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A Qualitative Case Study

To study the collaborative scientific practice of research groups, I have adopted qualitative social-scientific methods for my empirical study, building upon the experiences with such methods that other philoso- ph ers of science have made in recent years (Calvert & Fujimura, 2011; Kastenhofer, 2013; Leonelli, 2007, 2010; Nersessian, 2006; Nersessian, Kurz-Milcke, Newstetter, & Davies, 2003; Osbeck & Nersessian, 2010; Osbeck, Nersessian, Malone, & Newstetter, 2011; Riesch, 2010; Toon, 2012).[1] Qualitative methods approach the empirical not as something that is to be measured and expressed in quantifiable variables. Instead, qualitative methods are geared towards a hermeneutic understanding of the empirical object of study, approaching this object in real world contexts of practice. In so doing, qualitative methods are committed to creating detailed, highly context-sensitive empirical data and value depth, rather than empirical range. To this end, qualitative methods crucially involve the researcher’s hermeneutic effort, relying upon him or her as a highly sensitive “instrument" of data generation (Osbeck & Nersessian,


I used qualitative methods to study research group collaboration as experienced by scientists in scientific practice, that is, through their situated, practice-bound sense-making efforts, seeking to understand their reasoning and reconstruct the epistemic rationale of collaborative scientific practice. In order to gain access to scientific practice and scientists’ experiences with it, I employed qualitative methods such as observation and interviewing, methods that create an immediate encounter with practicing scientists and which enabled me to gain rich, multi-faceted insights.

As qualitative methods of inquiry prioritize context-sensitivity and hermeneutic depth over range, I have confined my study to two cases. I investigated two academic research groups at Danish universities, the planetary science group and the molecular biology laboratory (see Table 3.1). When I call these two research groups my “cases," I understand a case as a local context for data generation (cf. Flyvbjerg, 2007; Gerring, 2007; Platt, 2007; Stake, 2000). For philosophy of science, Burian specifies case studies as being “[...] concerned with scientific work carried out during a limited time period and [which] are usually restricted to a specified set of scientists, institutions, laboratories, disciplines, or traditions" (Burian, 2001, p. 384). In this sense, case studies enable the investigator to confine meaningfully data collection to a fragment of what is empirically observable. Qualitative data that involve actors’ experiences, however, are not confined to the local and temporal context of a case study. When interviewed about issues such as inter-individual dependence and the role of trust in scientific practice, interviewees refer to experiences that have been accumulated through their professional careers and beyond.

Although much of philosophy of science seems to have a preference for “characteristic," paradigmatic cases (as, e.g., in Wimsatt, 2007, p. 28), my case selection has not been guided by such preference. I do not claim that the two groups that I study are particularly characteristic, nor do I claim that they are particularly important. I chose these groups for two reasons. First of all, both groups were welcoming and enthusiastic about my research project. (This was not the case for all research groups that I contacted.) Second, the two groups complemented one another in some of their characteristics—one being small, the other being relatively large; one comprising a high ratio of senior researchers, the other comprising a high ratio of junior researchers; one being interdisciplinary, the other mono-disciplinary (see Table 3.1). This choice enabled me to adopt a comparative perspective and to transcend analytically the configuration of the conditions of one case and provide impetus for philosophical reflection that differentiates between the conditions of, for example, mono- and interdisciplinary research (see also Sect. 2.3).

Selecting a case and going out into the field is more easily said than done. You have to identify and email “gatekeepers." In these first emails, you will try to convey your professional integrity, your trustworthiness and your sincere intentions. When you then come to meet your contacts, feelings of curiosity and uneasiness will accompany you. What will they make of you, a “philosopher"? Will they allow you to observe them? I was surprised and relieved to find that I was granted access rather quickly. Research groups opened their doors at my request, and they were welcoming, polite but also slightly puzzled about my undertaking. They did, however, believe that the functioning of their research group was indeed worth empirical investigation.

I established contact with the first of the two groups, the planetary science group, in early summer 2010. Shortly thereafter, in early autumn, I established contact with the second group, the molecular biology laboratory. In both cases, first contact was made by email, after which I went to have a conversation with the group’s spokesperson or leader, who enthusiastically introduced me to the group’s research. I, in turn, explained to them that my research interest was to investigate “how scientists collaborate in groups." After these introductory conversations, I began to observe the groups’ weekly meetings. In a first phase of fieldwork I prioritized the planetary science group (groupl), and in a second phase I prioritized the molecular biology laboratory (group2). I will describe both research groups in detail in Chaps. 4, 5 and 6.

My field observations can be divided into two different phases. In the beginning, I observed weekly meetings. Later I focused my attention more particularly on single group members. The participation in weekly meetings allowed me to familiarize myself slowly with the group. In these meetings both administrative and research issues were discussed. In both groups, I observed approximately 15 meetings. Leaving interruptions of my fieldwork aside, my observations of each group stretched, roughly, over the course of a year. Although my philosophical interest in the socio- epistemic dynamics of collaborative scientific practice was set right from the start, I began my fieldwork with a broad curiosity for everything that concerned the groups’ functioning and was brought up by group members, including, for example, administrative issues and aspects of science policy. During my fieldwork, I also learned about the content of their research. I read articles that group members had co-authored and handbooks about the basics of their area of interest.

When I had familiarized myself with the group sufficiently, I started “shadowing" single group members individually. Shadowing is an ethnographic technique for following single persons through their daily life (Czarniawska, 2007). For one or more working days, I spent my time with individual group members in their office, left with them to go to the lab, went with them to short administrative meetings, chatted in the elevator and had lunch with them. I took as many notes as possible. This was often exhausting, but together with my observations of their meetings shadowing proved a good preparation for the subsequent interviews. With three exceptions, I shadowed all interviewees before I interviewed them (see Table 3.1).

During the groups’ weekly meetings I behaved passively and took notes silently. I was, as the leader of the molecular biology laboratory liked

Table 3.1 The two groups studied

Planetary science group (groupl)

Molecular biology laboratory (group2)



Informal, stretching across organizational units

Formal, coextensive with sub-departmental unit

Egalitarian with a "spokesperson" dedicated to research coordination

Hierarchical with clear leadership, including about six subgroups

Six core members, among them five senior scientists and a post-doctoral researcher, more peripheral members

About 35 group members in total

High ratio of senior scientists

High ratio of non-tenured junior scientists

Observed circa 15 weekly group meetings over the course of a year

Observed circa 15 meetings over the course of a year, with interruptions, and observed three subgroup meetings

Shadowed six group members for one day respectively

Shadowed one group member for two and a half days, another one for two days

Interviewed six group members

Interviewed four group members

to describe me, a “fly on the wall." Yet when I began to shadow single group members my role changed. While observing their lab work or joining lunch breaks with the scientists studied, I had many extended, informal conversations about their research groups and their collaborative networks, about the place that their research groups claim for themselves within the university organization, and national and international peer communities. When scientists revealed their curiosity about philosophy of science, I explained what they seemed to be interested in. I avoided philosophical jargon in the same way that they avoided biochemical or geological terms when explaining their work to me. I did not pretend to share their educational background and their research interests. Despite my physical presence in the scientists’ labs, meeting rooms and canteens, and given that I had received no academic training in natural science, I remained an outside visitor. The professional slack between us helped to establish myself as a trustworthy outsider, opening a space for conversations about scientific practice that took a few steps back, “abstracting" from the “concrete" everyday of research practice and speaking about the socio-epistemic challenges of collaborative research.

Philosophers of science have found different ways in which to relate to the scientists whose work and whose manner of working they are interested in studying. At one end of the spectrum, there are philosophers whose research interests substantially overlap with those of the scientists observed and interviewed. Borrowing a term which Hasok Chang has coined, one could call these philosophical studies “complementary science" (Chang, 2004, p. 238ff.). Reflecting upon her participant observation, Sabina Leonelli describes herself as being “[...] closely allied with the scientific goals pursued by the scientists I was studying" (Leonelli, 2007, p. 88). In fact, she calls herself a collaborator rather than observer (Leonelli, 2007, p. 89). Moving closer to the other end of the spectrum, there are philosophers whose research interests are dissimilar to the scientific interests of the researchers studied, for example, Nancy Nersessian’s work on scientific cognition. The research questions guiding her are largely disconnected from the questions pursued by the researchers studied. This does not imply that her work would be of no concern to practicing scientists. Nersessian has reasons to believe that her cognitive studies can contribute to academic training (Nersessian, 1995, p. 211).

A dissimilarity of interests between philosopher-investigator and scientists studied is characteristic of studies aimed at an understanding of collaborative practice. Maj-Britt Poulsen’s study (2001) of how scholars in biomedicine balance competition and collaboration is of no particular biomedical interest. Similarly, the philosophical interests that I pursue in this book have little to do with the research in the two groups that I studied. I am interested in how natural scientists come to collaborate, a question that may fascinate scientists and relate directly to their work but is not the focus of their research.

  • [1] For general references on qualitative research methods as developed in the social sciences see Straussand Corbin (1990) and Denzin and Lincoln (1994).
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