Notes for Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch, eds. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology

Key concepts: actor, actor networks, black box, closure, social constructivist approach, systems metaphor, technology, thick description.

Related theorists: Wiebe Bijker, Michel Callon, Tom Hughes, Bruno Latour, John Law, Trevor Pinch.


General Introduction
(1) It was here [first meeting of European Association for the Study of Science and Technology at castle Burg Langsberg], during a cocktail session in the early evening of September 25, 1982, that two of the three editors of this book met for the first time. Encouraged by their concurring interests in a constructivist approach to the study of technology and by drinking the famous regional pink champagne, Trevor
Pinch, a sociologists of science, and Wiebe Bijker, a sociologist of technology, decided to start a joint project. The object would be to bring together Pinch's detailed studies of the development of science with Bijker's studies of technology.
(1) Specifically, they proposed a
social constructivist approach, thereby extending the relatively new but already well-established sociology of scientific knowledge into the realm of technology.
(1-2) Clearly, among students of scientific knowledge there was an emerging interest in the social study of technology. . . . Tom
Hughes was spotted in Europe, and other American historians of technology were contacted during a visit by Bijker to the United States in November 1983. The number of participants increased to twenty.
(2) We had decided to adhere strictly to a maximum of thirty participants because we thought that a larger number would hamper the emergence of the kind of collective discussion we hoped for. . . . After all, we were organizing a workshop, not a conference.
(2-3) All the participants appeared to have come not only to talk but also to listen. Almost everyone played an active part, either by presenting a paper or by acting as a discussant. . . . At the end of the workshop the intellectual excitement was such that it was decided to publish a special journal issue or a book on the basis of the papers and the discussion. This volume is the result.
(3) On the contrary, the success of the workshop is symptomatic of a generally emerging interest in a new type of technology study. Other indications of this new interest are the recently published books edited by Rachel Laudan (1984a) and by Donalad MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman (1985).

Seamless web of society and technology.

(3) Authors have been concerned with moving away from the individual inventor (or “genius”) as the central explanatory concept, from technological determinism, and from making distinctions among technical, social, economic, and political aspects of technological development. The last point has been aptly summarized by using the metaphor of the “seamless web” of society and technology.

Three layers of technology, ignoring distinctions not present in English: artifacts, activities, knowledge.

(3) (footnote 3) We do not try to (re)establish the useful distinction between “technology” and “technics” or “technique” into English usage. This difference, which does exist in Dutch, German, and French, is analogous to the distinction between “epistemology” and “knowledge.”
(3-4) Three layers of meaning of the word “
technologycan be distinguished (MacKenzie and Wajcman 1985). First, there is the level of physical objects or artifacts, for example, bicycles, lamps, and Bakelite. Second, “technology” may refer to activities or processes, such as steel making or molding. Third, “technology” can refer to what people know as well as what they do; an example is the “know-how” that goes into designing a bicycle or operating an ultrasound device in the obstetrics clinic. . . . it seems preferable to work from a set of empirical cases that seem intuitively paradigmatic.

Three approaches of social constructivism, systems metaphor, actor networks.

(4-5) In the context of the workshop, however, it can safely be said that three approaches played a more or less dominant role and hence have guided the studies in this volume. The first, the social constructivist approach, has been inspired by recent studies in the sociology of scientific knowledge. Key concepts within this approach are “interpretative flexibility,” “closure,” and “relevant social groups.” . . . The second approach, stemming largely from the work of the historians of technology Thomas Hughes, treats technology in terms of a systems” metaphor. . . . Moreover, the key concepts of “reverse salient” and “critical problem,” which define the parts of a system where at certain stages innovative energy is focused, enable us to link the micro- and macrolevels of analysis. . . . The third approach, associated with the work of Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, and John Law at L'Ecole des Mines, Paris, attempts to extend this perspective one step further. It does this by breaking the distinction between human actors and natural phenomena. Bother are treated as elements in “actor networks.” . . . in trying to extend successfully the actor network, the engineers attempt to mold society.

Thick description looking into black box of technology.

(5) A characteristic that all these approaches share is the emphasis on “thick description,” that is, looking into what has been seen as the black box of technology (and, for that matter, the black box of society).
(5) The studies in part III exemplify strategic research sites for working out in detail the approaches put forward in parts I and II.
(5-6) In the fourth and last part of the collection we hope to show that the new approach may also yield results beyond the classical boundaries of technology studies. In the two chapters in this section, the object of study if artificial intelligence and “expert systems.” It is claimed that our new understanding of technological development may actually contribute to this rapidly growing new technology. . . . In part I of this book the integrated study of society and technology is advocated; parts II and II provide the specific tools and research sites where this can be carried out; throughout, as we have pointed out, it is intuitively clear what is meant by “technological artifact,” “technological system,” etc. In part IV, however, even this intuition about the identity of “technology” is called into question: The distinctions between human and machine, knowledge and action, engineering and the study of engineering practices are all “blown up.” . . . The seamless character of the web of society and technology is reestablished.

Common Themes in Sociological and Historical Studies of Technology

(9) System builders are no respecters of knowledge categories or professional boundaries. In his notebooks Thomas Edison so thoroughly mixed matters commonly labeled economic, technical, and scientific that his thoughts composed a seamless web.
(10) Together the chapters demarcate a research program for studying the development of technological artifacts and systems—a research program that aims at contributing to a greater understanding of the social processes involved in technological development while respecting the seamless web character of technology and society.
(11) Pinch and Bijker argue that both science and technology are socially constructed cultures and that the boundary between them is a matter for social negotiation and represents no underlying distinction.
(11) Thomas Hughes stresses that the science and technology labels are imprecise and do not convey the messy complexity of the entities named.
(11) Michel Callon proposes in his essay that the question of who is a scientist and who is a technologist is negotiable according to circumstances. . . . Callon uses a higher abstraction, “
actors,” that subsumes science, technology, and other categories. Actors are the heterogeneous entities that constitute a network.
(12) Callon believes that there is no outside/inside (that is, social/technology) dichotomy.
(12) With their emphasis on social shaping, Pinch and Bijker deny technological determinism. Borrowing and adapting from the sociology of knowledge, they argue that the social groups that constitute the social environment play a critical role in defining and solving the problems that arise during the development of an artifact.
Closure occurs in science when a consensus emerges that the “truth” has been winnowed from the various interpretations; it occurs in technology when a consensus emerges that a problem arising during the development of technology has been solved.
(13) From the early history of the bicycle, Pinch and Bijker provide examples of closure and stabilization, social shaping, interpretative flexibility, and the influence of social groups. In this case history they present technological development as a nondetermined, multi-directional flux that involves constant negotiation and renegotiation among and between groups shaping the technology.
(13-14) Because the technological systems are growing or changing, the analysis should be analogous to dynamics (the study of motion and equilibrium) rather than to statics (the study of rest and equilibrium).
(14) The actors, whether consumers, fuel cells, or automobile manufacturers (as in the case of Callon's electric vehicle example), must have their attributes defined for them, or translated, so that they can play their assigned roles in the scenario conceived of by the actor-world designer.
(14) Pinch and Bijker also borrow from the sociology of knowledge as they recommend that scholars interested in the development of technology choose controversy as one important site for research. . . . They show that different groups will define not only the problem differently but also success or failuere.
(14) They urge historians and sociologists to open the so-called
black box in which the workings of technology are housed.

The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other
Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker

(17) It is the contention of this chapter that the study of science and the study of technology should, and indeed can, benefit from each other. In particular we argue that the social constructivist view that is prevalent within the sociology of science and also emerging within the sociology of technology provides a useful starting point. We set out the constitutive questions that such a unified social constructivist approach must address analytically and empirically.

Some Relevant Literature

Sociology of Science

Parallel shift in subject of analysis of programmers and managers from norms, career patterns everyday practice (Rosenberg, Mackenzie).

(18) We are concerned here with only the recent emergence of the sociology of scientific knowledge. Studies in this area take the actual content of scientific ideas, theories, and experiments as the subject of analysis. This contrasts with earlier work in the sociology of science, which was concerned with science as an institution and the study of scientists' norms, career patterns, and reward structures. One major—if not the major—development in the field in the last decade has been the extension of the sociology of knowledge into the arena of the “hard sciences.”
(19) The treatment of scientific knowledge as a social construction implies that there is nothing epistemologically special about the nature of scientific knowledge: It is merely one in a whole series of knowledge cultures (including, for instance, the knowledge systems pertaining to “primitive” tribes) (Barnes 1974; Collins and Pinch 1982).

Science-Technology Relationship
(21) both science and technology are social constructed cultures and bring to bear whatever cultural resources are appropriate for the purposes at hand.

Technology Studies
(21) It is convenient to divide the literature into three parts: innovation studies, history of technology, and sociology of technology.
(21-22) This literature is in some ways reminiscent of the early days in the sociology of science, when scientific knowledge was treated like a “
black box(Whitley 1972) and, for the purpose of such studies, scientists might as well have produced meat pies. . . . Only recently have economists started to look into this black box.
(22) Few scholars (but there are some notable exceptions) seem concerned with generalizing beyond historical instances, and it is difficult to discern any overall patterns on which to build a theory of technology (Staudenmaier 1983, 1985).

Compare to Manovich on why there are no studies of cultural software, implying asymmetry between state of the art and prior versions in addition to commercial failures.

(22-24) The second problem concerns the asymmetric focus of the analysis. . . . Historians of technology often seem content to rely on the manifest success of the artifact as evidence that there is no further explanatory work to be done [for example, Bakelite plastic]. . . . However, a more detailed study of the development of plastic and varnish chemistry, following the publication of the Bakelite process in 1909 (Baekland 1909c,d), shows that Bakelite was at first hardly recognized as the marvelous synthetic resin that it later proved to be. . . . In any case it is clear that a historical account founded on the retrospective success of the artifact leaves much untold.
(24) The final body of work we wish to discuss is what might be described as “sociology of technology.”
(26) David Noble's study of the introduction of numerically controlled machine tools can also be regarded as an important contribution to a social constructivist view of technology (Noble 1984). Noble's explanatory goals come from a rather different (Marxist) tradition, and his study has much to recommend it: He considers the development of both a successful and a failed technology and gives a symmetric account of both developments.

The Empirical Programme of Relativism (EPOR)

(26-27) Its main characteristics, which distinguish it from other approaches in the same area, are the focus on the empirical study of contemporary scientific developments and the study, in particular, of scientific controversies.
(27) In the
first stage the interpretative flexibility of scientific findings is displayed; in other words, it is shown that scientific findings are open to more than one interpretation. . . . Social mechanisms that limit interpretative flexibility and thus allow scientific controversies to be terminated are described in the second stage. A third stage, which has not yet been carried through in any study of contemporary science, is to relate such “closure mechanisms” to the wider social-cultural milieu.

The Social Construction of Technology (SCOT)

Multidirectional model by studying development process as alternation of variation and selection; bicycle study reveals linear development a retrospective distortion.

(28) In SCOT the developmental process of a technological artifact is described as an alternation of variation and selection. This results in a “multidirectional” model, in contrast with the linear models used explicitly in many innovation studies and implicitly in much history of technology.
(28) Let us consider the development of the bicycle. . . . It is only by retrospective distortion that a quasi-linear development emerges.
(29) However, if a multidirectional model is adopted, it is possible to ask why some of the variants “die,” whereas others “survive.” To illuminate this “selection” part of the developmental processes, let us consider the problems and solutions presented by each artifact at particular moments.
(30) A problem is defined as such only when there is a social group for which it constitutes a “problem.”
(30-32) In deciding which social groups are relevant, we must first ask whether the artifact has any meaning at all for the members of the social group under investigation. Obviously, the social group of “consumers” or “users” of the artifact fulfills this requirement. But also less obvious social groups may need to be included. In the case of the bicycle, one needs to mention the “anticyclists.”
(32-34) Another question we need to address is whether a provisionally defined social group is homogeneous with respect to the meaning given to the artifact—or is it more effective to describe the developmental process by dividing a rather heterogeneous group into several different social groups. Thus within the group of cycle-users we discern a separate group of women cyclists. . . . Thus some parts of the bicycle's development can be better explained by including a separate social group of feminine cycle-users.
(34) Once the relevant social groups have been identified, they are described in more detail. This is also where aspects such as power or economic strength enter the description, when relevant. . . . We need to have a detailed description of the relevant social groups in order to define better the function of the artifact with respect to each group. Without this, one could not hope to be able to give any explanation of the developmental process.
(35) This way of describing the developmental process brings out clearly all kinds of conflicts: conflicting technical requirements by different social groups (for example, the speed requirement and the safety requirement); conflicting solutions to the same problem (for example, the safety low-wheelers and the safety ordinaries); and moral conflicts (for example, women wearing skirts or trousers on high-wheelers; figure 12).
(39) Following the developmental process in this way, we see growing and diminishing degrees of stabilization of the different artifacts. . . . By using the concept of stabilization, we see that the “invention” of the safety bicycle was not an isolated event (1884), but a nineteen-year process (1879-98). . . . By the end of the period, the phrase “safety bicycle” denoted a low-wheeled bicycle with rear chain drive, diamond frame, and air tires. As a result of the stabilization of the artifact after 1898, one did not need to specify these details: They were taken for granted as the essential “ingredients” of the safety bicycle.

The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts
Interpretative Flexibility

Interpretative flexibility in design as well as reception and use.

(40) In SCOT, the equivalent of the first stage of the EPOR would seem to be the demonstration that technological artifacts are culturally constructed and interpreted; in other words, the interpretative flexibility of a technological artifact must be shown. By this we mean not only that there is flexibility in how people think of or interpret artifacts but also that there is flexibility in how artifacts are designed.
(42-44) We think that our account—in which the different interpretations by social groups of the content of artifacts lead by means of different chains of problems and solutions to different further developments—involves the content of the artifact itself. . . . Thus there was not
one high-wheeler; there was the macho machine, leading to new designs of bicycles with even higher front wheels, and there was the unsafe machine, leading to new designs of bicycle with lower front wheels, saddles moved backward, or reversed order of small and high wheel.

Closure and Stabilization
Rhetorical Closure

Example of advertised computer security solutions like virus scanners and firewalls to insecure operating environments as rhetorical closure.

(44) The key point is whether the relevant social groups see the problem as being solved. In technology, advertising can play an important role in shaping the meaning that a social group gives to an artifact.

Closure by Redefinition of the Problem
(45-46) One can say, we think, that the meaning of the air tire was translated to constitute a solution to quite another problem: the problem of how to go as fast as possible.

The Wider Context
(46) Because we have shown how different meanings can constitute different lines of development, SCOT's descriptive model seems to offer an operationalization of the relationship between the wider milieu and the actual content of technology.

(47) We think that it is rather unfruitful to make such an a priori distinction. Instead, it seems worthwhile to start with commonsense notions of science and technology and to study them in an integrated way, as we have proposed. Whatever interesting differences may exist will gain contrast within such a program. This would constitute another concrete result of the integrated study of the social construction of facts and artifacts.

Bijker, Wiebe E., Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch, eds. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.,1987. Print.