Social Construction of Technology

Social Construction of Technology

1. Introduction

The articles gathered in this special issue were first presented in early draft at a workshop held at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, in February 1985. The workshop was itself a step towards the collaboration of a group of researchers interested in the same general area. Since then, considerable cross-referencing of work has taken place, and it is hoped that this issue will be a useful exercise in furthering the development of a common approach. The emphasis at the workshop and in the following articles was on intensive discussion. In the end, it was felt that the loose colloquium form was valuable and allowed everyone to participate and exchange views. This experience has been an important influence in shaping the radical social constructivist flavour of the collection. Throughout this issue, it is our intention to stress the contingent nature of our beliefs about technology and to argue that this view is the most consistent with the results from empirical research. This view has led us to what we hope may be seen as a rather cautious approach to generalising the results. In places, it may seem that we err on the side of indeterminacy, but we would point out that it is a central theme in the history of sociology and science and technology that “more things change, more they remain the same”. This issue can be seen as an exploration of some of the ambiguities and puzzles thrown up by this statement.

2. Theoretical Framework

SCOT aims to understand the possibilities for a technology along with its limitations. This is often referred to as the interpretative flexibility of a technological frame. This frame is a set of interconnected background assumptions consisting of both personal and cultural beliefs, which structure the expectations and interpretations of users and designers alike. Through a comparative study of the interpretative flexibility of a technology improvement or an emulation of the same technology with a different set of goals, one should be able to see the strong effect that social forces have on design. An attempt to reverse engineer the original technology through artifact analysis and interviews with its designers could further exemplify the impact of the social environment during its creation. It is also important to consider the consequences, intended or unintended, desirable and undesirable, of a technology and how these move the developer into modifying the design. The SCOT researcher systematically builds a cause and effect account of the technological development while incorporating all these factors. Cause and effect relations are always constrained by the possibilities and limitations of what can be done with a particular artifact at a particular time. This aspect of SCOT methodology is much indebted to the work of Andrew Pickering on the mangle of practice.

In contrast, SSK claimed an easy victory through demonstrating the impact of political and commercial interests on seemingly pure scientific research. SCOT urged SSK to pay closer attention to the technology under study and how it was shaped. The SSK focus on failed scientific pursuits sometimes had them investigating the science behind the technology rather than the technology itself. By the mid-1990s, SCOT and SSK merged to such an extent that the newer research approaching consensus on the social shaping of artifacts has been labeled SCOT/SSK. Some researchers claim to be one and not the other with no change in methodology or theoretical framework.

In the 1980s, the constructivist sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) and the emerging empirical studies of science and technology (S&T) were at odds over the general issue of technological determinism. The early versions of SCOT were critiqued for internal inconsistency and an inability to handle instances of technological determinism. In particular, the work of Winner, Bimber, and Martin were seen as SCOT adherents but rejected the division between social and technical factors built into SCOT theory. They argued that the relationship of artifacts and systems is so deeply intertwined with social and political institutions that any assertion of a purely social determination is naïve.

3. Case Studies

A meeting was held and the group decided to employ academics from Sheffield and students from Loughborough to carry out the work. The academics and students were awarded ‘The Markle Scholarship’ for a period of 1 week and each pair of students was given the task of analyzing one industrial case and reporting back to the group.

In order to determine the best method of position reporting, a group of scholars from Durham and students working in conjunction with Lloyd’s Register of Shipping decided to use an approach from the social sciences and commissioned a study by the low-cost technology working group of the UK Science and Technology in Society network (S&TSnet). The study focused on the social aspects of technology rather than the economic aspects. The major research method used was the analysis of past cases of technological developments and change. This was considered useful because since little about the prospective technology of shipping is known, it would be possible to make some useful conjectures by extrapolating from the cases of other industries.

The ship locator was a project to install a device aboard merchant ships that would automatically and periodically relay a ship’s position to a central computer that would maintain the collective position of all the ships in the system. This device was designed specifically as an aid to global ship traffic regulation. It was known that the system would be very cost-effective for those using it if a good means of position reporting could be achieved. It was estimated that by knowing the exact position of ships at any given time, mishaps such as running aground (the costs of which are astronomical) due to navigational errors could be avoided.

4. Critiques and Debates

In between, a number of critics have produced precise and rigorous critiques of sections of SCOT, often in the course of empirical work that is broadly sympathetic to it. This is a point made by van Lente and Rip in their rejoinder to criticisms of an article addressing the role of anticipation in the development of electric vehicles (Van Lente and Rip). It is the debates ensuing from these detailed critiques that have probably been most productive for SCOT and that hold the most promise for the future.

At the other extreme, and sometimes in the same pages, SCOT critics effectively abandon Shipley and Woolgar to their relativism by attributing to them realist positions they have strenuously denied. These critics think that these positions have been falsified on Shipley’s and Woolgar’s own historical analyses. The result has been a series of what Bloor (1999) calls misplaced “ex-post philosophy-of-science critique” that fails to get to grips with SCOT while reinforcing its defenders in the belief that there is only one truth and they have got it.

These range widely in tone from what might charitably be described as constructive. For example, the case made by Weiber et al. (1993) that SCOT has the resources to simulate innovation by designing nested explanations of technological change within its general framework. This theoretical and empirical approach is more promising in the long term than much of the ideological criticism levelled at SCOT.

5. Conclusion

SCOT makes it easy to see where and how an innovation failed in its bid to displace an earlier technology or practice. There are many instances of such “lost” innovations in technological history, and it can be very hard to judge whether they failed because of problems internal to the innovation itself or whether they were actively resisted by groups with vested interest in the established technology. Usually, it is a bit of both, but knowing the complex of causes is always important for understanding the technological present. Unfortunately, SCOT is not so well off for theory and method when it comes to the empirical comparison of innovations with their various visions, but that is grist for the mill.

Real people on this earth are making choices about which innovations to pursue and insisting that others accept those choices. They may have to work to get the appropriate allies and public opinion. They may have to engage in a diverse collection of acts of diplomacy and public persuasion. Such claims are going to be controversial, and it is far from necessary that what is an innovation for one group is also a good thing. All of these are ingredients and considerations for a successful closure. Given these premises, SCOT must theorize about power, and it comes very close to asking the Foucauldian question: by what means and to whose benefit can one “arbitrary” possibility be fixed in place of others?

In many ways, social construction of technology, futures studies, and the sociology of scientific knowledge all have an interest in the same questions of how they come to be and what kind of world is being made. Each has a different focus and a different set of implicit or explicit answers to those questions. While in one sense, the constructivists have a more radical approach in taking the realities of social life to be shallow and fragile, in another sense, the SCOT analysts have a more radical approach to building in the politics and contingency of technological change. Instead of looking at technological development and trying to figure out just when and how scientists and engineers are being social and political, SCOT analysis presumes that they always are.

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