City as a laboratory

Laboratory studies (Latour & Woolgar 1979; Woolgar, 1982) is one of the main action areas in STS and as Doing (2008) indicates “(it) represents the foundation of STS.” “The accent (of this discipline) is on the in situ observation of scientific activity” (Woolgar, 1982). Knoor-Cetina (1995) points her glance on the relationship between the laboratory and “the local” as a kind of  provocation to the sociological aims of generalizing: “The laboratory is not just, I shall argue, a long-underexplored site of investigation newly ‘conquered by’ students of science and technology. It is also a theoretical notion in an emergent theory of the types of productive locales for which laboratories stand in science.” (p. 142) 

Nevertheless, and despite it is a trending topic right now, to talk about laboratories in Urban Studies is a problematic activity. The metaphor of the laboratory, borrowed from Natural Sciences, and tied to the concept of experimentation, has been used in different scenarios for talking about related things, but still separate concepts. At this point, we should make a differentiation between three of those notions: “urban experiments,” “city as a laboratory,” and “urban laboratory,” in order to talk appropriately about each one without any interference.

However, the possibility of isolating those elements is an advantage we have when we study them in a controlled and aseptic way, like if we were moving the laboratory procedures of control and measurement to our ethnographical work. Outside, in daily life, those notions are regularly interlaced and mixed in a common theoretical corpus where, in the end, the connection between signifier and signified uses to disappear. A way of explaining this situation is that the continual usage of concepts for interpreting our reality makes us lose the capacity of reflexivity we have over them.

So, an urban experiment is a semi-controlled procedure carried out in urban areas. Those particular spaces (that commonly acquire the connotation of either fieldwork of testbeds) are fundamental for developing a kind of measures that require being conducted in real life. The notion of experiment used in this piece of research is the one proposed by Campbell and Stanley (1963) quoted by Gross and Krohn (2005): (an experiment) is “that portion of research in which variables are manipulated and their effects upon other variables observed.”

Scientists, policy makers, citizens, planners, business people, and entrepreneurs do urban experiments. Scholars are also experimenting in/with urban places (see Hinchliffe, et al. 2005; Nyseth, 2010; Evans, et al. 2016; Dowling, et al. 2017), as well as describing and decomposing those urban experiments held by other actors (see Lieshout, 2001; Ewing, et al. 2013; McLean, 2015; Edson, 2017). To highlight the act of experimenting in urban places from an academic point of view, in our case based on Urban-STS, is a relevant task when we talk about the metaphor of “city as a laboratory.”

Let’s focus first on the last group and on its relationship with experimenting in urban places and with the concept of “city as a laboratory.” Regarding this topic, scholars can take (at least) one of two positions: (1) running as agents conducting experimental procedures in a mental place called “city” that also acts as a laboratory, or/and (2) working as ethnographers who describe how other people are doing experiments in urban areas. 

Taking care of the second position scholars can adopt: “working as ethnographers who describe how other people are doing experiments,” the laboratory acquires a double signification. The first one is in the shape of a discourse used by others for explaining the way how they work. The second one is as a kind of agent that is participating in the public discussion about how to live together. The laboratory is relevant in the way it is affecting a particular set of elements. Both meanings use to be often interlaced in daily life as well in our ethnographical descriptions.

Meanwhile, in the first situation, the “city as a laboratory” appears as a resource for approaching our study object from a positivist perspective, and at the same moment for rethinking our role as urban researchers. One thing is understanding the territory we call as a city as a kind of laboratory, and another one is applying that metaphor as a methodological strategy for working on urban areas. In the first position, there is not an effort for translating this notion, from an exogenous context to urban theory. That means we are using a piece of a particular knowledge system, that was created for fulfilling a specific activity, with the intention of performing a different one. Imagine eating soup using a fork; that is exactly what is happening here.

A laboratory is a place for simulations where any aspect of the experimental process is under control. However, in an urban scenario, controlling everything not only would not be desirable but also it could turn the procedure into a situation closer to social engineering. So, this is both a practical and an ethical concern regarding the implementation of academic activities that aim to manipulate element’s trajectories either for validating theories or for supporting third parties’ interests. 

To have a plan for conducting a piece of research (the traditional research project) is a practical necessity that serves as a guide for not letting us lose our way in any stage of our work. Although it does not guarantee anything, planning is a fundamental activity in any urban academic exploration. Nevertheless, planning and controlling are different activities. The first one obeys to a proactive and organized logic. The second one pursues dominating. What do we need to dominate when we conduct an urban ethnography? Is it our study object or is it the variables we chose? Is it, perhaps, the elements participating in our piece of research? 

Notwithstanding, the idea of the “city as a laboratory” is not only problematic because of the term “laboratory”. “City” is also an intricate construction gathering an x number of spatialized networks and associations that should work as independent study objects. To talk about cities is diluting specific and localized places were, for instance, different experimental processes are occurring. The social happens in the particular, and those kinds of places: parks, streets, sidewalks …waterfronts are the real truth-spots (Gieryn, 2006) where assemblages and stabilizations can be traced.  

The notion of “truth-spot” proposed by Thomas Gieryn (ibid) for talking about special places of credibility and knowledge authority is related to laboratories and field-sites. This author presented how scholars of Chicago School used the city of Chicago as both a social laboratory  (Small & Vincent, 1894; Burgess, 1925; Park, 1929) and a field-site. That methodological proposal for approaching the society was borrowed from Natural Sciences. An Introduction to the Study of Society (Small & Vincent, 1894), the first American textbook of Sociology (Gross & Krohn 2005), was comparable with a laboratory guide in biology (ibid).

The implementations of ecological evolutionist models (Park 1915) for understanding the city as a structured social organism were also borrowed from biology. Terms such as “web of life,” “symbiosis,” and “competition” reinforce the idea of a natural way of organizing “human communities” using a positivist approach. This idea is finally completed with the proposition of schemes for organizing the city-organism like Burgess’ Concentric Zones (Park, et al. 1925) and Hoyt’s Sectors proposal (1939).

According to Gieryn (2006), the double ontological status that Chicago obtained as a laboratory and as a field-site is a product of understanding social life happening in big agglomerations as a natural process. This duality is also interesting in the way it could help us to draw a differentiation between an ethnographical particular gaze and a totalitarian classical sociological perspective regarding how both understand the urban phenomena. 

The first approach sees life happening outside as a “pre-existing reality discovered by intrepid ethnographers who develop keen personal sensitivities to the uniquely revealing features of this particular place.” The second one conceives it as “a restricting and controlling environment, whose placelessness enables generalizations to ‘anywhere’, and which demands from analysts an unfeeling detachment.” (p. 7)

The metaphor of the “city as a laboratory” results problematic not only because of its necessity of permanent control, but it is also due to its generalizing ideas about the “structure” of the urban shape. Nowadays it is not possible to talk about a unique model for understanding the urban form due to, among other things, a disarticulation of the urban meaning and its relationship with the image of the city. Despite how attractive this metaphor could result in a first glaze, practically and ontologically its implementation could conduct us through dystopic practices of control and homogenization, all the opposite of an open, local, and particular STS-ethnographical program.