How did I learn to research?

I began this entry a while back, when I read a section in Latour & Woolgar (1979) that resonated with me in reflecting on how I learned to research:

Almost without exception, every discussion and brief exchange observed in the laboratory centred around one or more items in the published literature (Latour, 1976). In other words, informal exchanges invariably focussed on the substance of formal communication. Later we shall suggest that much informal communication in fact establishes its legitimacy by referring to or point to the published literature (pp. 52-53).

This passage suggests that while communication of research may occur predominantly through informal means among a network of contacts, the content of the informal communication focus on formal communication, epitomized by the published journal article. The authors are talking about the culture of scientists constructing knowledge in a neuroendocrinology lab, but the idea of reading the literature and talking about research in relation to the sources may be useful in thinking about graduate students and faculty interacting in a lab or research group, too. I know I’ve had the most meaningful informal discussions with Clare and Wendy when we talk about articles or books we’ve , for instance Hatton & Smith (1995) on reflection, and other authors that they cite and base their frameworks on, such as Habermas, Schon, and van Manen.

Latour & Woolgar’s theorizing about the way scientists communicated in the lab made sense to me since my undergraduate psychology degree is in biopsychology. I could understand, at least superficially, the content of they were talking about. It reminded me about key experiences in learning to research in that degree–the labs. Lectures for our cohort of 50 students didn’t really encourage interaction. So starting in second year, each week we had 2-3 hour psychology lab sessions run by TAs in smaller sections. The labs were structured so that we replicated findings of previous studies on a much simpler scale, with a limited number of lab rats or ourselves as subjects. This entailed my lab partner and I collecting results from our “mini” study in the lab, searching through online Medline indices for literature; reading the seminal studies; talking about how our results compared with the original journal articles in order to legitimize what we found; and writing up our papers in APA format. So, my partner and I talked about the literature in more informal communications in the lab, in the library, and as we edited each other’s papers in our dorm, which I think was really helpful to my understanding of the research process when I think about it.

Latour, B. & Woolgar, S. (1989/1979). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.


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