Anthropology Of Technology Research Paper

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Taking as its point of departure the fundamental sociality of technological activities, the anthropology of technology develops anthropological perspectives on ‘techniques’ and ‘technology.’

A human universal, ‘technique’ includes any skilled activity (Ingold 2000), including—but not limited to—the use of a tool, an object that skilled people can use to extend their capacity (Sigaut 1993). What interests the anthropology of technology concerning techniques is the interpenetration of material and social factors in the creation, use, maintenance, and disposal of ‘artifacts’ (technically modified objects). In contrast, a closely related field, material culture studies, is interested primarily in the artifacts themselves—and the ways people employ them in systems of social signification—rather than the material and social factors of their production.

Of debatable universality and anthropological utility is the second of the two notions, ‘technology.’ The term is a seventeenth-century neologism. Contemporary definitions of ‘technology’ that stress ‘the application of science to conquer nature’ reveal the modernist ideology underlying this term. As will be seen, anthropologists of technology are sharply divided on the wisdom of using the term ‘technology’ to understand technical activities in nonmodern societies.

1. Objectives Of The Anthropology Of Technology

Anthropologists who study technology share many goals and concerns with scholars in kindred research areas, such as science and technology studies (STS), material culture studies, ethnoarchaeology, and behavioral archaeology. All these research areas share an interest in revealing the deep interpenetration of technological and social phenomena. What makes the anthropology of technology distinctive is an interest in the way people employ the material social intersection to create ‘technoscapes.’ A ‘technoscape’ is a socially constructed world of meaning and sociality that is the consequence of technological activity (Pfaffenberger 1999). A considerable body of anthropological scholarship, some of it concerned with technology, focuses on specific modes of production.

2. Origin And Development Of The Anthropology Of Technology

In French anthropology, technology has been accepted as a valid topic for anthropological inquiry since the 1930s, and a considerable body of advanced scholarship has arisen that is, regrettably, almost unknown outside France. In striking contrast, British and American anthropologists have developed perspectives inimical to the anthropological study of technology, and are only now beginning to study the subject.

2.1 The Anthropology Of Technology In France

French interest in the anthropology of technology is attributed to Marcel Mauss’s pioneering work on the technology of the body (1973 [1935]) and, especially, to the intellectual leadership and charisma of a social anthropologist, Andre Leroi-Gourhan (1911–86). Leroi-Gourhan launched an interdisciplinary project in the 1950s to comprehend the human technological adventure. This work has been far more influential than most Anglophone scholars realize. In his work on the role of gesture and speech in human evolution, Leroi-Gourhan argued (1993 [1964]) that prehistoric tool use stems not from the ‘noble fruit of our thought,’ but rather from the development of the hand. With the mouth freed for new uses, humans developed the capacity to externalize and remember what they learned in the form of various modes of representation—including not just speech, which generates an externalized mythology, but also ‘gesture,’ a parallel development that Leroi-Gourhan believed to be just as expressive as speech. Speech generates mythology, while gesture, united with tools for create techniques, generates ‘mythography,’ externalized graphic representations with markedly different properties than the representations enabled by speech. By refusing to privilege speech, Leroi-Gourhan provided Derrida with the ammunition needed to launch the poststructuralist attack on ‘phonocentrism,’ the doctrine that speech is the source and inspiration for all forms of human communication.

Another of Leroi-Gourhan’s influential notions is the chaıne operatoire (Leroi-Gourhan 1943), a series of habitually learned steps or a ‘recipe’ for transforming a raw material into a finished artifact. Sketched out only nascently in Leroi-Gourhan’s work, this concept has been elaborated by French prehistorians and social anthropologists; they developed a series of powerful theoretical concepts that point to the interpenetration of the material and the social. For example, Pierre Lemonnier (1980) distinguishes between the invariant components of a chaıne operatoire, those that cannot be omitted without ‘upsetting’ the technical process, and the variant components; the latter represent adaptations to the underlying social system. In a wideranging study of chaınes operatoires in pottery, van der Leeuw (1993) asserts that the social inserts itself into material processes at the cognitive level—specifically, whether the vessel is fundamentally understood (for example) as a transformation of a sphere, cone, or cylinder. What has sometimes been lost in this literature, however, is a point of major significance that follows from Leroi-Gourhan’s work on gesture and speech: if gesture is no less meaningful than speech, it follows that techniques themselves, and not just the material culture produced by techniques, are a major locus of meaning-formation in human society.

A recent feminist critique of the chaıne operatoire concept points the way toward fulfilling the promise implicit in Leroi-Gourhan’s work. Dobres (1999) points out that androcentric biases—such as the belief that technology is about production, not reproduction—often lead observers to exclude activities involving women. Studies of the technical sequence involved in Inupiat whale-hunting, for example, depict a male-only picture, because men and men alone hunted whales on the open sea. Yet the Inupiat captain will say, ‘I am not the great hunter; my wife is.’ When the chaıne operatoire is broadened sufficiently to include the pre-hunt and post-hunt activities in which women figure prominently, one learns that the hunt’s success is thought to depend on the wife’s comportment before the hunt and her skill with her knife afterwards. Through these means the captain’s wife calls forth the whale and makes it possible for the whalers to kill it.

Dobres’ work shows that the anthropology of technology should adopt a version of the ‘principle of symmetry’ in science studies. This principle holds that a sociological understanding of science becomes possible only when explanations are no longer phrased in terms of the truth or falsity of scientific theories; ‘true theories’ and ‘false theories’ should be treated equally. In the anthropology of technology, the boundaries of a chaıne operatoire should not be determined by ‘technicist’ principles—that is, by the identifying sequences that ‘really are technology because they work’ as opposed to those that are ‘merely symbolic.’ At stake is the very possibility of an anthropological understanding of technical activity—that is, an understanding that is equally concerned with what techniques mean as with what they do.

Few studies of chaınes operatoires employ the principle of symmetry, but they strongly suggest that technical activities are among the most potent of the means by which people make culture. What is more, they help to shed light on key anthropological debates concerning how people make culture. For example, Munn’s (1986) work on Gawan canoe-making depicts the chaıne operatoire as a kind of moral theater in which ‘good selves’ and ‘bad selves’ are represented in such a way that people come to understand the ‘type of moral conflict in which they are engaged.’ Ridington (1999) shows how Athapaskans employ a flexible repertoire of techniques, not to conquer or control nature, but to reveal and establish bonds with a ‘nature’ that is understood to be filled with sentient beings. The picture of culture-making that emerges from these studies is consistent with the theory of practice (habitus), which was originally formulated by Mauss (1973 [1935]), advanced by Leroi-Gourhan’s chaınes operatoires concept, and brought to fruition by Bourdieu (1977): by engaging in the various habitual and nonconceptual skilled behaviors that are sequenced in a chaıne operatoire, people discover meanings, but only by ‘enacting them’ and ‘unfolding them in time’ (Bourdieu 1977). Yet they do not do so in a field of unbounded subjectivity.

What Munn found to be true of Gawa, namely, that canoe-making takes place within a kind of moral theater in which it matters very much what type of people the participants become, seems to be generally true of nonmodern and modern techniques alike (Pfaffenberger 1999). Charlie Yahey puts the nonmodern Athapaskan perspective this way: ‘Animals come closer … to people who sing and dance together’ (Ridington 1999). In modern technology, most of the significant technical innovations of personal computing—the graphical user interface, the mouse, the laser printer, and more—were inspired by Douglas Englebart’s fervent insistence that people need to deal more effectively with an increasingly complex world, and they could not do so without graphical computer systems capable of simulating complexity on-screen. One could multiply examples ad infinitum, but it seems clear that personhood and technology are much more closely associated than most scholars suspect.

2.2 The Anthropology Of Technology In Britain And The USA

In contrast to the anthropology of technology in France, the British and American schools of anthropology rejected technology studies as irrelevant to the discipline, and relegated the subject to museums, which were subsequently deprived of the resources needed to advance the field. Twentieth-century Anglophone anthropologists did so, in part, to distance themselves from the unscientific speculations of Victorian anthropology, with its armchair scholars, amateur collectors, and ‘wild-guess’ theories based on artifacts shorn of their social context. The rejection was accompanied by theoretical developments that served to brand technological activity as theoretically uninteresting. In the UK, Leach portrayed technical and ritual activities as if they were at opposed poles of a continuum ranging from the instrumental (technical) to the expressive (ritual). In the USA, Kroeber asserted that what is cultural about an artifact, and therefore of interest to anthropology, was the idea behind it, not its material incarnation or the methods of its manufacture. Both theories place technical activities into a residual category of nonsocial, mundane activities that appear to anthropologists as uninteresting subjects.

The first inklings of anthropological interest in technology did not appear until anthropologists encountered the Internet and asked whether cyberspace could become a legitimate and productive object of anthropological inquiry (Escobar 1994). This question, in turn, led them to discover the work of scholars in science and technology studies (STS), including feminist scholars who were developing a broadranging critique of Western science. Although the anthropologies of cyberculture (e.g., Haraway 1997) and the biosciences (e.g., Rabinow 1992) continue to attract anthropological interest, few British or American anthropologists have broadened this interest to include technological activities in the social settings that anthropologists traditionally study. Fewer still are aware of the achievements of the anthropology of technology in France, or indeed of the fact that LeroiGourhan provided part of the inspiration for the poststructuralist views that are professed by so many Anglophone anthropologists, particularly in the USA.

3. ‘Formalist’ And ‘Substantivist’ Views In The Anthropology Of Technology

A division has emerged in the anthropology of technology that resembles the ‘substantivist’ vs. ‘formalist’ split in economic anthropology. In brief, ‘substantivists’ believe that the ‘laws’ of economics are historical constructions of market capitalism and do not apply to noncapitalist economies, while ‘formalists’ believe that economic concepts can illuminate aspects of human behavior in all human societies. In the anthropology of technology, the ‘substantivist’ position—as expressly stated in an important work by Ingold (2000)—asserts that the ‘technology’ concept is a construction of modernism and can only mislead when applied to nonmodern societies. The ‘strong formalist’ position in the anthropology of technology is characterized by certain American archaeologists who argue, in various ways, that nonmodern techniques are subject to selection processes and therefore embody a tacit rationality (see, for example, Durham 1990). However, there is a moderate ‘formalist’ position that takes postmodern and anti-essentialist critiques of Western ideology seriously. Although there is no single, formal statement of this moderate ‘formalist’ position, it can be adduced from the work of behavioral archaeologists (e.g., Schiffer and Skibo 1997) and social anthropologists who have worked with historians of technology (e.g., Pfaffenberger 1999). The moderate ‘formalist’ position argues that the ‘technology’ concept is indeed relevant to nonmodern as well as modern societies, but only after the term is redefined in a way that eliminates its normative and ideological components.

3.1 ‘Technology,’ Science, And ‘Disembeddedness’

The ‘substantivist’ position is in accord with the central objective of the anthropology of technology: to reveal the interpenetration of the social and material and show how people use technical activities to construct worlds of meaning. It is for precisely this reason that Ingold refuses to use the term ‘technology’—and indeed declares, ‘there is no such thing as technology in premodern societies’ (2000, p. 314). The ‘technology’ concept, in this view, is historically specific and utterly misleading when applied to nonmodern societies: it arose in the seventeenth century and is associated with the emergence of a new, science-based ‘mechanistic ontology’ that became increasingly hegemonic over time. The rise of a new science-based technological order went hand-in-hand with multiple forms of disembeddedness: machines ‘exteriorized’ production by replacing human skills with automatic mechanical movements, engineers staked out a higher status than technicians by establishing rationalist and scientific canons of technical design, and production became separate from consumption. To apply the term ‘technology’ to premodern societies, therefore, is to apply to these societies the very idea that destroyed them; ‘technology’ is the result of a historical process of disembedding and hegemony formation that destroyed the former integration of the material and the cultural.

The moderate ‘formalist’ response faults the ‘substantivist’ position for taking the definition of ‘technology’ at face value. Underlying the ‘science discovers, technology applies’ notion evident in dictionary definitions of ‘technology’ is a normative component, which holds, essentially, that science should discover and technology should apply; the normative dimension of the term can be fully grasped only by understanding the historical and social processes by which the ‘pure sciences’ were elevated to an exalted status in British and American universities and, conversely, the ‘applied sciences’ were denigrated and marginalized (Weiner 1992). In addition, the ‘science discovers, technology applies’ mythos inverts history. Historians of technology have demonstrated repeatedly that modern disciplines taken as the very essence of science (such as thermodynamics) resulted from new, widely adopted technologies (such as the steam engine) that were poorly understood theoretically.

Moreover, science and technology have differing goals. Science asks, ‘Is it true?’ while technology asks, ‘Will it work?’ Technological practitioners can answer that question only by assembling a heterogeneous ensemble of human and nonhuman actors into a network that, as Law (1987) puts it, is capable of resisting dissociation. Such a network can succeed only to the extent that it integrates the material and the social. For example, Napster, Inc., attempted (unsuccessfully) to dominate the distribution of recorded music on the Internet by uniting the MP3 file format, youths’ disdain for copyright law, certain elements of US copyright law that the company believed erroneously would exonerate them from liability, and an initial public stock offering that occurred during a period of inordinate enthusiasm for Internet stocks. Although it is certainly true that modern technologies are ‘disembedded’ through such means as the emergence of an engineering profession, scholars in science and technology studies have demonstrated that the ‘disembedding’ of engineering practice is more normative than descriptive. It is only very recently, in areas such as biomedicine and genetic engineering in agriculture, that anything like the union of science and technology envisioned in dictionary definitions of ‘technology’ has occurred; historians of technology use the term ‘technoscience’ to distinguish such fields from the largely unscientific technologies of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth.

3.2 Technological Knowledge

The ‘substantivist’ position in the anthropology of technology argue that, under the sway of ‘technology’ definitions laden with modernist ideology, scholars in many disciplines have fundamentally erred in characterizing the type of knowledge associated with ‘techniques.’ Viewing the world through the lens of ‘technology’ leads scholars to see ‘technology’ anywhere there is ‘technique.’ In this view, as the historian of technology Edward Layton (1974) argues, all technological activity, ranging from the simplest techniques of premodern societies to twenty-first-century space-age technology, begins with the human conceptual ability to conceive of a way to adapt available means to preconceived ends—in other words, to design. If technique necessarily involves conceptual knowledge, then even the most ‘primitive’ technology involves not only a set of procedures and skills, but also a body of knowledge that differs only in complexity, extent, and sophistication from that possessed by modern practitioners.

Countering Layton’s view, Ingold (2000) argues that skilled technical practice cannot be grasped as the mechanical execution of a preconfigured design, as if techniques represented the unfolding of an interior and conceptual algorithm. As evidence for this, Ingold offers a description of various techniques that employ iterative or recursive procedures, thereby eliminating the need for a preconceived design. To equate the knowledge employed in technical practice with that of industrial design is to overstate the role of verbal knowledge in the acquisition of skills; to be sure, verbal imperatives help novices to get started— beginning bicyclists, for example, are told to refrain from leaning until they wish to turn—but this knowledge is insufficient to fully describe technical mastery, which necessarily involves direct experience and imitative learning. At some point, a skilled practitioner abandons the novice’s verbal formulations. To retain or elaborate these verbal formulations, Ingold suggests, would be tantamount to learning the map instead of the country. In short, the ‘knowledge-for ’ that is associated with technical skills is far less systematic and verbalizable than the ‘knowledge of’ propositions that Ingold (wrongly) assumes to characterize the knowledge systems of modern technology.

In response, a moderate ‘formalist’ position concurs with Ingold’s assessment of the destructive impact of an unexamined definition of ‘technology,’ through the lens of which indigenous knowledge systems are mistakenly seen to be prototypical sciences (Sillitoe 1998). But modern (nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth century) technologies are equally misunderstood by likening their knowledge systems to science. Modern technological systems are known to proceed, and are even capable of generating significant advances, despite the lack of a complete theoretical understanding; for example, a century of highly successful aeronautical design has proceeded without a sound theoretical understanding of turbulent flow. What is more, these systems can operate quite successfully on the basis of false understandings; for example, aeronautical engineers assumed for nearly a century— wrongly, as is now realized—that stability in flight should overrule all other design considerations. Technological belief systems—which Bijker (1995) terms ‘technological frames’—serve important roles in constituting and uniting communities of practitioners, guiding the formation of the meanings attributed to technical activities and artifacts, and providing readyto-use recipes for technical design. Technological knowledge in modern technological systems also differs from scientific knowledge in that much technological knowledge is embodied in tacit visual representations or experientially learned skills that are exceptionally difficult to verbalize. For example, NASA has conceded that it cannot rebuild the powerful Saturn V booster rockets used in the Apollo program, and not simply because there is no surviving set of blueprints; more damaging is the loss of the tacit, nonverbalized skills possessed by the thousands of men and women, now retired or deceased, who built and flew the rocket with such stunning success.

Arguably, it is only the moderate ‘formalist’ position, which acknowledges the similarities between nonmodern and modern technologies, that can fully reveal the interpenetration of the material and the social. Unaware that modern technologies function quite well even though they may be founded on ‘unscientific’ or ‘false’ belief systems, anthropologists have never known quite what to do about the ‘false’ beliefs associated with nonmodern technology. One approach, ‘technicism,’ simply ignores them. Malinowski (1935) explains away the ‘false’ beliefs Trobriand Islanders maintain about their gardens by viewing these beliefs as a sign of ‘anxiety’ over the outcome of production. Ingold’s approach is to see such beliefs as the subjective outcome of an individual’s skilled, nonverbal interaction with an environment or life-world. A moderate ‘formalist’ perspective is in agreement with Ingold’s view, except that—in line with the theory of practice developed earlier—it would point out that the meanings drawn from subjective experience are not formulated in a vacuum. The beliefs associated with technological activities in nonmodern societies, such as the Inupiat whaler’s assertion that his wife is the great hunter, are recounted and shared socially by means of the stories communities tell about their experiences (Ridington 1999). Such stories are analogous to the ‘technological frame’ of modern technologies (Bijker 1995), from which modern and nonmodern technologists alike are able to locate their history and identity.

4. Technological Change

The anthropology of technology is also concerned with long-term technological change, working with a canvas that includes all of prehistory and history combined. It is difficult to resist the tendency, apparent in modernist views of the technological past, to see all previous technologies as forming a unilinear path of development, characterized by ever-swelling cranial capacities and increasingly sophisticated tools, that culminates in today’s technological achievements. Whether approached from the ‘substantivist’ or moderate ‘formalist’ perspective, the anthropology of technology suggests that to do so would be a very serious mistake.

4.1 Tool Sophistication, Skill, And Intelligence In Prehistory

By stressing the importance of skilled technique (Ingold 2000) and the habitual sequences by which gestures and tools are integrated in the nonmodern chaıne operatoire (Leroi-Gourhan 1943), the anthropology of technology sounds a note of profound warning to prehistorians who would interpret every sign of increasing sophistication in the manufacture of tools as evidence of a corresponding increase in human intelligence or the complexity of language. Very smart people may well prefer simple tools, and compensate by developing spectacularly complex skills that, although inordinately difficult to acquire, enable them to work just as efficiently as people who opt for more complex and specialized tools. Simple tools do not signify simple minds.

4.2 ‘Evolution’ Of Technology

The anthropology of technology also calls into question ‘evolutionary’ conceptions of technological change in archaeology, in which the forces of natural selection are seen to punish ‘inefficient’ technologies (and the groups that cling to them). For one thing, what might seem like an ‘inefficient’ technology may have been quite efficient in skilled hands; for example, Bantu ironsmiths are known to have been able to produce consistently good iron blooms from their ‘primitive’ furnaces, but the skill they once possessed has unfortunately been lost; modern attempts to reconstruct and operate these furnaces produce uniformly disappointing results. Furthermore, microanalyses of technological change in both modern and nonmodern societies demonstrate conclusively that it is not the quest for greater ‘efficiency,’ but rather demands imposed by changes in underlying social and ideological systems, that leads innovators to modify techniques or invent new ones (cf. Schiffer and Skibo 1997). It is only by stepping back from such microanalyses, ignoring discrepant evidence, and abstracting technological change from its social and ideological context that one sees a ‘unilinear evolution’ of technology (Basalla 1988). The appearance of cumulative technological advance, in sum, is generated by concealed social strategies and belies the fact that the knowledge underlying abandoned technological systems can be unrecoverably lost.

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