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Lab History: Reflections

Robert E. Kohler
Isis
Vol. 99, No. 4 (December 2008), pp. 761-768
DOI: 10.1086/595769
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/595769
Page Count: 8
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Lab History: Reflections
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Abstract

ABSTRACT After a productive start in the 1980s, laboratory history is now surprisingly neglected—not lab science, but the lab as social institution. To restart interest, I suggest that we see labs as period specific (early modern, modern, postmodern) and of a piece with each era's dominant social institutions and practices. In the modern era, for example, labs have become powerful and ubiquitous because their operating principles are those of the nation-state and its consumerist political economy. Their educational function is crucial: labs have authority because they are an effective vehicle for educating en masse for life in modern states; they provide general entry to careers in scores of disciplines and a thousand occupations; and they embody prevailing ideals of a meritocracy of competence, transparency (through publication), and a universalistic logic of objectivity. An older microhistory of laboratory practices may thus be reborn as a systematic, macrosocial history of the lab.

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