Rhetorical Analysis


The class, as a collaborative, will perform a rhetorical analysis of Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1979, 1986).

From the opening of the Wikipedia entry on Laboratory Life:

    "This influential book in the field of science studies presents an anthropological study of Roger Guillemin's scientific laboratory at the Salk Institute. It advances a number of observations regarding how scientific work is conducted, including descriptions of the complex relationship between the routine lab practices performed by scientists, the publication of papers, scientific prestige, research finances and other elements of laboratory life.

    The book is considered to be one of the most influential works in the laboratory studies tradition within Science and Technology Studies. It is inspired but not entirely dependent on the ethnomethodological approach. In turn, it served as the inspiration for Actor-Network Theory (or ANT); many of ANT's core concepts (like transcription, inscription, translation, and the deployment of networks) are present in Laboratory Life."

Suggesting due caution, and inviting challenge, for my rhetorical excesses, I claim Laboratory Life's influence goes far beyond being " ... one of the most influential works in the laboratory studies tradition within Science and Technology Studies." Rather, Laboratory Life, beguiled readers (perhaps rhetorically) into embracing and purveying a methodological fetish — a fetish characterized by ever-shifting fascinations with self-proclaimed "interesting" (significant, viral) trends and turns, local artefacts and idiosyncratic experiences. Further, with Laboratory Life in hand, any object of personal fascination could seemingly be studied empirically with off-the-shelf social science methods, like thick description and ethnography. I suggest, then, that Laboratory Life helped lower the bar as to what passes for good empirical (or, simply, good) research by allowing almost any idiosyncratic social experience or occasion to become an object of empirical (perhaps 'scientized' is a better word) study. Such studies currently pervade the humanities. And, I suggest, such studies elide difficult epistemological and normative concerns by Sophism in the form of science. But, of course, I could be wrong. Such is a consideration for your rhetorical analysis.

Assignment Goals

The goals of this collaborative assignment are to:

    • Analyze the rhetoric of Laboratory Life;
    • Explore the factors shaping the development, reception, diffusion and citation of Laboratory Life;
    • Investigate the disciplinary and rhetorical influences of Laboratory Life on the conduct of contemporary academic work.


    "The reasons to do a rhetorical analysis of [a scientific] ... text are various: to understand it, to admire it, to debunk it, to set it beside other works of persuasion in science, to see that science is not a new dogma but is thoroughly and respectably part of the culture. The tools are ancient. They need be mastered only at the level of an elementary book such as Corbett [Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student ] to begin to be useful .... Rhetorical sophistication is an alternative to reading scientific texts the way the implied reader does, a reader who believes, for example, in talking bears. If we are to get beyond nursery school as scientific readers we need such a rhetoric ..." — Donald N. McCloskey, "How To Do a Rhetorical Analysis, and Why," 1994.

As a collaborative, we will analyze the rhetoric in, and about, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's Laboratory Life. Each of you will contribute content to our rhetorical analysis. While the general model for the organization, form and style of the analysis is a Wikipedia entry, we might well experiment with the genre to suit the kind of rhetorical analysis we develop.

To begin, we will read and discuss Donald McCloskey's "How To Do a Rhetorical Analysis, and Why." And throughout the semester, our class readings will provide examples of how to conduct rhetorical analyses. We will focus not only on the rhetorical strategies used by by Latour and Woolgar in Laboratory Life, but also on the rhetoric generated by the book's reception by reviewers, readers and academics in various disciplines — English Studies in particular.

We will read Laboratory Life through the mid-term. As we read and discuss the book, please begin thinking about what you might want to analyze in, and about, the text and how you want to participate in our collaborative effort. Let me offer thought questions to help spark your interest:

    • How, and where, is Laboratory Life rhetorical?
    • How does Latour and Woolgar's introduction, and unique use, of theoretical concepts and key words shape the rhetoric of the text?
    • Images and diagrams play a prominent role in the text. How does visual rhetoric act in, and beyond, the text?
    • What is the rhetorical role of the postscript in the book's second edition?
    • Taking Laboratory Life as a rhetorical artifact, how might rhetorical criticism (an orientation of your choosing) provide an analysis and explanation of the book's influence?
    • What are Laboratory Life's intellectual and institutional origins? Who and what are the work's predecessors? How might the book's intellectual and institutional lineage explain its rhetoric?
    • Are Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar master rhetors? What rhetorical choices do Latour and Woolgar make? What do the two editions (1979, 1986) of the book suggest about Latour and Woolgar's ideas regarding audience and application?
    • How have Latour and Woolgar been received over time? Who reviews Laboratory Life and for what publications? What do you see in the rhetoric of these reviews? What are Latour and Woolgar's places in the reception of his own ideas? Who, or what, is responsible for the book's wide reception?
    • What is happening in contemporary history as Latour and Woolgar write, and revise, the book and as the book is disseminated? Do contemporary events shape Latour and Woolgar's rhetoric? How? What are Latour and Woolgar's own views of history? Of rhetoric? How might these views manifest themselves in the rhetoric of Laboratory Life?
    • When does Laboratory Life appear in English Studies? In STS? Who promotes Laboratory Life? Why? What rhetoric do they employ?
    • What is Laboratory Life's rhetorical effect on English Studies? On pedagogy? On other fields in which you might be interested?
    • What is Laboratory Life's rhetorical effect on (an aspect of) popular culture?

The questions and methodological avenues you can take to explore Laboratory Life's rhetoric are endless. Initially, then, I want you to consider, as we read the book in class, what aspects of Laboratory Life's rhetoric you will analyze.

    Analysis: Protocols

    Your contribution to the rhetorical analysis will occur in four stages on March 2, March 30, April 27 and May 9. At each stage you will be asked to post to the wiki. Please consider that the wiki is an interactive medium. Provide links to sources and feel free to embed any appropriate media.

    Stage 1:
    By March 2, please post to the appropriate forum on the wiki a 250 to 500 word description of what you want to investigate, and analyze, that addresses the rhetoric, context and/or reception of Laboratory Life.

    Immediately after Stage 1, please take the time to read your classmates' descriptions. I assume a pattern will emerge of issues, themes and approaches. As a collaborative, in the time between stage 1 and stage 2, map out a plan for conducting and writing the rhetorical analysis (I will provide class time to encourage the process). Assuming overlap in areas of interest, or in related tasks, please feel free to work in small (3 to 5 members) subgroups. Also at this time, please begin negotiations as to the roles you will take in the project. All of you will contribute, but you may do so in different ways — none of which are mutually exclusive. For example, you may want to assume an editorial role to bring together disparate voices. You may want to perform specialized research. You may want to provide multiple media to augment the analysis. Again, while no particular role necessarily excludes other roles (although, by designation, they may), try to locate and take advantage of the abilities found throughout the class.

    Stage 2:
    By March 30, please post to the wiki what you have developed based on the March 2 description and your subsequent collaborative negotiation. The posting can take the form of notes, an outline, a working draft, an annotated bibliography, whatever your individual and collaborative writing processes lends in performing and composing the research.

    Stage 3
    By April 27, please post a full, working draft of the rhetorical analysis on the wiki.

    Stage 4:
    By May 9, the final edited version of the rhetorical analysis is due on the wiki.

    Length: Negotiable. But assuming each of you contributes 500 to 1000 words to the analysis (and, again, you may not approach the assignment this way), the length would be 6000 to 12000 words.
    Citation Style: Yours to determine. However, where possible, I encourage links to sources and resources.

Rhetoric of Science and Technology