Rendering research visible – laboratory ethnography in the GM research space


Stoma, guard cells, Corn, Poaceae. Image: Taken from Pinterest

Recently I have been reading Natasha Meyers’ book: Rendering Life Molecular: Models, Modelers and Excitable Matter. I was interested in her approach to doing laboratory ethnography and also in her interest in the role scientists play in making visible the invisible and through this in rendering and ‘making’ life visible matter. As she expresses it – it is through the concerted efforts of researchers that “the stuff of life has come to matter at the molecular scale”. 

In reading this book I have been reflecting on what roles researchers play in the creation of knowledge and making information about biotechnology accessible, tangible and available, and further how this knowledge becomes part of our collective imagination and understanding of the subject. And how this technoscience has such a powerful place in decision making. In Meyer’s work she endeavors to explore and illustrate a different side of scientific research. Rather than a world of rational decision making and precision she explores the way in which researchers engage in a sentient or visceral way with their subject matter and the way in which they necessarily join dots in their research using hunches, feelings or sensory forms of ‘knowing’.

Meyers compares her work as a social scientist to the work of modelers explaining that like scientific modeling, laboratory ethnography is also a “rendering practice” in that it aims at making visible and “amplifying” practices, ideas, “subjectivities, sentiments, and values” that are not always so visible to outsiders or insiders within the field of science. Meyers acknowledges that just as is true of scientific rendering, ethnographic rendering animates some aspects but not others, it is always a subjective process. Making this clear she is motivated by a curiosity about “what is possible to see, feel and know about scientific practice and the living world”.

I am also interested in how scientists working in the field of biotech research relate personally and professionally to the work they do and how this fits into a larger landscape of Research and Development in South Africa and in turn globally. I hope that in engaging in this research I am able to try and render narratives about social-ecological relationships at play within the R&D space – between researchers and seed and the agro-ecological systems that this seed will be used in (here my specific interest is in small-scale farming systems here in South Africa). At the same time, I am especially interested in asking questions about the changing nature of these agri/cultural systems with the introduction of hybrid seed varieties and the introduction of GM seeds. I also hope that in doing this I am able to build up a picture about the kinds of knowing and knowledge that are valued within the debates on the use of GM seed.

Some weeks ago I attended the Annual conference of South African Association of Botanists. This was an opportunity for me to experience some presentations made by botanists on their work. A number of scientists presented within a food security panel on their work around genetic modification. An overarching theme was how to modify agricultural plants to be more stress resistant to drought, salinity and pests. A number were working on maize research. It was a  chance as a social scientist to  immerse myself in the making of scientific discourse and sharing of knowledge. 



Some Thoughts and Lessons about Research InterViews


During the fieldwork periods of this project, we are intensively using the qualitative method of interviewing. Based on our experience, this post will reflect on some aspects of this insightful research method, the practical execution of which is always unique.

What are research interviews and why do we use them?

An interview is a conversation that has a structure and a purpose. While conversations represent a very old approach to obtaining systematic knowledge, interviews go beyond the spontaneous exchange of views in everyday conversations. They require some planning, a lot of practice (interview research is actually a craft) and careful approaches to both questioning and listening.

The reason for using interviews as a key research method in our project is because we are (among other things) interested in understanding meanings and cosmovisions embedded in different agri-food systems. Interviews are a great tool to allow us to unfold meanings from the point of view of the various social actors transiting and co-constructing the different moments or locations of the agri-food systems we are studying.

Some of the lessons we have learnt during this process:William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_The_Difficult_Lesson_(1884)

  • Persist until you receive an answer. The process in which the researcher finds a potential interviewee, explains the project and requests an interview is extremely important. Sometimes, however, you do not get an answer straightaway. In our project it has sometimes been necessary to follow up several times until we receive a positive or negative answer to our request. Sometimes while doing this task, I have felt (or perhaps projected) that I am being annoying, but it is really important to insist on receiving an answer because sometimes emails get lost, sometimes people are interested but they are busy just in the moment you contact them, sometimes they don’t realise it is a specific request to them, and sometimes they don’t feel capable or permitted to talk openly. Persisting until you can an answer is an important way to clarify why people are not responding (also offering an opportunity to address this if possible) and identify when and where you may need to find alternative contacts.
  • Accept refusal. In our project so far, we have had one outright refusal, and well as several hesitations we have had to negotiate around. As researchers we have to learn to recognise when flexibility from us can facilitate acceptance and when we just have to accept refusal from participants. We need to have a proposal that can satisfy our research needs but if they are not interested or able to participate in this way, we have to be able to accept this and respect how people wish to spend their time.
  • Live with sub-optimal conditions. Sometimes the circumstances in which the interviews have taken place have not been optimal. There can, for example be environmental factors that make the execution of the interview difficult (e.g once the place in which an interview took place was excessively noisy and that made the recording and transcription more difficult) or there might need to be some negotiation between interviewee and interviewer (e.g on another occasion, one of the participants did not want her voice to be recorded, so I had to take a notebook and write down her responses while she spoke instead).
  • Be prepared for practical difficulties. It is important to try to be as prepared as possible for the interviews (e.g. know where the meeting location is, how long it will take to get there, your contact’s phone number in case of changes etc) and accept that mistakes can also happen underway. During our fieldwork, we once realized just before running an interview that we did not have batteries for the recorder. We were very lucky in that case and the interviewee lent us a couple of batteries from an old clock, but it is worth checking twice that you have all the material you need with you, included back up batteries for your equipment!
  • Understand power issues. It is very important to be aware that interviews are not a conversation between equal partners. It is the researcher who largely defines and controls the situation, who imposes the questions, shifts the focus and drives the flow of the discussion. It is the interviewee however who has the ideas and information that the interviewer wants to uncover and extract. It is very important to be aware of this asymmetry in the relationship and seek to facilitate the interaction accordingly. Sometimes our interviewees have requested the questions we were going to ask beforehand. We have always provided them since we understand that many professionals want to be prepared for such recorded interview situations and interviews can also be frightening for some people.
  • Seek to understand the other. There are occasions after an interview where you feel that you genuinely understand the person you have just interviewed, even if you have differences of opinions and values. You become capable of seeing things through the other’s eyes, to understand where their views come from, how they are connected and why s/he does what s/he does. I really think that achieving this type of comprehension should be the aim of all interviews. However it is also important to not make the mistake of misunderstanding your own position as researcher (i.e sometimes it is difficult to separate yourself from the interviewee because there is a lot of common ground and understanding and you might have started developing sympathy and bonds).

Have you used interviews as a work tool?

What lessons have you learnt?