Social Construction Of Technology Research Paper

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SCOT is one approach among several constructivist ways of studying science and technology that emerged in the 1980s. Here, ‘constructivist’ means that the truth of scientific facts and the working of technical artifacts are studied as accomplishments—as being constructed—rather than as intrinsic properties of those facts and machines. The term ‘social construction of technology’ can be used to denote two different things. First it is a research approach to study technical change in society, both in historical and in contemporaneous studies. Second, it is a theory about the development of technology. Historically the development of SCOT is closely linked to the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) and to the science, technology, and society (STS) movement in the 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, it developed primarily as an academic enterprise, but then also found application in the policy domain, in innovation management, and in discussions about new forms of democracy.

1. Constructivist Studies Of Science And Technology

The phrase ‘social construction’ was first used by Berger and Luckmann (1966) in their Treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Building on the phenomenological tradition and particularly on the work of Alfred Schutz, they argue that reality is socially constructed and that these processes of social construction should be the object of the sociology of knowledge. Berger and Luckmann focus on the social construction of ordinary knowledge of the sort that we use to make our way about society. They are concerned with the reality of social institutions and their focus is on society at large, rather than on subcultures such as science and technology. Nevertheless, scholarship developed around such themes as the social construction of mental illness, deviance, gender, law, and class. Similarly, in the 1970s the social construction of scientific facts developed (Latour and Woolgar (1986)), followed in the 1980s by the social construction of artifacts (Bijker et al. 1987).

Constructivist studies of science and technology come in a wide variety of forms, both mild and radical (Sismondo 1993). The mild versions merely stress the importance of including the social context when describing the development of science and technology. Examples of such work are Constant’s (1980) account of the turbojet revolution, Douglas’ (1987) history of radio broadcasting, Nye’s (1998) studies of the electrification of America, and Kranakis’ (1997) history of French bridge engineering. The radical versions argue that the content of science and technology is socially constructed. In other words, the truth of scientific statements and the technical working of machines are not derived from nature but are constituted in social processes. Radical constructivist studies of science and technology share the same background, have similar aims, and are even being partly carried out by the same authors. The remainder of this research paper will focus on technology studies and more precisely on the radical versions of SCOT.

2. The Origin And Development Of The Social Construction Of Technology

SCOT grew out of the combination of three distinct bodies of work: the STS movement, SSK, and the history of technology. The first started in the 1970s, mainly in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, and the US. Its goal was to enrich the curricula of both universities and secondary schools by studying issues such as scientists’ social responsibilities, the risks of nuclear energy, the proliferation of nuclear arms, and environmental pollution. The movement was quite successful, especially in science and engineering faculties, and some of the STS courses were incorporated into degree requirements.

SSK emerged in the late 1970s in the United Kingdom on the basis of work in the sociology of knowledge, the philosophy of science, and the sociology of science. The central methodological tenets of the ‘strong program’ (especially its symmetry principle) seemed equally applicable to technology. The symmetry principle called for a symmetrical analysis of true and false scientific statements, explaining their development with the same conceptual framework. In studying technology, this should mean that working and non-working machines should be analyzed symmetrically and in the same terms.

In the history of technology, especially in the US, an increasing number of scholars began to raise more theoretical and sociologically inspired questions (influential were Constant 1980, Hughes 1983, Cowan 1983). Path-breaking advocacy for this body of work in the history of technology was provided by the reader edited by MacKenzie and Wajcman (1985). Citing the title of this volume, the phrase ‘social shaping of technology’ is used to denote a broader area of research, including work in industrial sociology, technology policy, and the economics of technical change (Williams 1996).

Researchers from these three traditions convened an international workshop in 1984 in the Netherlands. The subsequent volume from that workshop, edited by an STSer, a historian of technology, and a sociologist of scientific knowledge (Bijker et al. 1987), has been heralded as the starting point of SCOT. To understand the role of this workshop and volume, it is helpful to distinguish between a broad and narrow usage of the phrase ‘social construction of technology’ (but to note that both notions fall within the radical meaning of social constructivism).

When broadly used, the ‘social construction of technology’ encompasses all the work represented in the 1987 volume, including the actor-network approach by Callon, Latour, and Law, and the technological systems approach advocated by Hughes. Used more narrowly, it refers primarily to the program set out by Pinch and Bijker (1984). For this latter program of the social construction of technology, the acronym ‘SCOT’ was introduced; but this acronym is now increasingly used in the broad sense too, without reference to one specific approach in constructivist studies of technology. The remainder of this research paper is primarily about SCOT in the narrow sense, although SCOT also broadened its agenda (for reviews of SCOT in the broad sense, see Bijker 1995b).

SCOT developed like any normal scientific pro- gram: its agenda, central concepts, and even unit of analysis shifted in response to research findings and discussions among contributing scholars. In that sense, one can distinguish early and late (or recent) versions of SCOT.

An important, though negative, starting point for SCOT was to criticize technological determinism. Technological determinism was taken to comprise two elements: (a) technology develops autonomously, and (b) technology determines societal development to an important degree. This view was seen as intellectually poor and politically debilitating. Technological determinism implies a poor research strategy, it was argued, because it entails a teleological, linear, and one-dimensional view of technological development. In addition, it was considered politically debilitating because technological determinism suggests that social and political interventions in the course of technology are impossible, thus making politicization of technology a futile endeavor. To bolster this critique, it was necessary to show that the working of technology was socially constructed, with the emphasis on ‘social.’ Key concepts in this program, as will be discussed in the next section, were ‘relevant social group,’ ‘interpretive flexibility,’ ‘closure,’ and ‘stabilization.’ The unit of analysis was the single artifact. The choice of the artifact as unit of analysis was a choice of the ‘hardest possible case.’ To show that even the working of a bicycle or a lamp was socially constructed seemed a harder task, and thus—when successful—more convincing, than to argue that technology at a higher level of aggregation was socially shaped.

The agenda of demonstrating the social construction of artifacts by detailed analysis at the micro level resulted in a wealth of case studies. A few years later, the program was broadened in two ways (Bijker and Law 1992). First, questions were raised at a meso and macro level of aggregation as well: for example about the political construction of radioactive waste, clinical budgeting in the British National Health Service, or technically mediated social order. Second, the agenda was broadened to include again the issue of technology’s impact on society, which had been bracketed for the sake of fighting technological determinism. Concepts developed for this agenda were ‘technological frame,’ and various conceptualizations of the obduracy of technology. The unit of analysis was broadened from the singular technical artifact to the more comprehensive and heterogeneous sociotechnical ensemble. The emphasis now was on ‘construction’ rather than on ‘social.’ (A similar shift occurred in the social construction of science. Thus, for example, Latour and Woolgar (1986) dropped the word ‘social’ from the subtitle of their book Laboratory Life when it was reprinted in 1986.) The aim became to study the mutual shaping of society and technology, rather than the one being shaped by the other.

Present research in SCOT combines ongoing empirical case studies with more general questions about the modernization of society, the politicization of technological culture, and the management of innovation. It has become increasingly difficult (and unfruitful) to observe the boundaries between the various approaches within the broader social construction of technology. Research collaboration and conceptual combinations have emerged between, for example, the actor-network approach, SCOT in the narrow sense, and gender and technology studies. Connections are developing with studies in the social sciences more generally, including politics, economics, and law.

3. The Social Construction Of Technology As A Heuristic For Research

As a heuristic for studying technology in society, SCOT can be laid out in three consecutive research steps (Bijker 1995a).

Key concepts in the first step are ‘relevant social group’ and ‘interpretive flexibility.’ An artifact is described through the eyes of relevant social groups. Social groups are relevant for describing an artifact when they explicitly attribute a meaning to that artifact. Thus, relevant social groups can be identified by looking for actors who refer to the artifact in the same way. For describing the high-wheeled ordinary bicycle in the 1870s, such groups were, for example, bicycle producers, young athletic ordinary users, women cyclists, and anti-cyclists. Because the description of an artifact through the eyes of different relevant social groups produces different descriptions—and thus different artifacts—the researcher is able to demonstrate the ‘interpretive flexibility’ of the artifact. There is not one artifact, but there are many. In the case of the ordinary bicycle, for example, there was the unsafe machine (through the eyes of women) and there was the macho machine (through the eyes of the young male ordinary users). For women the bicycle was a machine in which your skirt got entangled and from which you frequently made a steep fall; for the ‘young men of means and nerve’ riding the bicycle was a means to impress people (including young ladies!).

In the second step, the researcher follows how interpretive flexibility diminishes, because some artifacts gain dominance over others and meanings converge, and in the end one artifact results from this process of social construction. Here, key concepts are ‘closure’ and ‘stabilization.’ Both concepts are meant to describe the result of the process of social construction. ‘Stabilization’ stresses process: a process of social construction can take several years in which the degree of stabilization slowly increases up to the moment of closure. ‘Closure,’ a concept stemming from SSK, highlights the irreversible end point of a discordant process in which several artifacts existed next to one another.

In the third step, the processes of stabilization described in the second step are analyzed and explained by interpreting them in a broader theoretical framework: why does a social construction process follow this course, rather than that? The central concept here is ‘technological frame.’ A technological frame structures the interactions among the members of a relevant social group, and shapes their thinking and acting. It is similar to Kuhn’s concept of ‘paradigm’ with one important difference: ‘technological frame’ is a concept to be applied to all kinds of relevant social groups, while ‘paradigm’ was exclusively intended for scientific communities. A technological frame is built up when interaction ‘around’ an artifact begins. In this way, existing practice guides future practice, though without logical determination. The cyclical movement thus becomes artifact, technological frame, relevant social group, new artifact, new technological frame, new relevant social group, etc.

Typically, a person will be included in more than one social group, and thus also in more than one technological frame. For example, the members of the Women’s Advisory Committees on Housing in the Netherlands are included in the technological frame of male builders, architects, and municipality civil servants. This allows them to interact with these men in shaping public housing designs. But at the same time, many of these women are included in the feminist technological frame, which enables them to formulate radical alternatives to the standard Dutch family house that dominates the male builders’ technological frame (Bijker and Bijsterveld 2000).

This three-step research process thus amounts to: (a) sociological analysis of an artifact to demonstrate its interpretive flexibility, (b) description of the artifact’s social construction, and (c) explanation of this construction process in terms of the technological frames of relevant social groups. The remainder of this section discusses some methodological and critical issues.

It is important to appreciate that SCOT provides a research heuristic for interpretive sociology, not a research machine to churn out case studies as Russell (1986) and Winner (1993) seem to suggest. For example, the adage ‘identify all relevant social groups by searching citations of the artifact by a variety of actors’ does not diminish the researcher’s obligation to decide which groups are important to include in the account, and which groups only obfuscate the picture by adding useless details.

As a research heuristic, SCOT shows its debt to the history of technology by an emphasis on case studies and narrative, and to SSK by a preference for qualitative methods such as ethnography. Besides providing a theory of technology and society (as discussed in the next section), SCOT aims at helping researchers to give a detailed and insightful account of the development of technology in society. Concepts such ‘relevant social group’ and ‘interpretive flexibility’ primarily help to open up a case and to ask original and thought-provoking questions; they are less important for telling the story (for a debate on this issue, see Buchanan 1991, Law 1991, Scranton 1991). These case studies may be historical or contemporaneous. In the latter, the researcher will often find herself or himself drawn into the case and become one of the actors (see, for example, Bucciarelli 1994)

It is also a mistake to think that studies of SCOT only focus on the early stages of an artifact’s development, the design and prototype phases. If the key idea of SCOT—that all kinds of relevant social groups contribute to the social construction process—is taken seriously, then one should also accept that this construction process takes place in all contexts and all phases. Thus, for example, the rural car in the US acquired its specific functionality (including its use as stationary power supply to washing machines, butter churns, corn shellers, water pumps, and wood saws) only after it had come off the production line as a car (Kline and Pinch 1996).

Two concepts may be fruitfully used to highlight one specific methodological cornerstone of research on SCOT: seamless web and symmetry. The phrase ‘seamless web of technology and society’ is often used as a reminder that non-technical factors are important for understanding the development of technology, and that these factors are closely related. A second, more sophisticated meaning is that it is never clear a priori and independent of context whether an issue should be treated as technical or social. Was the Challenger accident a technical failure, an organizational mistake, or primarily a lack of adequate funding (Vaughan 1996)? The activities of engineers and designers are best described as heterogeneous engineering, network building, or system building, rather than as straightforward technical invention. The recognition that all kinds of social groups are relevant for the construction of technology supports this second usage of the seamless web metaphor. The third interpretation of seamless web extends the symmetry principle into the principle of general symmetry. Not only should we treat working and non-working machines symmetrically; the very distinction between the social and the technical world can be treated in that way. The ‘stuff’ of the fluorescent lamp’s invention is economics and politics as much as electricity and fluorescence. Let us call this ‘stuff’ sociotechnology. The relations that play a role in the development of the fluorescent lamp are thus neither purely social nor purely technical: they are sociotechnical. The principle of general symmetry casts this into a methodological principle: human and non-human actors should be treated similarly, and the construction of society and the construction of technology should be explained in symmetrical terms. In other words, technical reductionism and social reductionism are both outlawed as explanatory strategies. Instead, new forms of explanation need to be developed. The next section ends with an example. (For the lamp case, see Bijker 1995a; for the general symmetry principle, see Callon 1986.)

4. The Social Construction Of Technology As A Theory Of Technology In Society

SCOT also provides a theoretical perspective on the relation between technology and society, and on their joint developments or co-evolution.

As was discussed, the development of technology can be explained as a social process in which a variety of relevant social groups participate. This social process does not stop when an artifact leaves the factory, but continues when users give the technology its specific usage and meaning. Laws of physics and economics are relevant but insufficient to characterize technology’s development. Artifacts can be shown to have interpretive flexibility, due to the different constructions that various social groups make. When these relevant social groups interact, typically one meaning of the artifact will gain dominance and stabilize. At the end of that social process, closure occurs, and interpretive flexibility vanishes.

Analogously, the development of social institutions in modern society cannot be fully understood without taking into account the role of technology. Such institutions as the church, capital, the government, labor, communications, and education may keep the social fabric of society together; but where would all of these be without technology? Social order in modern society can only be explained by reference to technology (Latour 1992). This requires a view of technology’s impact on society. In SCOT, conceptualizing the hardness or obduracy of technology does this.

An artifact can be hard in two distinctly different ways. The first form, ‘closed-in hardness,’ occurs when the humans involved have a high inclusion in the associated technological frame. For example, upon meeting problems with printing a letter, a student with a high inclusion in the PC users’ technological frame will check cabling, control panels, and printer definitions. Only after some time will it occur to her that she could also write the letter by hand: she was ‘closed-in’ by the PC technology. Another student having the same problem, but with a low inclusion in the PC users’ technological frame, has no clue about cables or control panels; he can barely locate the power switch. He experiences the second kind of impact by technology: ‘closing-out obduracy.’ He sees no alternative but to leave the technology aside and pick up his fountain pen. In both cases, the technology has an impact on these students, but in completely different ways.

These two forms of hardness of technology can also be seen on the societal level. Automobile technology, for example, exerts a ‘closed-in hardness’ on the inhabitants of Los Angeles: much differentiation within auto culture, but no alternatives outside it. The standardization of main power voltage and wall plugs means a ‘closing-out obduracy’ to most people: accept it by buying the right plug and apparatus, or not use electricity.

This constructivist analysis provides a theoretical perspective on both SCOT and the technological impact on society. It offers a reconciliation of the previously opposed social constructivist and technological determinist views. This reconciliation asks for a theoretical elaboration, extending the conclusion of the previous section: that the distinction between technology and society can be transcended and that the proper subject matter for analysis is sociotechnology. The concept ‘technological frame’ provides the theoretical linking pin between the two views.

A technological frame describes the actions and interactions of actors, explaining how they socially construct a technology. But since a technological frame is built up around an artifact and thus incorporates the characteristics of that technology, it also explains the influence of the technical on the social. Part of the societal impact of the standard Dutch family house was that it dominated architectural thinking in the 1950s through 1970s, and thus made it very difficult to conceive alternatives: architects and even members of the critical Women’s Advisory Committees were ‘closed-in’ by the builders’ technological frame, only seeing the two-parents-two-children-house.

5. The Politicization Of Technological Culture

We live in a technological culture: our modern, highly developed society cannot be fully understood without taking into account the role of science and technology. SCOT offers a conceptual framework for politicizing this technological culture. ‘Politicizing’ here means showing hidden political dimensions, putting issues on the political agenda, opening issues up for political debate. SCOT approach not only gives an affirmative answer to Winner’s (1986) question ‘Do artifacts have politics?’ but it also offers a handle to analyze these politics. Technology is socially (and politically) constructed; society (including politics) is technically built, and technological culture consists of sociotechnical ensembles. (See Sclove’s manifesto 1995 for designing a democratic technological society.)

Studies that elaborate this agenda do not exclusively extend the SCOT framework, but typically draw on social constructivist technology studies in the broad sense. One of the most fruitful bodies of work is the analysis of gender and technology (Cockburn and Ormrod 1993 and Lerman et al. 1997). Another now quickly expanding domain of research focuses on the politicization of information society and information and communication technologies (see Schmidt and Werle 1998 for a fruitful approach via standardization issues). Studies like MacKenzie’s (1990 history of guided missiles, Hecht’s (1998) history of nuclear power in France, and Vaughan’s (1996) account of the Challenger disaster demonstrate that the new framework can be productive for the analysis of classical political themes too (Jasanoff 1994, Wynne 1988).

The issue of political decision-making about technological projects acquires a special guise in the light of SCOT. If it is accepted that a variety of relevant social groups are involved in the social construction of technologies and that the construction process continues through all phases of an artifact’s life cycle, it makes sense to extend the set of groups involved in political deliberation about technological choices. Thus, several countries experiment with consensus conferences, public debates, and citizens’ juries. One of the key issues here is the role of expertise in public debates. The SCOT approach suggests that all relevant social groups have some form of expertise, but that no one form—for example that of scientists or engineers—has a special and a priori superiority over the others.

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