Invisible Technicians in Paleontology Labs

A review of Invisible Technicians: A Sociology of Work, Workers, and Specimens in Paleontology Laboratories, by Caitlin Donahue Wylie.

What does it take to turn fossils into data? In the case of paleontology a lot of work! In her dissertation, Caitlin Wylie engages the work and workers involved in this transformation. In doing so she highlights an important question – what if the process that delivers fossils as facts is itself unsystematic? What would that mean for the systematic science of paleontology? Wylie makes a strong case that there is an unsystematic aspect to fossil preparation, and gives good reasons why this is so, thus challenging future scholars to weigh the implications for paleontological knowledge.

The dissertation is based on a multi-site ethnography of two paleontology museums and utilizes interviews, surveys, historical research, and participant observation. Wylie had significant access to the museums and shows a thorough understanding of the technical aspects of fossil preparation born from her own work in paleontology. In her analysis, she draws primarily on literature from science studies and organizational studies, combining them in a fruitful way that provides a needed challenge to both fields.

To make her case, Wylie focuses on the group named after the action verb in “preparing fossils:” fossil preparators. Wylie explores the social aspects of both fossil preparation and assertions of preparatory expertise. She makes the argument that preparators push an experiential model of expertise and decision-making that cannot be codified, or fully explained, thus positioning themselves as the crucial experts in the chain from fossil to data. Wylie examines the preparators’ tools and methods as well as their interactions with other types of “fossil workers:” researchers, conservators, collections managers, institutional managers, and volunteers. As all of these groups interact, asserting identities and expertises amid a vertical hierarchy of power relations, the unsystematic expertise of the preparators emerges as an accommodation that serves the interests of all of the different groups involved.

In Chapter 1 Wylie introduces the preparators and their techniques. After describing the kinds of work that is involved in turning chunks of rock with bones embedded in them into observation-ready data, Wylie points to a conundrum in the history of preparatory technologies. She notes that after an initial period of rapid development, for the last 100 years or so the instruments and implements used for fossil preparation have remained essentially unchanged. Wylie connects this stasis with the rise of preparators as an expert group. She points out in cultivating their expertise, preparators came to emphasize the role of individual preparators in decision-making about tool use, and that this had the effect of deemphasizing the technological development of the instruments. In this Chapter, Wylie also points to a controversy in fossil preparation about whether, and what types of, adhesives should be used in preparation. Again, Wylie notes that for preparators, the consensus is that they themselves have the ability and expertise needed to choose what adhesive to use when, as opposed to consensus forming around a systematic proscription of the “correct” type of glue for each situation. Preparators work for, guard, and value the right to make decisions in regard to the technical aspects of fossil preparation. Wylie elaborates on the unsystematic nature of preparators’ expertise in the next chapter of the dissertation.

In Chapter 2, Wylie explicates the ways that preparators themselves are “prepared” for their work. Noting that there are no formal training programs for preparators, Wylie draws on Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s concept of “situated learning,” which holds that social interaction in a community is inseparable from learning itself. Thus, the sociality of integrating into a community forms the fundamental basis for preparators’ expertise. Wylie notes here that preparators come from diverse backgrounds. Some come from scientific training, some from art training, some are retirees, some are young people, some are men, some are women (63% men to 37% women), some are fossil enthusiasts, some are not. All are trained informally, mostly passing through the ranks from volunteer to staff preparator. Different preparators have different ways for assessing the skills of new aspiring preparators. In discussing these processes, Wylie brings out the tension between attempts to “systematize” the training through standard test fossils, formal meetings, and formal training courses, and the unsystematic “situated learning” that see sees in her study. The preparators do not want to give up the informal, community based, mode of expertise that leaves them as the crucial decision-makers in fossil preparation, while at the same time they push some initiatives to promote themselves as scientific (systematic) in their work. In the case of challenges to their status as experts in fossil preparation, as Wylie shows in the next chapters, the experiential, community-based model is pushed forward as the primary mode of expertise.

In Chapters 3 and 4 Wylie explores preparator’s interactions with the other “ranks” of fossil workers. These include paleontology researchers, conservators, fossil collection managers, and museum administrators. Starting with researcher-preparator interactions, Wylie draws on literature on the scientist-technician division, particularly the useful work of Beth Bechky and Steve Barley, to dispel the myth of the technician as instrumental automaton in the laboratory. Rather, they are to be seen as constituent of the overall scientific process, contributing to the end product: scientific knowledge. Here Wylie notes that decision-making in fossil preparation can have a direct influence on the fossil-as-fact, since preparators can be seen as constructing the fossils in important ways as they remove material, align bones, and even glue pieces and segments together in their preparation work. She notes that researchers have accepted the preparators as experts in preparation and that the division is seen by them as “occupational,” based on parallel realms of expertise. This can cause tension with the “institutional” division between the groups that is explicitly hierarchical. As Wylie brings out in rich detail, much social work in the lab goes into managing this tension. Left open is the possibility that the unsystematic nature of the preparators’ expertise is implicated in fossils-as-facts that are produced in the labs.

In discussing preparators’ relations with conservators, collections managers and museum administrators, Wylie shows how preparators manage the tensions between the different interests and goals of the various fossil worker groups. With conservators, Wylie notes how preparators must manage the paleontology researchers’ interest in preparing a specimen such that it displays what is to them the interesting aspects of the fossil according to present understandings of paleontology. This might call for a certain kind of material removal or a certain approach to attaching pieces together. The conservator, on the other hand, is concerned with preserving the fossil for future generations, even future generations of scientists that may have different views on what constitutes “interesting,” and so follow an ethos of being non-invasive and “doing no harm” to the bits and bones of specimens from the field. The unsystematic expertise of the preparators manages this tension. Collections managers control access to fossil collections and write grants to raise money for the collections. Tensions can arise here when collections managers see certain field specimens as important to prepare to garner publicity or funding for the collection while researchers might have interest in other kinds of fossils. Again, the decision-making autonomy of the preparators is useful in managing these sometimes opposing forces. Preparators have the least interaction with museum administrators, who are at the top of the institutional hierarchy of fossil workers. Administrators use preparators for public outreach, displaying them doing their work as “science in action” to the public as well as private visitors and funders. Administrators also determine the mix of fossil workers in a museum and associated labs, and preparators can be seen as accommodating decisions in this regard as well, as when collections managers are hired who are more like conservators and thus need occupational “managing.”

Wylie finishes by looking at references to creativity in the course of fossil preparation. A fundamentally unsystematic component of preparators’ expertise, Wylie notes that references to creativity cut both ways. On the one hand it serves to bolster the preparator as a necessary and ineffable expert, on the other hand it threatens to undermine the scientific basis for preparators’ work. Accordingly, preparators assert that a certain amount of creativity is a beneficial part of preparation – the ability to visualize the fossil inside of rock, for example – but that a preparator should definitely not get too creative in their preparation and risk leaving the realm of scientific preparation. Again, decisions about the right kind and amount of creativity to bring to bear on a specimen lie with preparators themselves.

Overall, Caitlin Wylie paints a picture of the key role of the unsystematic, autonomous expertise of preparators in fossil preparation. She notes how this expertise is cordoned off through performances of skill, experience, identity, and creativity, and she shows how the preparator as unsystematic expert is a negotiation among fossil workers that helps to manage disparate interests and goals of the different groups involved. It is a solution to a social equation. In describing the work that goes into fossil preparation, she compellingly shows that unsystematic sociality is at the heart preparing fossils-as-facts. Wylie leaves open the challenge for future researchers to explore specifically how this sociality is implicated in any particular fact claim that arises from paleontology laboratories. Have the errors of the Victorians not been erased, or at least greatly eliminated? This important question, set up expertly by Wylie, is for future science studies scholars to address.

Park Doing
Bovay Program in History and Ethics of Engineering
Department of Science and Technology Studies
Cornell University


Interviews, field notes, participant observation at two paleontology museums, as well as scientific publications.

Dissertation Information

University of Cambridge. 2013. 263 pp. Primary Advisor: James A. Secord.

Image: A fossil preparator removing rock matrix to reveal a fossil fish. Photograph by Caitlin Wylie.

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