EPSA23: The Nature of Research Environments

Organizers: Rose Trappes and Sabina Leonelli


  • Matteo De Benedetto, Ruhr University Bochum, & Michele Luchetti, MPI for the History of Science: Epistemic Niches and Kuhnian Runaways: How values drive the divergence of scientific communities
  • Rose Trappes* and Sabina Leonelli: Using Ecological Niche Theories to Understand Research Environments
  • K. Brad Wray, University of Aarhus: Research Environments: Laboratories as physical, social, and conceptual spaces
  • Nancy Nersessian, Harvard University: Research Labs as Distributed Cognitive-Cultural Systems
  • Sabina Leonelli* and Rose Trappes: Research in the Multiplex: When Scientific Practice Inhabits Multiple Research Environments

* Presenter and first author

Session description and background

Scientific inquiry takes place under highly intertwined conceptual, material and social conditions, ranging from the background knowledge and goals of researchers to the physical tools and resources available to them (samples, instruments, reagents), the social norms and venues through which research by many individuals is organised and coordinated, and the institutional structures supporting – and often constraining – specific modes of collective agency and distributed cognition. This symposium places a spotlight on the very notion of research environment, the various ways in which such notion has been conceptualised, and the implications of such views on broader understandings of scientific change and knowledge development.

To this aim we bring together two strands of expertise. On the one hand, we draw on work investigating the dynamics of scientific change, specialisation, and interdisciplinarity. On the other, we bring in discussions of how the relation between organisms (including researchers themselves) and their environments has been conceptualised in disciplines such as biology, cognitive science and science studies. Combined, these two bodies of work help to develop a view of research environments that makes sense of how conceptual, material and social elements interact to shape scientific understanding and practice. In the process, we build on existing accounts of the conditions of scientific research inspired by evolutionary biology and ecology, extending them with greater attention to the division of labour, situated knowledges, and embodied and distributed cognition.

Background: Why care about research environments?

Despite calls from feminist epistemology to pay attention to epistemic location and the “ecology” of reasoning processes (Haraway 1988; Code 2006), philosophers of science have yet to systematically consider the notion of a research environment. As we shall now briefly illustrate, there are precedents of utilising related concepts for framing investigations of scientific research, yet few such frameworks do justice to the intertwinement of conceptual and socio-material conditions under which research is performed, including not only theoretical commitments but also institutional and administrative structures, instruments and training facilities.

Historians and philosophers of science frequently draw on biological concepts and theories to characterise the conditions of knowledge production, and many such concepts come from different traditions and bring with them different assumptions. In the long tradition of evolutionary epistemology, theorists have used a variety of evolutionary theories and models to understand the growth of knowledge, conceptual change, or epistemic norms (Bradie and Harms 2020). Some focus on selection as a model to understand the growth and evolution of knowledge (e.g., Popper 1972; Hull 1988). Others take the mutual evolution and adaptation of organisms and their niches as a model for scientific concepts and the worlds they reveal (e.g., Kuhn 1990; Rouse 2016). More recently, philosophers of science found taken inspiration in ecology, applying concepts of cognitive or epistemic niches to understand adaptive problem solving, conceptual change, or relations between disciplines (Griffiths and Stotz 2008; MacLeod and Nersessian 2013; Linquist 2019; Gross, Kranke, and Meunier 2019).

One commonality amongst many biologically inspired approaches to the conditions of scientific research is the tendency to focus on conceptual and theoretical aspects. With notions such as epistemic niche or concept selection, philosophers capture the scientific work of generating and modifying relations amongst theories and explanations, and in some cases insist on the deep links between material settings and conceptual development – including work on how physical models, instruments and techniques inform and sometimes guide scientific advancements and understanding. Still, the focus of such work is on the development of new insights in the shape of theories, models or explanations; less emphasis is placed on the social embeddedness of scientific practice, and the extent to which the organisation of collectives, and the structures through which such organisation is enforced, shape researchers’ capacity to intervene in the world, plan their work and develop scientific programmes.

Similar tendencies are seen beyond biologically inspired approaches to understanding science. Variation among research traditions and communities has been framed as depending on the disciplinary affiliations, methods and goals of researchers, rather than on the specificities of the material and social environment in which researchers operate, which often vary dramatically even within the same disciplinary domain. For instance, the literature on epistemic pluralism focuses primarily on differences in content, assumptions and theoretical perspectives among research fields (Kellert et al. 2006; Mitchell 2003; Massimi and McCoy 2019). Similarly, recent work on interdisciplinarity tends to highlight the theoretical rather than the pragmatic tensions between domains (Mäki 2013). Thus, the quality of a research project and its outcomes is judged in relation to its disciplinary alignment and stated aims, which raises questions around how to evaluate deviations from what the most visible exemplars of particular disciplines propose as essential methods and tools (Leonelli 2018).

When philosophers have considered social and material components of research environments, such as institutions and equipment, they have been inclined to frame them as having an indirect and often confounding effect on research outcomes, and thus as being “non-epistemic” (McMullin 1983). This is also seen in the expectation that good research practice leading to reliable results should mean the same no matter where and by whom it is performed. Yet there is clear evidence from feminist epistemology of science, as well as philosophical work grounded in historical and sociological studies, that this is not so, nor should this be required. For instance, Longino’s seminal study of the social conditions for empirical inquiry, Harding’s scrutiny of the role of colonial legacies and structural inequity in research landscapes, Rheinberger’s research on “experimental systems” (Rheinberger 1997) and Chang’s investigation of “systems of practice” (Chang 2012) have led to philosophical investigations of how research methods emerge in the diverse situations and how what counts as good science may be situational and context dependent. Additionally, Ankeny and Leonelli have proposed the concept of research “repertoires” as a way to capture the relation between institutional and technological structures of biological research and the development of different intellectual traditions (Ankeny and Leonelli 2016). Finally, there is a wealth of research that takes an extended approach to scientific cognition, highlighting the importance of social and material contexts for knowledge production (Nersessian 2022; Caporael, Griesemer, and Wimsatt 2013).

Building on this work, this symposium will expand the focus of philosophical inquiry from the methods and disciplinary structures of science to a wider set of material, social and conceptual elements that affect scientific reasoning and practice. In doing so, we create a dialogue with and amongst philosophical approaches that conceptualised research environments in terms drawn from biology. This discussion will serve as a starting point for developing a novel conceptualisation of research environments and their role in scientific epistemology. Through our discussions we also aim to highlight new aspects and directions for the study of research in context. For instance, it remains unclear how critical reflections on organism-environment relations might relate to, or even inform, philosophical and social scientific research on the material and social conditions of research and the relationship between what one may call ‘research environment’ and researchers’ agency, development, and outputs. Questions remain around the alignment of the diverse factors (such as conceptual frameworks, norms, institutions and access to material resources) that constitute the context and primary influence for research practices as situated, local endeavours, and whether there are indeed parallels between biological development, ecology or evolution and scientific research practices (Caporael, Griesemer, and Wimsatt 2013; Ankeny and Leonelli 2016; Rouse 2016).

Symposium structure and contents

The symposium brings together researchers spanning different career stages, geographic areas, and methodological approaches to create a dialogue on an important but under- theorised element of scientific practice. We have structured the symposium to move from models of scientific communities and scientific change inspired by evolutionary biology, via examinations of the philosophical use of ecological concepts like niche and environment, through to work drawing on biology, cognitive science and science studies to understand the material and social conditions of research. De Benedetto and Luchetti start us off with reflections on the role of epistemic niches in shaping the evolution of research trajectories. Trappes then considers how theorising about niches can help to conceptualise how researchers interact with their environments to develop scientific knowledge. Wray uses reports about new laboratories at the turn of the 20th century to support an analysis of physical spaces of research and their implications for knowledge production. Nersessian takes us back to the 21st century to discuss the intertwining of cultural and cognitive components in current bio-engineering research. Finally, Leonelli brings the symposium to a close with an argument about the multiplicity of research environments experienced by researchers, and the significance of this observation for philosophical views on scientific change.


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