Social Theory of Science and Technology

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The idea of social theories of science and technology initially seems counterintuitive, because commonsense notions of science and technology separate them from the social world, and place them instead into the world of nature and fact. But closer scrutiny reveals a number of relevant aspects of social theory that can assist in understanding the development of science and technology, and the ethical and political aspects of such changes.

Social Theory: Scale, Structure, Agency, and Critique

Social theory is a body of scholarly work that describes and explains the social world. While ordinary people use workable models of social interaction and causality to get through the day, these folk sociologies, psychologies, and economic theories are not carefully articulated as testable models, and are often limited in scale and scope.

The idea of scale—or the size, duration, and level of complexity at which phenomena occur—is one of the first dimensions of variation in all social theory. One expects, and finds, different mechanisms and patterns to explain the behavior of small groups in comparison with large, complex societies. The disciplines themselves mirror this issue of scale, in which psychology, for example, is mostly concerned with individuals and small-group processes while sociology, anthropology, or economics examine the behaviors of whole populations or cultures. Moreover within each discipline of the social sciences and humanities are specialties that focus on different scales or levels of analysis. In sociology, this is the distinction between micro- and macro-sociologies, between models of small-group interactions and explanations of whole social systems.

With distinctions based on issues of scale, questions arise concerning scope—to articulate models appropriate at one scale with those of a larger or smaller level of analysis, or of a longer or shorter duration in time. What are the relationships among small groups and larger social institutions? How do social forces, historical trends, and cultural formations impact individuals? This remains a challenge for interdisciplinary social theory, and points to a related set of questions regarding the relationship between individual agency and social structure as well as relations between ethics and politics. How, and in what ways, are individual thoughts and actions, including ethical assessments, influenced by preexisting cultural, social, and economic conditions? If individual actions are strongly determined by social structure, where does social, scientific, or technological innovation come from—not to mention ethical criticism? If individuals freely innovate and criticize, why do social structures and belief systems persist over time? Issues of scale, structure, and agency link very closely to long-standing issues in the study of science and technology, particularly concerning questions about the balance between society determining technology (social constructivism) and technology determining society (technological determination)

The issue of social criticism is particularly important to science, technology, and ethics. Much social theory includes some assessment (positive or negative) of the social world. For example, Karl Marx (1818–1883) articulated his theory of the means of production determining the social structure and belief system of a society, while witnessing the devastating poverty of rapid industrialization and urbanization in Manchester, England in the mid-nineteenth century. Twenty-first-century authors are concerned with an array of issues, such as explaining new technologies and their effects on indigenous cultures, often with an implied concern that these societies are threatened by technological change. Others focus on the way common work and language practices of science shape how experiments are conceived and interpreted, or how social power influences what research is prioritized for funding. Focusing on how technology affects work and employment often leads to concern with systems of wealth and social stratification, with the unequal distribution of goods and harms. Social theory, then, always intersects with the political and ethical sides of science and technology because it is concerned ultimately with the human dimensions, both causes and consequences, of change.

Approaches to Science and Technology Studies

Science and technology studies, like economic theory, can be read as an argument with the ghost of Marx. In his voluminous writings, Marx articulated a model of the constitution of society literally from the ground up. In this model, the productive relationships of a society, meaning economy and agriculture, determined the basic social organization, in terms of classes and the structure of the state. Society then determined the cultural formations and basic ideologies, including science as an explanatory system. This model implies a degree of technological determinism in which social relations are determined by technology. The first generations of scholars concerned with science and technology wrestled with this issue, with Lewis Mumford (1895–1990), Jaques Ellul (1912–1994), and Ivan Illich (1926–2002) leading the way in developing critical theories of contemporary society adopting and criticizing Marx's insights. In the early-twenty-first century, Langdon Winner (1986, 1977) continued this tradition.

Focused on science, Robert Merton was also influenced by another founding social scientist, Max Weber (1864–1920), to formulate a theory of science as a modern institution based on the Protestant work ethic and the development of capitalist economic systems. Merton's normative structure of science articulated formally what had been a set of assumptions and values governing science as it emerged in sixteenth-century Europe. The values of communalism, in which knowledge is to be shared; disinterestedness, against personal or economic gain from knowledge acquisition; universalism, in which the identity of the author of scientific statements is not to be taken into account; and organized skepticism to provide the mechanisms for self-correction in science continue to be upheld and are presented to science and technology students as the primal values governing good science. Writing in the mid-twentieth century, Merton was concerned with demonstrating that democracy needed science, and science needed democracy, to avoid the distortions of Stalinist and Nazi influence he saw occurring early in his career.

Scholarship on science and technology struggled, however, with whether or not the social structure affected merely the social organization of these activities or the content and details of scientific and technological change as well. Within historical scholarship on technology this led to two major streams of thought: the internalist, which focused on the internal logic of development, seeing it as resistant to all social influences, and the externalist, which focused on the pervasiveness of social influences and impacts on scientific and technological change. This parallels questions of whether internal professional ethics or external political pressures should be granted priority in the governing of science and engineering.

Toward the latter third of the twentieth century the opposition between social and technological determinism was partially resolved with the development of the social construction conjecture. Social construction is based, in part, on insights derived from Thomas Kuhn's (1962) work in the history and philosophy of science, especially his notion of paradigm and paradigm shift, which spread quickly through the scholarly world, influencing studies of both science and technology. Focus on moments of change and controversy allowed scholars to see how both the social and natural are always present in shaping science and technology. The first generation of scholarship (Mulkay and Knorr-Cetina 1983) articulated what would come to be called the empirical program of relativism that generated the symmetry principle, which proposes that both true and false beliefs should be amenable to the same kind of social analysis. (In the past, true propositions were explained as reflecting the way nature is, false ones as reflecting the distorting interests of scientists or society.) Symmetry models have been further refined over time, for example by scholars such as Bruno Latour, who with colleague Steve Woolgar articulated the term technoscience to represent the confluence of technology and science as organized ways of interacting with the material world.

Technology studies applied these insights in its own way, and the editors of The Social Construction of Technological Systems (1989) presented a collection of works for what would become the SCOT model. This model describes how the working of a technology is primarily dependent on the social processes leading to its manufacture and the decisions of various end user groups as to whether or not it meets their needs as they decide how to employ the new technology. A technology whose material parts are in functioning order may still, and is often, deemed to be not working or a failure because it does not meet people's needs. In effect this appeared to constitute an ethical and political assessment of the adequacy of the status quo, a position criticized by Winner (1993) and generating further scholarly discussion.

What the initial constructivist studies of science and technology focused on was the microsocial processes of laboratory and workbench activities, such as the socially-grounded work of the interpretation of experiments. Negotiations among different groups in the design processes followed quickly, eventually moving up in scale to study organizational and bureaucratic contexts for generating models of change. Studies of cultural ideas, language, and values can generate explanations for the general trends of development in science and technology, but not the strong causal explanations aspired to by prior generations of scholars. Despite the advantages of having concrete artifacts and well-defined scientific ideas to trace, the shift from context to context and across different scales of social action remains challenging for social theorists of science and technology.

Similarly the question of determinism and the relationship between individual agency and social structure still challenge explanatory models. Rather than strong causal laws, heuristics outlining the applicability of models and propositions guide social studies of science and technology. For example, while a strongly deterministic model of the origins of new science and technology cannot be true, because that would be to ignore all evidence of the work, politics, and economic choice leading up to the new technoscience, it often feels true to consumers of science and technology to whom all of those prior social relations are invisible. Wiebe Bijker (1997) has developed a theory that helps to explain this by noting that people with low inclusion in the construction process often face a take-it-or-leave-it choice with new science and technology. Technoscience seems determined, to them, while those with high inclusion in the process see much of the construction. This interpretation of the construction of technoscience raises important ethical and political issues related to levels of participation in scientific and technological processes.

Indeed the roles of end users and stakeholders in science and technology have gained increased attention, in research on the public understanding of science, vernacular design, and consumer analyses. In the first instance, it has been pointed out that users are strongly dependent on technological scripts—that is, cultural and behavioral frameworks for understanding and interacting with technologies (Bijker and Law 1992). But users also create opportunities to rewrite scripts, and to modify not only the meaning, but the materiality and affordances of new technologies. End users can be creative appropriators of technology: "Low-riders" are transformations of automobile suspension systems by Hispanic urban culture for cultural self-expression; artisans use old tools in new ways to produce new effects; cell phones can be used to organize "smart mobs" and synchronize political action.

Contemporary Issues and Elaborations of the State of the Art

John Staudenmaier (1989) has cataloged the major historical themes in the history of technology since the inception of the Society for the History of Technology (1958), such as work and labor, military, aerospace, and gender. Recent scholarship on science and technology continues and expands these topics. For example, technology, labor, and work receive attention from sociologists such as Steven Vallas (2001), particularly in the roles that information technology and computerization have in different kinds of industries and organizations. Older models of technology, as always deskilling workers and centralizing power in organizational leadership, have given way to more nuanced models of context- and work-dependent implementations of new technology.

Computerization has become a major topic in social theories of technology. Much work is focused on the emergence of information and telecommunication technologies, their contexts of production, and the impacts of their use and adoption. A second, also revolutionary area of inquiry is the transformation of the life sciences, producing the emerging biotechnology industry, in which distinctions between pure and applied research or fundamental understanding of life processes and product development are increasingly blurred. These two areas come together in interesting ways in cyborg theory. Developed by Donna Haraway (1991), this is the treatment of human beings and the material world as interconnected and interdependent, with humans seen as biological, social, and information-based beings that obscure traditional boundaries between nature and culture, human and machine.

Some level of constructivism in both science and technology is well-argued consensus within the field, although its counter-intuitive elements often provoke commentary and criticism from those outside the social studies of science and technology. Finer distinctions among models and theories have been generated, for example between SCOT and its sibling, actor-network-theory (Law and Hassard 1999). Actor-network theory analyzes the networks of humans and material objects to generate specific explanations for the success or failure of ideas or artifacts. It is perhaps a methodology rather than a theory, per se, but nonetheless has value in generating detailed analysis of the various components of technoscientific projects. Such a method may also offer resources for analyzing the influence or failure of various ethical or political responses to technoscience.

Various social movements have picked up insights from social theories of science and technology. A first heuristic derived from constructivism is that things might have been otherwise. Designs could have turned out differently; the pursuit of scientific knowledge prioritized on different values would lead in new directions.

A second heuristic is that scientific and technological change generally follows the lines of power and resources already prevalent within a society. This does not mean that technoscience cannot have revolutionary effects on social relations, but that it is more likely that people will use technoscience to attempt to preserve power and privilege that already exists.

From these insights, environmentalists, social justice organizations such as feminist and anti-racist groups, and critics of development and globalization can make better informed interventions in the formulation, conduct, and effects of scientific and technological change. Feminists and racial or ethnic minorities, for example, point to the potential benefits of increasing the diversity of formal scientific and technological involvement because diverse backgrounds can be resources for new ideas, and for different values to motivate practice. They also point to the inventive and problem-solving activities of ordinary people, and take into account the moral and cultural values that might have bearing on the products of technoscience and their consequences for diverse communities.

Environmentalists point to the unequal distribution of the harms of technoscience, for example that poor communities and nations often face far greater harm from industrial pollution, and conduct research to help ameliorate those problems. There is also an evident tension between improving the economic and health circumstances of people in non-industrialized countries and preserving important ecological and cultural configurations. Social theories of science and technology may help anticipate the related consequences of technological change, and design interventions to minimize their negative outcomes.

Formal policy-making has taken up social theories of science and technology unevenly. One of the most concise models of science and society from a policy perspective is indirectly informed by social theories of technoscience. Backing away from a traditional linear model that privileges basic research leading directly to development and application, Donald Stokes (1997) proposes a more complex model in which different kinds of technoscientific problem formulation and research processes are supported and managed in different ways.

Whether broadly or narrowly defined, social theories of science and technology are as dynamic as technoscientific change itself. The connection is both strength and weakness. There is always a lot to do; new questions emerge daily. But there are too few resources or people to do all the work. Cutting edge analysis of technoscience easily becomes a quaint historical account of a forgotten technology or discredited science. More seriously, with rapid change and diverse topics, it is often difficult to see commonalities across fields of inquiry, and to develop generalizations about scientific and technological processes that are independent of specific contexts and thus subject to general ethical assessment. Integrating research across different scales of interaction, from individuals and identity formation processes to macroeconomic changes in global economic activity, remains a daunting task for all forms of social theory.

The final challenge for social theories of science and technology is one faced by all disciplines: to remain relevant to a diverse public audience and policy professionals. All disciplines face the possibility of becoming too focused on internal, scholastic issues, rather than seeking to develop broad heuristics that can be of benefit to those seeking to understand the important questions all social theories engage: How do I know? Why did this happen? Is it a good thing? What can be done about it?


SEE ALSO Autonomous Technology;Ellul, Jacques;Illich, Ivan;Kuhn, Thomas;Marx, Karl;Merton, Robert;Mumford, Lewis.


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Winner, Landgon. (1993). "Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding it Empty: Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology." Science, Technology and Human Values 18(3): 362–378.

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Social Theory of Science and Technology

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