Bechky (2019). Evaluative Spillovers from Technological Change: The Effects of “DNA Envy” on Occupational Practices in Forensic Science


Beth A. Bechky – NYU Stern


Mayur P. Joshi – Ivey Business School

Danielle Bovenberg – UC Santa Barbara

Article link:

1. Could you tell us more about how this paper came about? We noticed that you mention several people and conference meetings in your acknowledgements. What role did their input play as your paper took shape

I always say that it takes a village to develop a paper (or at least my papers).  I have ideas while I am in the field and I rely on my close colleagues (many from graduate school and my first faculty position) to help me process these ideas.  Therefore, it is not unusual for one of them to get a phone call from me while I’m on my way back from a field site, talking about something I thought was interesting.  I am a verbal thinker so that process happens throughout my research.  Then, after I have an initial set of findings nailed down, I write it up as a presentation and go talk to more people. 

I presented this particular paper for years and years before I really started revising it to submit it to a journal.  In this case, I had great comments in particular from people at Irvine, MIT and Columbia who were interested in the intersection of science and law.  Initially I had framed it as an evaluation problem that was related to doing public science.  I struggled to fit the public science framing around the data, because that literature is more about rhetorics and the data is more about action in the lab, so I shifted the framing to focus more on technological change.

One thing that I have heard from doctoral students after they present is that they want to see what audiences think is interesting about their work.  To be honest, that is not what I think is most important about presenting my work.  Of course, I want to hear other scholars’ ideas and questions about the paper, but ultimately I am working out my thoughts through interaction and I always write the paper that I think is interesting.  Then I send it to my friendly readers (the same set who take my phone calls) and get feedback.  This is vital to my writing process – having people I can trust to read my half-baked papers makes my ideas much clearer. For instance, I workshopped this paper with three of my friends after the R&R from ASQ and the specific label “evaluative spillover” came out of that conversation. 

2. Much of your previous work considers the role of occupational dynamics in organizations. In this newest project, how did you keep your perspective “fresh” in the field? In other words, how do you see new things every time you enter the field of technology and occupations?

As an ethnographer, I think what keeps your perspective “fresh” is that every social scene is a new scene to you.  I obviously have longstanding interests in work, technology and occupations and so those dynamics are usually what appeal to me in a new project.  But often what I think I know about a topic is not what is interesting in a new setting.  For instance, I thought that coordination across disciplines would be an interesting thing to study in a crime lab.  It turns out to be something that just doesn’t happen there – the subdisciplines are very specialized and don’t work together at all. Instead, what became interesting to me was the location of the laboratory within the criminal justice system and the social dynamics that resulted from that.

Ethnographers often talk about being open to what is emerging in the field and to your informants’ perspectives.  My eyes and ears are what keeps me open:  I am an inveterate eavesdropper by inclination and I always hear and see unexpected things. 

3. What did you leave out of this paper? Have any other projects spun off of this fieldwork or are any projects in the pipeline? Do you think of the number of papers and content for each paper coming out of a particular fieldwork well in advance? 

This project is a book project so there is a lot that I find interesting that is not in this paper.  I never think about the number of papers or their content in advance.  I can’t imagine that would be possible since I don’t know what I’m going to learn through the fieldwork. 

My first paper is usually the chunk of data that is most manageable and easiest to link to the literature (I think of this as the “low hanging fruit” of the project but of course it takes a huge amount of analysis and work to harvest that particular fruit…).  The ‘DNA envy’ paper was the first paper I presented out of this project, and at the same time I was working on the proposal for the book. The book is a broader picture of the work of forensic scientists, their position as a ‘captive occupation’ within the criminal justice system, and the implications of that captivity for the culture of the laboratory.  The next paper focuses on the practices of this culture of anticipation, and how those are developed in the laboratory through interaction with attorneys, judges, juries, and the public.   

4. Across your studies as well as your reading of the literature on technology and occupations, do you see any trends in the types of problems being addressed? What would be your advice to PhD students who want to be “where the action is”? 

I find it heartening that you are suggesting that the study of occupations is “where the action is,” since some people in our field do not think of work and occupations as mainstream organizational theory.  The obvious up-and-coming domain in studies of technology and occupations is the use of AI, machine learning, and other digital technologies in the workplace.  There are no trends in the literature yet, because we are in the early stages of the adoption of these technologies. 

5. How did you develop your writing style during graduate school and after? Do you have any advice for PhD students in their quest to become better writers?

I have no idea how my writing style developed. I remember that I really took Howie Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists to heart when I was in graduate school.  I try to write simply, and not use a highfaluting word when a simpler one will work.  My undergraduate advisor used to cross out all my adverbs; that helped too.  Although obviously if I was paying full attention, I wouldn’t have stuck that “really” in the second sentence.

My advice to students:  Write a lot.  Edit a lot.  Give your writing to all of your colleagues and have them edit it, and pay attention to what they tell you.  Read books about writing (yes, even have another look at Strunk and White), and try some of those techniques. Especially try to write in the active voice – it not only helps in terms of clarity of writing, but in clarity of theorizing, since you then must articulate who is taking the action and exactly what the action is. Write more. Edit some more. 

References mentioned

Becker, H. S. (1986). Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Strunk Jr., W., & White, E. B. (1959). The Elements of Style. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Danielle’s Bio: Danielle is a Ph.D. student in the Technology Management Program at UC Santa Barbara. Her current fieldwork explores how scientists and technicians in a nanofabrication facility exploit and make accommodations for decades-old equipment in their R&D activities.

Mayur’s Bio: Mayur is a PhD candidate in Information Systems at Western University’s Ivey Business School, Canada. His research examines the phenomenon of organizing for- and in- the digital age, with the current fieldwork focused on the changing nature of information production and decision making in the wake of big data analytics and AI.

Reflection on the Interview: “For both of us the interview was a great learning experience, giving us a chance to interact with Beth Bechky, whose work we both draw on in our own research. A few points in her responses stand out. First, the role colleagues play in the development of one’s work. Beth emphasizes how interacting with trusted colleagues helps her think through and clarify her ideas at different stages. Cultivating a set of close colleagues to read one’s work is something that can be easily overlooked during the early years of the PhD, but which, as Beth points out, can be crucial. Second, we thought Beth’s emphasis on the emergent nature of qualitative research was equally intriguing. One might enter the field with some expectations (e.g., that certain occupational groups coordinate their work) which may just serve as a starting point to discovering an aspect that more sharply defines the social setting. All in all, Beth provides us with practical ways to keep developing our own fieldwork and writing practices.”

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