Social Construction of Technology

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The phrase the social construction of technology is used in at least two different, though overlapping, ways. Broadly it refers to a theory about how a variety of social factors and forces shape technological development, technological change, and the meanings associated with technology. More narrowly, the phrase refers to a specific account of the social construction of technology; the acronym SCOT is used to refer to this version of the broader theory (Pinch and Bijker 1987). According to Ronald Kline and Trevor Pinch (1999), SCOT uses the notions of relevant social groups, interpretive flexibility, closure and stabilization; the concept of interpretive flexibility is its distinguishing feature. To claim that technology has interpretive flexibility is to claim that artifacts are open to radically different interpretations by various social groups; that is, artifacts are conceived and understood to be different things to different groups.

Contra Technological Determinism

The starting point for understanding both the broad theory of the social construction of technology and the SCOT version of that theory is to compare them with another view of technology referred to as technological determinism. Technological determinism has two basic tenets: (1) that technology develops independently from society; and (2) that when a technology is taken up and used, it has powerful effects on the character of society. According to the first tenet, technological development either follows scientific discoveries—as inventors and engineers apply science—or it follows a logic of its own, with new inventions deriving directly from previous inventions. Either way, technological development is considered to be separate from social forces; engineers and inventors work in an isolated domain in which all that matters is discovering and manipulating nature.

According to the second tenet of technological determinism, when technologies are adopted by societies or particular social groups, the adoption brings about—determines—social change and patterns of social behavior. In one formulation, technological change is said to create a cultural lag until culture catches up. One specific determinist argument proposed by historian Lynn White (1962) is that feudal society evolved from the invention of the stirrup. Another example is Langdon Winner's (1986) claim that society cannot have nuclear power without hierarchical organization. Winner's broader claim is that technologies necessitate particular forms of political organization. This principle of technological determinism leads to the commonly held view that technology determines society; that is, when technologies are adopted and used, they change the character of society.

The broad theory on the social construction of technology denies the first tenet of technological determinism entirely but makes a more nuanced response to the second tenet. In denying the claim that technology develops independently from society and follows science or its own logic of development, social constructivists argue that technological development is shaped by a wide variety of social, cultural, economic, and political factors. Nature does not reveal itself in some necessary or logical order. Scientists and engineers look at nature through lenses of human interests, theories, and concepts; engineers invent and build things that fit into particular social and cultural contexts. Technologies are successful not by some objective measure of their goodness or efficiency; rather, technologies are taken up and used because they are perceived to achieve particular human purposes and to improve a particular social world or to further the interests of individuals and social groups.

Broad theory proponents respond similarly to the second tenet of technological determinism: They claim the theory misses the fact that technology is being shaped by social factors and forces. But here the social constructivist does not wholly deny the technological determinist claim that technology affects society; rather, constructivists argue that forces may move in both directions. Technology shapes society and society shapes technology. Social constructivists claim that the theory of technological determinism gives an inadequate and misleading picture of the technology-society relationship in leaving out the powerful social forces at work in shaping the development, adoption, use, and meanings associated with technology. Social constructivists have also gone further in claiming that shaping does not just work in both directions but that technology and society are mutually constitutive; they cocreate one another.

Specific Theories of Social Construction

The critique of technological determinism and the emergence of the theory of the social construction of technology began and gained momentum in the 1980s along with other activities contributing to the development of a new field of study sometimes labeled science and technology studies (STS) and other times science, technology, and society (also STS). Within this field of study, two theoretical approaches are often distinguished: the version of social constructivism referred to as SCOT and actor-network theory (ANT). Both theories seek to explain why and how particular technologies are adopted while others are rejected or never developed. Both SCOT and ANT are concerned with how technological designs are adopted and become embedded in social practices and social institutions.

Actor-network theory takes as its unit of analysis the systems of behavior and social practices that are intertwined with material objects. This is the network part of actor-network theory. The actor part of actor-network theory emphasizes the presence of many actors, human and nonhuman. For instance, nature plays an important role in determining which technologies come to be adopted, and nature can be described as one of the actors in shaping the technologies that succeed in becoming embedded in the social world. Technologies and artifacts can themselves also be actors. Humans, nature, and artifacts collectively are referred to in actor-network theory as actants.

Resistance to Social Constructivism

Two issues often get in the way of understanding social constructivism in the broad sense. The first is an issue about which social constructivists disagree, the extent to which nature is real or merely socially constructed. Realists claim that nature is real and has an inherent or fixed character that scientists and engineers must manipulate to succeed. The hard character of nature shapes what engineers can do and what technologies are developed. Nevertheless while constructivist-realists claim that there is something real or hard about nature, they generally acknowledge that the only way humans have access to nature is through human meaning, human constructs, and human theories, all of which are social. Thus nature can be represented in different ways, in different knowledge systems. At the same time, antirealists claim that there is nothing hard or real about nature around which ideas and meanings can be constructed; at least, there is nothing real to which people have access. There are only ideas and meanings constructed by humans, and ideas and meanings are social.

While the chasm between realists and antirealists is wide, many social constructivists simply sidestep or bracket the issue without taking sides. For many social constructivists who seek to understand the cocreation of technology and society, it does not make a difference whether nature is real, because all concede that nature is viewed through the lenses of human beings, which are interested and social.

The second issue is the principle that new technologies build on older technologies. Technological determinists contend, for example, that computers could not have been developed if electricity and transistors and many other devices had not already been developed. Thus technology influences technology; later technology builds on prior technology. Social constructivists agree. What social constructivists reject, however, is that technological change and development follows a predetermined, linear path, a path necessitated by some nonhuman reality. Social constructivists argue that social factors influence the pace and direction of technological development and that development is often nonlinear.

How Social Construction Works

What does it mean to say that technology is socially constructed? As already mentioned, the theory referred to as SCOT makes use of the notions of relevant social groups, interpretative flexibility, stabilization, and closure.

THE BICYCLE STORY. Wiebe Bijker (1995) and Pinch and Bijker (1987) give an account of the development of the design of the bicycle—the design that has been used since the early-twentieth century. They argue that the path of development was complex, with various designs being tested and rejected by various groups in a nonlinear order. Relevant social groups—including sports enthusiasts, men and women who spent leisure time in public parks, bicycle makers, bicycle repair people, and more—responded to various models differently and found different advantages and disadvantages as well as meaning in them.

Development moved in many directions aimed at solving a variety of problems for riders, manufacturers, and those who repaired the bicycles; the problems included safety, ease of manufacture and repair, speed, ability to manage the roughness of roads, and so on. Designs had varying cultural meanings (was the bicycle macho or ladylike?), facilitated or constrained various social activities in public parks, and served the interests of various groups, including sports enthusiasts and manufacturers.

Design of the bicycle first took hold when the relevant social groups coalesced around one design because it solved problems for each group. This is the point Bijker refers to as stabilization. Once this happens small design changes may continue to be made, but tend to presume the overall design; designers tinker within that framework. In this way, Bijker shows that the design of the bicycle was socially constructed in the sense that the design that succeeded (that is, was adopted and pervasively used) was not the best in some objective sense, such as most efficient or elegant; rather, it was the one that the relevant social groups agreed upon because they were convinced it fit their needs.

The broader theory of the social construction of technology does not refute the SCOT theoretical apparatus; rather, the broader theory remains open to the use of alternative concepts, frameworks, and tools to study the cocreation of technology and society. Because social constructivism emphasizes the social shaping of technology, it may be useful to consider a few areas where social factors have a powerful influence on the technologies that are developed and what those technologies look like.

ECONOMICS. Perhaps the most obvious place to see the workings of society is in funding for the development of new technologies. Companies and government agencies invest large amounts of money, space, time, and effort in technological endeavors that seem promising. When enormous resources are put into an area of scientific or technological development, that area is much more likely to yield results. Thus, contrary to the inherent logic of development suggested by technological determinism, technology develops, at least in part, in an order that is determined by investment choices and other human decisions, and not by logic alone.

REGULATION. While governments often invest heavily in technological development, funding is not the only aspect of government that shapes technology. Governments often regulate technological domains and when they do so, the regulation affects future development. Consider, for example, the vast array of regulatory standards that automobiles must meet. Whether they are aimed at safety or clean air or decreasing dependence on fossil fuels, when governments set standards for automobiles, automobile manufacturers must design within the confines of those specifications. Hence regulation promotes development in a certain direction and forecloses development in other directions.

CULTURE. Yet another way that technological development is socially shaped is by the cultural meanings that influence the design of artifacts. Perhaps the best place to see this is in cross-cultural studies of technology. Such studies reveal how cultural meanings strongly influence technological development. Think, for example, of the lack of development in rail transportation in the United States where individualism and many other historical factors promote the use of automobiles, whereas in many European countries, this mode of public transportation has been successfully developed and enhanced for more than a century.

Ethics and Social Construction

Technological determinist theories such as that of Jacques Ellul (1964) seem to imply that technological development is autonomous and unstoppable; that is, individuals and even social movements can do nothing to change the pace or direction of development. Social constructivism can be seen as, at least in part, a response to the pessimism of technological determinism. Many social constructivist scholars see themselves as providing an account of technological development and change that opens up the possibility of intervention, the possibility for more deliberate social control of technology. Wiebe Bijker (1993), for example, describes the field as being rooted in critical studies. He claims that science and technology studies of the 1980s were "an academic detour to collect ammunition for struggles with political, scientific, and technological authorities" (Bijker 1993, p. 116). Thus, social constructivist theories might be seen as having an implicitly critical, and perhaps even a moral, perspective. However, social constructivist theories have been developed primarily by historians and social scientists, and scholars in these fields have traditionally understood the task of their scholarship to be that of description, not prescription. Hence, social constructivist theorists generally deny that their perspective is ethical.

Nevertheless, in bringing to light many of the otherwise invisible forces at work in shaping technology and society, social constructivist analysis often reveals the ways in which particular social groups wield power over others through technology. Knowledge of this aspect of technology opens up the possibility of deliberate action to counter the unfair use of power and the undesirable social patterns being created and reinforced through technology. A good example here is the work on gender and technology by such scholars as Judy Wajcman (1991) and Cynthia Cockburn and Susan Omrud (1993). By drawing attention to the ways in which technology reinforces gender stereotypes and more broadly, how gender and technology are co-created, these scholars make it possible for those involved with technological development to avoid reinforcing prevailing stereotypes or patterns of gender inequality. In this respect social constructivism has important ethical implications.

While social constructivism has significantly furthered the social analysis of science and technology, social constructivism is still relatively new. Perhaps the most serious criticism of social constructivism is that it consists only of a few theoretical concepts and a wide-ranging set of case studies. Hence, it still needs a more comprehensive theoretical foundation. Nevertheless, social constructivism has been influential and is likely to continue to be important in understanding the relationships among science, technology, and society.


SEE ALSO Science, Technology, and Society Studies.


Bijker, Wiebe E. (1993). "Do Not Despair: There is Life after Social-Constructivism." Science, Technology, & Human Values 18: 113–138. Bijker reviews four problems surrounding socio-historical technology studies: relativism, reflexivity, theory, and practice. He argues for scholars to break away from overly academic perspectives and to return to political issues.

Bijker, Wiebe E. (1995). Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Bijker provides three detailed case studies of the development of a technology. His sociological analysis of these cases makes use of and illustrates a theoretical, social constructivist framework.

Cockburn, Cynthia and Susan Omrud. (1993). Gender and Technology in the Making. London: Sage Publications. Explains the evolution of "microwave technology" that became the "microwave oven." It is a story of a technology that begins as masculine and eventually becomes a feminine kitchen appliance.

Ellul, Jacques. (1964). The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson. New York: Knopf. This book is considered a classic. Ellul argues that the internal logic of technological development, that is, instrumental rationality and efficiency, transforms domains of human life and is not in control of humans.

Kline, Ronald, and Trevor J. Pinch. (1999). "The Social Construction of Technology." In The Social Shaping of Technology, 2nd edition, ed. Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman. Buckingham, UK, and Philadelphia: Open University Press. This is an excerpt from a longer piece that appeared in 1996 in Technology and Culture 37: 763–795. Kline and Pinch concisely present the advantages and weaknesses of the specific version of the social construction of technology known as SCOT and developed by Bijker and Pinch.

Pinch, Trevor J., and Wiebe E. Bijker. (1987). "The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other." In The Social Construction of Technological Systems, ed. Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Using the conceptual apparatus of the SCOT model, this piece provides a historical account of the development of the bicycle.

Wajcman, Judy. (1991). Feminism Confronts Technology. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. Explores the relationship between technology and gender in western society. Wajcman uses the lens of feminism to examine the traditional association of technology with masculinity. She argues that this relationship is not natural but intertwined with socially and cultural processes. Notions of gender and technology social reinforce one another.

White, Lynn T. (1962). Medieval Technology and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press. White examines the effects of technology on societies of medieval Europe. He attributes the collapse of feudalism to the development of machines and tools.

Winner, Langdon. (1986). The Whale and the Reactor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Consists of essays by Langdon Winner, which together constitute his unique perspective as a political scientist examining technology. As a whole the essays can be thought of as a critical philosophy of technology. Several of the essays had been published earlier and are seminal pieces in the field.

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Social Construction of Technology

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