Shaping Experiment from the Inside Out: Performance-Collaboration in the Cognitive Science Lab

  • Sarah Ann Klein University of California, San Diego
  • Tyler Marghetis Indiana University


As part of the “practice” and “performative” turns, Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholars directed their attention to local, tacit, and embodied practices by which science and its phenomena are enacted and maintained. While much has been written about how scientists are performatively entangled with their research objects, STS scholars tend to reproduce empirical distance and transparency in their descriptions of scientific practice. This paper explores a possible configuration for taking scientific performativity seriously and literally, by making performances together. We focus on a collaborative performance made for the cognitive psychology lab. Cognitive psychology experiments require the ongoing enrolment of participants, who are regimented in subtle ways to perform both as data sources and as ideal subjects. The performance described here activates and elucidates these embodied routines of reflexive regimentation by rendering subjects capable of response. What emerges when, instead of intervening on submissive subjects, the experiment becomes malleable and responsive, conforming to subjects’ impressions of and aspirations for science? To answer this, a cognitive scientist and an ethnographer of cognitive science formed a collaboration to invert the agential structure of the cognitive psychology experiment, rendering it responsive to the impressions of its subjects rather than testing a hypothesis of the researchers. After having subjects complete what appeared to be a standard, computer-based cognitive psychology task, we elicited impressions about the experiment’s purpose and suggestions for improvement. Our performance score required that we respond to subjects’ feedback by revising the experiment before the next subject arrived, whose impressions revised the next version of the experiment, and so on in an iterated chain of performance and revision. In becoming responsive, experiment and experimenters became instruments to capture the invisible routines, expectations, and power relations that make the experiment possible at the scale of laboratory interaction. By rendering the cognitive psychology experiment as malleable bodies-in-interaction, this paper provides performative context for cognitive scientific facts and intervenes in that activity, opening up possibilities for novel methodological relations, collaborations, and enactments. 

Author Biographies

Sarah Ann Klein, University of California, San Diego
Sarah Klein is a writing instructor at the University of California, San Diego, where she earned her PhD in 2017 in Communication and Science Studies. She is an ethnographer of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, and studies how research methods travel through time and space.
Tyler Marghetis, Indiana University
Tyler Marghetis is a postdoctoral research scientist in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University. He studies the limits of human understanding, especially those limits that derive from our brains, bodies, cultural tools and practices, and social interactions.