Science and Technology?

The Social Construction of Technology
Susan Halford, Sociology and Social Policy
Modernity, Science and technology
•Situating science
•Emergence of scientific epistemology in the trajectory from
feudalism-modernity-late/post modernity
•Offers critical perspectives on science
• Relationship between science and technology?
• From the ‘empirical programme of research’ (EPOR) in the
‘sociology of scientific knowledge’ (SSK) to the ‘social
construction of knowledge’ (SCOT)
• Critiques of SCOT  ‘actor network theory’ (ANT)
Science and Technology?
• Science technology: technology as the application of science?
(Bacon, Descartes; Vannevar Bush)
‘… basic research creates the fund from which the practical
application of knowledge must be drawn’ Sismondo p.77
• But: (i) scientific knowledge may have little to do with the
development of technologies and (ii) science may owe more to
technologies than vice versa
•  ‘Technoscience’ – interdependence of science and technology
(Latour 1988)
Learning from SSK
•Pinch, T. and Bijker, W. (1990) ‘The social construction of facts and
artefacts: or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology
might benefit each other’
•Roots in EPOR: situated within wider analysis of the enlightenment, focus
on everyday practice of scientific work and what comes to count as
scientific knowledge
Underlying principles
•Science produces its categories of investigation
•Ian Hacking ‘ … constructivists maintain that classifications are not
determined by how the world is but are convenient ways to represent it.
They maintain that the world does not come neatly wrapped up in facts’
(Kirkpatrick 2008; p.26)
•Karen Barad: the agential cut – what kind of actors exist in the world.
•Attention to the social actions that it takes for things to become ‘scientific
– Interpretive flexibility of scientific findings: controversies
– Closure
– Set in a wider context of social, cultural and economic relations
The Social Construction of Technology
•Focus on the evolution of technologies over time
•Challenging the idea that technologies are:
– In the eye of the inventor
– Finished once invented
– Separate from social influence
 ‘de-essentialising’ technological artefacts
The 3 Stages of SCOT
(1)Technological artefacts are culturally constructed and interpreted –
‘interpretive flexibility’
•Which artefacts come to be in production is determined by a phase of
‘controversy’ over what is needed, for whom, what is acceptable and what
works (or counts as working).
•This is a process of contest between relevant social groups (engineers,
consumers, manufacturers, governments, etc.)
•Groups will have varying interests and different interpretations of what is
•Prototypes circulated and alternatives considered
‘Technology is actively shaped by social actors who invest it with
meanings and bend it to the desires and interests of (non-technical)
forms of collective life’ (Kirkpatrick 2008; p.25)
(2) Closure
•Emergent consensus over what an artefact should be/for/whom/etc.
Multiple interpretations decline.
(i) Rhetorical closure – where controversies are redefined e.g. by
(ii) Redefinition of the problem – where a new issue is defined that
everyone can agree to a particular technical solution
•-> stabilization
(3) Framing
• Situating the above processes in the wider socio-cultural
• Emerged later following criticism of 1990 framework
• Recognises differential forms of power:
– Between different social groups
– In terms of dominant values and interests e.g. the
technological frame that shapes meanings and
behaviours in relation to particular artefacts
Pinch and Bijker’s Bicycle History
Web Science Questions
•Evolution of the web?
Carr, L., Pope, C. and Halford, S. (2010)
• What is the relationship between earlier initiatives and today’s www?
• Which interest groups shaped the www?
• How/has this changed over time?
• What is the www for and who is it for?
• Why did www flourish whilst other variants didn’t?
• To what extent does the concept of closure apply to the www today?
Critiques of SCOT
•Factually incorrect? (Clayton 2002 + Pinch and Bijker 2002)
•Focuses too closely on design at the expense of use? (Law and Mol’s study
of the Zimbabwe bush pump – a ‘mutable mobile’)
•Relatively little (later) attention to structural exclusion – whose interests
can shape the evolution of what artefacts?
•Ignores the reciprocal relationship between artefacts and social groups?
From technological determinism to social determinism?
 Actor Network Theory
Barad, K. (2003) ‘Posthumanist performativity: towards an understanding of how matter comes to
matter’ Signs, 28(3) pp.801-31.
Bijker, W., and Pinch, T. (2002) ‘SCOT answers, other questions: a reply to Nick Clayton’ Technology
and Culture 43 (2) pp. 361-69.
Carr, L., Pope, C. and Halford, S. (2010) Could the Web be a Temporary Glitch? In: WebSci10:
Extending the Frontiers of Society On-Line, April 26-27th, 2010, Raleigh, NC: US.
Clayton, A., (2002) ‘SCOT: does it answer?’ Technology and Culture 43 (2) pp.351-360.
Hacking, I., (1999) The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MASS., Harvard University Press.
Latour, B. (1988) Science in Action Cambridge, MASS., Harvard University Press
Kirkpatrick, G. (2008) Technology and Social Power Basingstoke, Palgrave.
Mol, A-M., and Law, J., (2001) ‘Situating Technoscience: an enquiry into spatialities’ Environment and
Planning D: Society and Space Vol.19 pp.609-621.
Pinch, T., and Bijker, W., (1990) ‘The social construction of facts and artefacts: or how the sociology of
science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other’ in Bijker, W., Hughes, T., and Pinch, T.,
(Eds) The Social Construction of Technological Systems Cambridge, MASS., MIT Press.
Sismondo, S. (2006) An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies Oxford, Blackwell. (Second
edition is published by Wiley 2009).