Studying Astrophysicists-in-Action: The Use of Video in STS

Phillip Brooker, Christian Greiffenhagen

Research output: Chapter or section in a book/report/conference proceedingChapter in a published conference proceeding


This paper reports some initial findings and methodological reflections from an ongoing video-based ethnography of a research laboratory in astrophysics, which has involved attending lectures in (and learning) physics, astrophysics and mathematics, as well as
following the work of doctoral students in the laboratory. Rather than relying only on ethnographic observations of the research practices as the early ‘laboratory studies’ do, this project also aims to use video to help understand the day-to-day working practices of
astrophysicists. For doctoral researchers in astrophysics, performance and practice takes place primarily in front of computer screens, perhaps even to a greater extent than in other areas of physics
and science in general. The nature of the research phenomena being dealt with – objects and events that are simply too far away to be observed – makes writing models and simulations (cf., Lenhard et al., 2006 and Knuuttila et al., 2006) a crucial endeavour to
astrophysics. This is certainly true of doctoral research projects in gravitational lensing and microlensing (a phenomena relating to how light bends around massive objects), which aim to write new or adapt existing code with various computerised programming languages to better understand these events and also improve the accuracy and explanatory power of the model or simulation. This research project aims to look precisely at the everyday interactions these astrophysics doctoral researchers have with their computers throughout the course of their research, using video to record and analyse their work, including what goes on their computer screens (i.e. the ‘labs’ in which this work and experimentation goes on) as well as any relevant collaborations and interactions. This project is situated in the tradition of video analysis (Goodwin, 1981; Heath et al., 2010) of making the familiar visible, and of making visible the taken-for-granted practices of people. However, this project is faced with a particular problem: most previous video-based research has focused on collaborative situations (e.g. collaborative work or expert-novice situations) whereas in an astrophysics research setting a significant part of the research is, at least initially, ‘non-collaborative’. That is to say, researchers are
predominantly working on their own in front of the computer (which is not to say that what they are working on is not
thoroughly social). This paper thus explores the question of how we can use video to investigate non-collaborative work, and discusses some of the challenges and implications relating to research of this type.

Goodwin, C. (2001) Practices of seeing visual analysis. In T. van Leeuwen and Carey Jewitt (Eds.), Handbook of Visual Analysis, pp. 157-182. London: Sage.
Heath, C., J. Hindmarsh, and P. Luff (2010) Video in Qualitative Research. London: Sage.
Knuuttila, T., M. Merz, and E. Mattila (2006) Editorial: computer models and simulations in scientific practice. Science Studies
19 (1), 3-11.
Lenhard, J., G. Küppers, and T. Shinn (Eds.) (2006) Simulation: Pragmatic Construction of Reality. Dordrecht: Springer.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication2010 Conference of the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology
Subtitle of host publicationPracticing Science and Technology, Performing the Social
Publication statusPublished - 4 Sep 2010
Event2010 Conference of the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology: Practicing Science and Technology, Performing the Social - University of Trento, Trento, Italy
Duration: 2 Sep 20104 Sep 2010


Conference2010 Conference of the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology
Abbreviated titleEASST2010


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