Understanding science-in-the-making by letting scientific instruments speak: From semiotics to postphenomenology

Bas de Boer, Hedwig te Molder, Peter Paul Verbeek*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
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Latour encourages us to use science-in-the-making as an entry point to understanding science, because it allows us to see how scientific knowledge is constituted and through which processes the ‘absolute certainties’ of ready-made science appear. He approaches science-in-the-making from the perspective of semiotics because it enables him (1) to attribute equal importance to humans and nonhumans, and (2) to let the actors in scientific practices speak for themselves. We argue that Latour’s semiotic approach to science-in-the-making and his understanding of scientific instruments as inscription devices do not fulfill these desiderata. This, in turn, prevents him from understanding the crucial role that scientific instruments play in science-in-the-making. As an alternative to Latour’s semiotic approach, we present a postphenomenological approach to studying science-in-the-making. Using the notion of technological mediation, we argue that scientific instruments actively mediate how reality becomes present to – and is treated by – scientists. Focusing on how intentional relations between scientists and the world are mediated by scientific instruments makes it possible to turn them into genuine actors that speak for themselves, thereby recognizing their constitutive role in the development of the interpretational frameworks of scientists. We then show how a postphenomenological approach can be understood as an ethnomethodology of human-technology relations that meets both of Latour’s requirements when studying science-in-the-making.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)392-413
Number of pages22
JournalSocial studies of science
Issue number3
Early online date24 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2021


  • UT-Hybrid-D
  • Latour
  • postphenomenology
  • science-in-the-making
  • semiotics
  • technological mediation
  • ethnomethodology


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