Proper names and the social construction of biography: The negative case of laboratory animals
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- Phillips, M.T. Qual Sociol (1994) 17: 119. doi:10.1007/BF02393497
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This paper analyzes patterns of naming in the practices of research scientists who work with laboratory animals. The study is based on field work done in 23 biomedical and behavioral research laboratories over a period of nearly three years, as part of a broader investigation into the meaning of laboratory animals for contemporary scientists. Naming is viewed as a social practice that creates meaning of a particular kind, that of narrative coherence, which forms the essence of biography. Since laboratory animals are rarely given proper names, they provide a negative case that illuminates the significance of naming by showing what is entailed by its absence. I argue that the organization of scientific research creates conditions that foster the social construction of a distinct category of animal, the “laboratory animal,” that contrasts with nameable animals (e.g., pets) across every salient dimension. By virtue of this social construct, which is created and supported by naming practices as well as by other aspects of laboratory talk, the cat or dog in the laboratory is perceived by researchers as ontologically different from the pet dog or cat at home.