Everyday Scientific Imagination

A Qualitative Study of the Uses, Norms, and Pedagogy of Imagination in Science
  • Michael T. StuartEmail author


Imagination is necessary for scientific practice, yet there are no in vivo sociological studies on the ways that imagination is taught, thought of, or evaluated by scientists. This article begins to remedy this by presenting the results of a qualitative study performed on two systems biology laboratories. I found that the more advanced a participant was in their scientific career, the more they valued imagination. Further, positive attitudes toward imagination were primarily due to the perceived role of imagination in problem-solving. But not all problem-solving episodes involved clear appeals to imagination, only maximally specific problems did. This pattern is explained by the presence of an implicit norm governing imagination use in the two labs: only use imagination on maximally specific problems, and only when all other available methods have failed. This norm was confirmed by the participants, and I argue that it has epistemological reasons in its favour. I also found that its strength varies inversely with career stage, such that more advanced scientists do (and should) occasionally bring their imaginations to bear on more general problems. A story about scientific pedagogy explains the trend away from (and back to) imagination over the course of a scientific career. Finally, some positive recommendations are given for a more imagination-friendly scientific pedagogy.



I would like to thank the Lab Directors and researchers in my study for welcoming me into their labs and graciously sharing so much of their time with me. For funding, I thank the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. This study would not have been possible without the kindness and generosity of Nancy Nersessian, who shared her expertise with me, helped me establish a relationship with P1, and provided so much vital advice during the project (and still to this day). For comments on earlier drafts of the paper, I would like to thank the Narrative Science group at the London School of Economics as well as audiences at the University of Leeds Imagination in Science Workshop, St. Mary’s University, and the Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice meeting in Rowan, New Jersey.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of GenevaGenevaSwitzerland

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