on 28 January 2021. The meeting brought together many students and scholars across departments who have struggled with conducting international and ethnographic fieldworks during the Covid-19. Eight researchers shared their experience and innovative alternatives they had developed to overcome the challenges. This inspiring workshop gave me ideas for improving my methodological approach and above all assured me that not knowing the answer is the very notion of a research question. 

Drawing on my experience and the workshop discussions, I have produced a set of principles for approaching a laboratory ethnography during a pandemic. These preliminary concepts reveal the strangeness of the contemporary moment that makes it difficult to apply standard ethnographic methods. The strangeness of these aspects, unsettling now, might become an intrinsic part of an emerging new type of “post-pandemic” ethnography we don’t know yet. 

Permanent temporality – This oxymoron captures the prolonged nature of the pandemic that has given rise to new forms of normality. Isolation and working from home requirements that were set up for a specific period have become a persistent reality. Temporariness has been transformed into a permanent condition that is characterized by the continuous state of incompleteness, instability, and distress. This demands resilience and a new sense of perspective to understand whether the temporary state will inform long-term thinking about a workplace strategy. It is important to bear this in mind during the ethnography of a lab. New temporary rules set up to address pandemic challenges might become a fixed lab policy. This demands that the ethnographer must exercise flexibility of analysis. 

Planned spontaneity – The remote working conditions have eliminated spontaneity of social interactions. Running into each other in the corridor has been replaced with intentionally initiated chats in digital platforms. Meeting others by chance in common spaces have turned into a scheduled “Zoom coffee time”. And the ethnographic way of overhearing researchers’ discussions has been limited to “accidentally” reading in digital channels or hearing during scheduled meetings. The principles that are at the heart of ethnographic work – daily observations, chats, overhearing – have been hindered or eliminated. The planned spontaneity that feels strange now, however, can become a new form of interaction with research participants who have control over to what extent they want to be part of the fieldwork. This shows how the power dynamics between an ethnographer and participants have shifted. The ethnographer explicitly relies on participants: on their time, engagement, and commitment.  

A mixture of work and home – Working from home has led to blurring the boundary between office hours and private life. Lockdowns with home-schooling requirements have become a great challenge for people to reconcile work and home life. This has made it difficult to stay productive and responsive amidst the chaos. Besides, the constant stress and anxiety accompanying a pandemic make it even harder to remain creative and efficient. This demands the ethnographer sharpens their sensibility and empathy. It might be challenging to filter lab discussions through the lens of the pandemic situation, but it is important to exercise this ability in order to not be judgmental about decisions that result from the crisis. Overlapping work and home life have also led to devising a new “hybrid model” that would combine these two spheres. As a result, flexibility and time-shifting have become standard. This, in turn, has an impact on the ethnographic work time that is not limited to office hours but extended to individual participants’ working time. The concept of “hybridity” can, therefore, become a feature of the ethnography that is based on the structured and fixed approach on one hand and the flexible and agile practices on the other.   

Instability of environment – The main challenge of conducting the ethnography during a pandemic crisis stems from unstable conditions. A four-tier system with increasing restrictions created in the UK means the continuous and unpredictable transitions from one tier to the other. In practice, this requires a swift adaptation of the workplace to new rules, sometimes even overnight. For ethnography, it means that fieldwork undergoes constant changes that make it difficult to build a smooth narrative snapshot about a place. During the King’s workshop on international fieldwork during a pandemic, the following question came up: “How do you draw conclusions about your findings, if the findings come from a context that is constantly changing and developing? For instance, a conclusion that might have been true in March/April 2020 might be very different in September 2020 and may be very different again in September 2021. How do you then come up with findings/a conclusion/narrative that hold up a year or even a few months later?” These are very relevant and difficult questions about how to undertake ethnography in times of uncertainty and instability. There is no answer to the question “how to do it right”. This is a methodological challenge but, when addressed, it can give rise to new approaches for dealing with a constantly changing environment.   

The question, therefore, is how to address the above four challenges to continue conducting ethnography during the pandemic. The strangeness of the contemporary moment pushes us towards devising creative approaches and one innovative alternative discussed at the workshop is the method of “co-production”. The concept, derived from a feminist ethnography and STS, refers to a collaborative and participatory approach to knowledge production. During times of distress and uncertainty, it is important to allow research participants to share their perspectives. Co-production is based on ethical, transparent, and collaborative processes that aim to be mutually beneficial. It is an approach driven by the belief that the ethnographic project is conducted with participants rather than simply on or about them. “The horizontal mode of practice”, described by Cathy McIlwaine and Moniza Rizzini Ansari, means that “the project partner institutions have autonomy to decide their own order of activities, timetable, and safety measures. They are the ones who can adequately calculate their steps and priorities during times of great risk based on local knowledge” (2020). At the workshop, Jennifer Bates presented feminist ethics in research that can help to address methodological and ethical dilemmas of ethnography during a pandemic: attending to and working against power asymmetries, building a relationship of trust with research participants, and research as dialogical practice. The co-production and horizontality can be reflected in attributing participant’s contribution to research outputs, particularly through co-authorship (Bates, 2020) and also in building a narrative based on the plurality of voices. 

Seeking creative methods has led me to think about approaching things that have become visible due to the crisis. Can a pandemic situation help to disclose knowledge about the community and workplace that otherwise would remain hidden and unnoticed? When King’s Digital Lab held a meeting in January 2021 to discuss the lab’s organisation in the face of the third lockdown in the UK, I realized that, ironically, these extreme times allow me to learn more about the lab than I ever could in the stable “non-pandemic” conditions. James Smithies, the director of KDL, discussed a set of principles that aim to help the lab get through these difficult times (e.g., flexibility hours and the importance of communication) with a strong emphasis on individual needs (e.g., well-being and families matter). It has become clear to me that the lab is a community where collective resilience, care, and trust are recognised as important values. 

Critical situations can say a lot about labs’ culture and community. This is the time for sharpening a sensibility for things that are exposed: care, trust, and collectivity. How do workplaces re-prioritize their work in light of challenges? What is the most important goal for a lab during the crisis? What does a lab do to reconcile individual concerns and management requirements to “keep the lab going”? How is a “lab culture” evinced in strategies adopted in the face of an emergency? These set of questions might become part of the methodological guidance for the ethnography of laboratories in unstable times. 

Neil Stephens and Jamie Lewis called for “the continued reinvigoration of laboratory ethnography” (2017, p. 213) as a significant method in STS. The pandemic crisis has opened up a new chapter of ethnography as a whole that has become reconsidered and reformulated. Laboratory ethnography might be, therefore, reinvigorated by investigating diverse laboratories across places and disciplines (e.g., DH labs) and through redesigning new methods to study them from afar. But first of all, these strange times can enrich the lab ethnography by foregrounding aspects that so far haven’t been visible, such as temporality, stability of the environment, community culture, and trust. And this is the time to test those ideas. 

References: 

Bates, J. 2020. Reimagining fieldwork during and beyond the pandemic, Feminist Perspectives Blog (Gender Studies Network, KLC), December 3, 2020. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/reimagining-fieldwork-during-and-beyond-the-pandemic.  

Beaulieu, A. 2010, From co-location to co-presence: Shifts in the use of ethnography for the study of knowledge, Social Studies of Science, 40(3): 453–470.  

Beaulieu, A. 2017, Vectors for Fieldwork: Computational Thinking and New Modes of Ethnography. In L. Hjorth, H. Horst, A. Galloway, G. Bell (eds). The Routledge Companion to Digital Ethnography, New York and London: Routledge, pp. 29-39. 

Hine, Ch. 2015, Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday, London: Bloomsbury. 

Knorr Cetina, K. 1995, Laboratory Studies: The Cultural Approach to the Study of Science. In S. Jasanoff, G. E. Markle, J. C. Peterson, T. Pinch (eds). Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, Thousand Oaks: Sage, pp. 140-166. 

McIlwaine, C., and Rizzini Ansari, M. 2020, Practical and ethical challenges of international fieldwork during a pandemic, Violence Against Women and Girls, December 9, 2020. https://transnationalviolenceagainstwomen.org/2020/12/09/practical-and-ethical-challenges-of-international-fieldwork-during-a-pandemic/

Pink, S. et al. 2016, Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice, London: SAGE Publications. 

Stephens, N., and Lewis, J. 2017, Doing laboratory ethnography: Reflections on method in scientific workplaces, Qualitative Research, 17(2): 202-216. 


Cite as: Urszula Pawlicka-Deger, “Laboratory ethnography during a pandemic: On temporality, instability and co-production”, DH Infra, February 8, 2021, dhinfra.org/163


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