Notes for Michel Callon “Society in the Making: The Study of Technology as a Tool for Sociological Analysis”
Key concepts: actor networks, black box, engineer-sociologists, juxtaposition, post-industrial society, reverse salients, simplification, trial of strength.
Related theorists: Pierre Bourdieu, Thomas Hughes, Alain Touraine.
Turn study of technology into sociological tool by examining hypotheses and arguments made by engineer-sociologists; I suggest studying philosophical programmers.
(83) Social scientists, whether they are historians, sociologists, or economists, have long attempted to explain the scope, effects, and conditions of the development of technology. . . . But at no point have they judged that the study of technology itself can be transformed into a sociological tool of analysis. The thesis to be developed here proposes that this sort of reversal of perspective is both possible and desirable. . . . To bring this reversal about, I show that engineers who elaborate a new technology as well as all those who participate at one time or another in its design, development, and diffusion constantly construct hypotheses and forms of argument that pull these participants into the field of sociological analysis. Whether they want to or not, they are transformed into sociologists, or what I call engineer-sociologists.
Challenge ability to distinguish the distinctly technical from economic, cultural and commercial logics affecting technological change.
(83-84) What I am questioning here is the claim that it is possible to distinguish during the process of innovation phases or activities that are distinctly technical or scientific from others that are guided by an economic or commercial logic. . . . Sociological, technoscientific, and economic analyses are permanently interwoven in a seamless web.
Case study of VEL electric car initiative in France highlighting contested designs and visions between engineers at EDF and Renault, as well as impact of non-human network actors like battery components.
(84) EDF's engineers presented a plan for the VEL that determined not only the precise characteristics of the vehicle it wished to promote but also the social universe in which the vehicle would function.
EDF depicted social position of urban post-industrial consumers turning away from internal combustion engine and downgrading the status of private automobile as a consumer object.
(84-85) First, the EDF defined a certain history by depicting a society of urban post-industrial consumers who were grappling with new social movements. . . . The Carnot cycle and its deplorable by-products were stigmatized in order to demonstrate the necessity for other forms of energy conversion. . . . electric propulsion would render the car commonplace by decreasing its performance and reducing it to a simple, useful object. The electric car could lead to a new era in public transport in the hands of new social groups that were struggling to improve conditions in the city by means of science and technology.
Hint that actor networks contain human and nonhuman elements that are difficult to place in neat hierarchies, a lesson social scientists should learn from thoroughness of engineers.
(86) The ingredients of the VEL are the
electrons that jump effortlessly between electrodes; the consumers
who reject the symbol of the motorcar who are ready to invest in
public transport; the Ministry of the Quality of Like, which imposes
regulations about the levels of acceptable noise pollution; Renault,
which accepts that it will be turned into a manufacturer of car
bodies; lead accumulators, whose performance has been improved; and
post-industrial society, which is on its way. None of these
ingredients can be placed in a hierarchy or distinguished according
to its nature. The activist in favor of public transport is just as
important as a lead accumulator, which can be recharged several
(86) This case shows that the engineers left no stone unturned. They went from electrochemistry to political science without transition.
(87) Could not social sciences in some way or another make use of the astonishing faculty engineers possess for conceiving and testing sociological analyses at the same time as they develop their technical devices?
Sociology and the Problem of Consumption
Touraine argues that in post industrial society key class conflict between technocrats and consumers, whereas for Bourdieu consumption the key facet upper and lower class competition.
part of a sociological tradition that emphasizes the role of class
conflict in making society function and in producing its history.
Unlike Marxists, he believe that the central conflict of Western
society is no longer the struggle between the working class and the
bourgeoisie. Technological development has brought new factors into
play. On one side now there are large concerns (big corporations,
research and development agencies) that orient scientific research as
well as define and control the application of technology. On the
other side we find the consumer, whose needs and aspirations are
manipulated by the technocrats who run the large concerns. . . . This
new type of class conflict defines what Touraine calls
(88) [Pierre] Bourdieu's vision of society can be arrayed point for point against Touraine's. . . . The confrontation is fragmented between various specialist spheres (the field of politics, the field of science, the field of consumption, etc.) that maintain mutual relationships of exchange and subordination. . . . But these different fields, which in their multiplicity embrace the diversity of social practice and express increasing differentiation of societies, are caught in a group logic that lends cohesion to society. This unification is organized around a dominant cultural model, that of the upper classes, in relation to which the other social classes define and orient themselves. . . . This competition is nowhere more apparent and nowhere more lively than in the field of consumption.
Future of automobile in terms of Touraine versus Bourdieu identifiable positions taken by VEL and Renault engineers.
(88-89) Although they attribute to consumption the same strategic
value, these two analytic schemas lead to two radically different
interpretations of its evolution. The automobile and its future
provide particularly salient illustrations of this evolution. . . .
In the Tourainian schema the technocrats/decision makers design
products to meet these demands in order to use them for support: This
double game, whereby popular protest is used by technocrats to serve
their own ends, is the driving force of history.
(89) In Bourdieu's perspective the future of the automobile is inscribed in a different logic. The total banalization of an object of consumption, which plays a central role in struggles for distinction, seems highly improbable. . . . the only realistic strategy is to transform it gradually through progressive introduction of technical improvements enabling it to respond to new user demands.
Who Is Right?
Reverse salients turning favor away from VEL due to both technical problems with catalysts and rhetoric by Renault engineers.
EDF's engineers did not have to defend their ideas in an academic
arena. Any brilliance or originality in the analysis they developed
was of little import. For them the analysis was a question of life
and death because the economic future of their project was at
(90-91) Slowly but surely the tide in favor of the VEL and its society was beginning to turn, or, to use the terms so aptly coined by Hughes (1983), reverse salients began to appear. . . . Fairly quickly, the catalysts refused to play their part in the scenario prepared by EDF: Although cheap (unlike platinum), the catalysts had the unfortunate tendency of quickly becoming contaminated, rendering the fuel cell unusable. The mass market suddenly disappeared like a mirage. . . . In contrast to the optimistic view of technological innovation taken by EDF, Renault engineers painted a gloomy picture of uncertain strategies and rival industrial groups with conflicting interest.
Remarkable similarity between EDF Renault controversy and Touraine Bourdieu.
(91) The Renault engineers did not stop there. They took their
criticism further by showing that what EDF detected as signs of the
coming of a post-industrial age was in fact only minor technical
difficulties in the current age. . . . Recession was looming large
and talk was more of reindustrialization than of post-industrial
(92) This was a remarkable controversy. The engineer-sociologists of EDF were matched by Renault's engineer-sociologists, who developed a sociology that in its arguments and its analyses was close to Bourdieu's. EDF against Renault is, on another stage and with different stakes and new rules, Touraine against Bourdieu.
Engineer-sociologists make heterogeneous associations ranging over actor networks, where classical sociologists remain too narrowly focused contributions of human actors.
(92) What is the particular faculty that engineers have (which sociologists in this case lack) of being able to evaluate the comparative merits of contradictory sociological interpretations? In order to answer this question, I briefly consider the notion of the actor network, which allows the characterization of the original contribution of the engineer-sociologist: the idea of heterogeneous associations.
Actor networks as irreducible heterogeneous associations whose dynamics are explainable by mechanisms of simplification and juxtaposition.
The proposed associations, and by consequence the project itself,
would hold together only if the different entities concerned
(electrons, catalysts, industrial firms, consumers) accepted the
roles that were assigned to them.
(93) The actor network is reducible neither to an actor alone nor to a network. Like networks it is composed of a series of heterogeneous elements, animate and inanimate, that have been linked to one another for a certain period of time. . . . An actor network is simultaneously an actor whose activity is networking heterogeneous elements and a network that is able to redefine and transform what it is made of. I show in the case of the VEL that this particular dynamic can be explained by two mechanisms: simplification and juxtaposition.
Simplification of infinite reality to limited associations of discrete entities; also a principal activity in computing (Chun, Tanaka-Ishii).
(93) In theory reality is infinite. In practice actors limit their
associations to a series of discrete entities whose characteristics
or attributes are well defined. The notion of simplification is used
to account for this reduction of an infinitely complex world.
(94) So far as EDF engineers were concerned, however, towns could be reduced to city councils whose task is the development of a transport system that does not increase the level of pollution.
Simplification masks unknown sets of entities drawn together by known entities in the network; often revealed only if brought into controversy by a trial of strength.
(94) Behind each associated entity there hides another set of entities that it more or less effectively draws together. We cannot see or know them before they are unmasked. . . . The catalyst gave way and the fuel cell broke down, thus causing the downfall of the EDF. As for the catalysts, the electrolytes can be decomposed into a series of constituent elements: the electrons in the platinum and the migrating ions. These elements are revealed only if they are brought into a controversy, that is, into a trial of strength in which the entity is under suspicion.
Juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements that guarantee proper functioning of objects transcend restricted analytic categories; in this integrator perspective, black boxes abound.
The set of postulated associations is the context that gives each
entity its significance and defines its limitations. It does this by
associating the entity with others that exist within a network. There
is thus a double process: simplification and juxtaposition. The
simplifications are only possible if elements are juxtaposed in a
network of relations, but the juxtaposition of elements conversely
requires that they be simplified.
(95) These juxtapositions define the condition of operation for the engineers' construction. . . . One must abandon the conventional sociological analysis that tries to adopt the easy solution of limiting relationships to a restricted range of sociological categories. . . . How can one describe the relationships between fuel cells and the electric motor in terms other than those of electric currents or electromagnetic forces? Not only are the associations composed of heterogeneous elements but their relationships are also heterogeneous. Whatever their nature, what counts is that they render a sequence of events predictable and stable. . . . Each element is part of a chain that guarantees the proper functioning of the object. It can be compared to a black box that contains a network of black boxes that depend on one another both for their proper functioning as individuals and for the proper functioning of the whole.
Extremely complex, cascading operations yield durability of simplifications sustaining the actor network at each point; this latent instability provides conditions leading to transformations, which can be discerned by testing resistances.
(96) Therefore the operations that lead
to changes in the composition and functioning of an actor network are
extremely complex. . . . The simplifications that make up thee actor
network are a powerful means of action because each entity summons or
enlists a cascade of other entities. . . . Thus a network is durable
not only because of the durability of the bonds between the points
(whether these bonds concern interests or electrolytic forces) but
also because each of its points constitutes a durable and simplified
network. It is this phenomenon that explains the conditions that lead
to the transformation of actor networks.
(96) Transformation thus depends on testing the resistance of the different elements that constitute our actor network.
Sociologists unable to take heterogeneous associations into account, thus both Touraine and Bourdieu susceptible, and Bourdieu interpretation only right about VEL by chance.
(97) The actor network describes the dynamics of society in terms totally different from those usually used by sociologists. If car users reject the VEL and maintain their preferences for different types of the traditional motorcar, this is for a whole series of reasons, one of which is the problem of the catalysts that turn poisonous. It is these heterogeneous associations that sociologists are unable to take into account and yet that are responsible for the success of a particular actor network. . . . Tourainian sociological theory,m as with most other sociological theories, remains a clever and sometimes perspicacious construction; but it is bound to remain hypothetical and speculative because it simplifies social reality by excluding from the associations it considers all those entities—electronics, catalysts—that go to explain the coevolution of society and its artifacts. This criticism applies equally well to Bourdieu's interpretation of society. . . . Although Bourdieu happens to be right and Touraine wrong, this is quite by chance.
A New Methodological Tool
Follow the innovators in a concrete analysis, for they often develop their own sociological theories, and they are evaluated by empirical outcomes like market share and profits.
(98) Another way of learning about society, as shown in this chapter,
is to follow innovators in their investigations and projects. This
method is particularly effective in cases in which, because they are
working on radical innovations, engineers are forced to develop
explicit sociological theories.
(98-99) In effect, the sociology developed by the engineer-sociologists is concretely evaluated in terms of market share, rate of expansion, or profit rate. With the failure of the VEL, EDF's theories about French society and its future collapsed (although perhaps only provisionally). . . . The case under discussion happens to show a complete reversal of fortune. But in other situations engineers may arrive at a compromise solution and progressively change their sociological interpretations, that is, their associations, and consequently change the shape of the technological devices they develop.
Actor network as style of sociological study giving maneuver and freedom engineers enjoy.
(99) Instead of being someone whose ideas and experiments can be
turned to the advantage of the sociologist, the engineer-sociologist
becomes the model to which the sociologist turns for inspiration. The
notion of the actor network then becomes central, for it recognizes
the particular sociological style of the engineer-sociologist. To
transform academic sociology into a sociology capable of following
technology throughout its elaboration means recognizing that its
proper object of study is neither society itself nor so-called social
relationships but the very actor networks that simultaneously give
rise to society and to technology.
(100) It furnishes sociological analysis with a new analytic basis that at a stroke gains access to the same room to maneuver and the same freedom as engineers themselves employ.
Actor network over system perspective because engineers must permanently combine scientific, technical and sociological analyses without clean distinction between system and environment.
Actor network appropriate for diachrony in synchrony, layer, level perspectives.
(100) If, however, we prefer the idea of actor network to that of
system, it is essentially for two reasons.
(100) First, the engineers involved in the design and development of a technological system, particularly when radical innovations are involved, must permanently combine scientific and technical analyses with sociological analyses: The proposed associations are heterogeneous from the start of the process.
(100) The systems concept presupposes that a distinction can be made between the system itself and its environment. In particular, certain changes can, and sometimes must, be imputed to outside factors. The actor-network concept has the advantage of avoiding this type of problem and the many difficult questions of methodology it raises.
Callon, Michel. “Society in the Making: The Study of Technology as a Tool for Sociological Analysis.” The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Eds. Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.,1987. 83-103. Print.