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Social Constructivism & Social Shaping Approaches
January 8, 2008, 6:54 pm
Filed under: 2008

Excerpted from Gender, Community and the Social Constitution of the Internet, by Leslie Regan Shade, PhD Thesis submitted to McGill University’s Graduate Program in Communication, 1997.

Dominant approaches towards technology have tended to focus on the ideology of technological determinism, where technology is perceived to be at once an autonomous, self-determining, and omniscient process. Such determinism treats technology as both panacea or scapegoat, and, for instance, can detract from questions regarding power and political prestige. [1] This objectification of technology can, as well, distract us from asking crucial questions regarding the varied social actors that contribute to the design, development, and diffusion of technology. Subscribing to a semblance of technological determinism can lead us unwittingly to assume that “technical change is in some sense autonomous, ‘outside’ of society, literally or metaphorically”, and that “…technical change causes social change” (MacKenzie, Wajcman, 1985, 4-5).

To counteract this pervasiveness, recent social studies of technology have been useful in delineating the myriad social actors that shape technological change. The research imperatives of social constructivism, or the social shaping of technology, concentrate on the effects of society on technology, rather than just the effects of technology on society.

A social shaping examination of technological systems places an emphasis on the social factors that shape technological change, departing from dominant approaches towards technology that typically study the ‘affects’ or ‘impact’ of technology on society. By analyzing the social factors that shape technological change, questions can be asked such as “to what extent, and how does the kind of society we live in affect the kind of technology we produce? What role does society play in how the refrigerator got its hum, in why the light bulb is the way it is, in why nuclear missiles are designed the way they are?” (MacKenzie, Wajcman, 1985, 2).

Case studies inspired in social constructivism, as espoused and expostulated by a heterogeneous mixing of North American and European scholars, have been particularly influential in ferreting out specific instances of the various social uses of technologies (Bijker, Hughes, Pinch, 1987; Bijker, Law, 1992). The tenets of social constructivism developed from analytic programs in the history and sociology of science that took scientific theories and hypotheses to be products of their political, economic and cultural milieu. These social studies of science investigated the institution and practice of science and considered the social relationships between practitioners, networks of communication, patronage and reward systems, the day-to-day or laboratory life of science, and science as cultural phenomenon (Latour, 1988; Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay, 1983; Woolgar, 1988). Some of the case studies that the social constructivists have concentrated on include ‘thick descriptions’ of the development, design, and diffusion of the bicycle (Pinch, Bijker, 1987), electric car (Callon, 1987), bakelite (Bijker, 1987), aerospace technologies (Law and Callon, 1992), and fluorescent lighting (Bijker, 1992). This discourse, dealing as it does with technological heterogeneity, is necessarily multi-disciplinary, as “technology and its shaping has to do with the historical, the economic, the political, and the psychological, as well as with the sociological” (Bijker, Law, 1992, 5).

Social constructivism does not impose essentialisms, as it urges us to abandon near-cataclysmic obsessions with truth and representation. The idea of the individual actor-genius takes back-stage to the innumerable relevant social groups which are involved in the design, development, distribution, and diffusion of technology, whether they be human, technical, artifactual, or policy-oriented, and which constitute an intricate web of actor-networks. Often the randomness and incoherence of such actor-networks leads to a messy complexity, in contrast to the deterministically beatific slate of technical euphoria, or `progress’.

The nomenclature of the social constructivist methodology includes the concepts of relevant social groups, actor-networks, interpretive flexibility, the unintended consequences of technology, and closure (Bijker, Hughes, Pinch, 1989). Relevant social groups are the various groups that influence the invention, design, production and diffusion of new technologies. By concentrating on the minute details (social, economic, technical and political) that comprise case histories of various technologies, we become attuned to these relevant social groups, or actor-networks, that are initially inspired to design, create, and implement technologies. Actor-networks include not only human actors, but natural phenomena “that have been linked to one another for a certain period of time” (Callon, 1989), and these networks reveal an interpretive flexibility in how artifacts are designed, and in how different groups perceive the artifacts (Pinch, Bijker, 1989).

The difficulty with assigning ‘effects’ to technology as determinists would have us do is that not all of the `effects’ are the same for everyone and every situation. Different social actors exhibit varying levels of interpretive flexibility in how they design or conceive and expropriate technologies. We can think of interpretive flexibility as sanctioning a wide spectrum of epistemological views. Here is the site where the ‘unintended consequences’ or ‘double life’ of technology can manifest itself. Despite painstaking and deliberate care, technology, with the assistance of diverse social actors, often detours from its original ‘intentionality’ track. “Technology leads a double life,” Noble says, “…one which conforms to the intentions of designers and interests of power and another which contradicts them-proceeding behind the backs of their architects to reveal unintended consequences and unanticipated possibilities” (Noble, 1984, 324-5). The notion of closure is, as well, contested. Technological closure and stabilization occurs when “the social groups involved in designing and using technology decide that a problem is solved” (Bijker,, 1987, 12). But, how does one account for all of the relevant social groups? What about those groups whose viewpoints on closure might be disregarded, or whom might not have the power (financial or political) to exert their interpretation of closure?

Ben Keen’s (1987) brief history of the development of home video technology is illustrative of this technological double life. By mapping the byzantine process of technological development and design that occurred amid a highly competitive environment comprised of various actors, such as major electronics and entertainment corporations, Keen reveals the social shaping of video technology as foreseen by the various corporations, and how their construction of an idealized consumption created the “spaces and unintended possibilities” that allowed for the elaboration of new and unforeseen video practices.

For instance, Sony’s battery-operated portapak of the late 1960’s-early 1970’s ushered in the Portapak Generation: the development of the notion of video as an alternative televisual experience, for both artistic and political expression. [2] Taking television viewing outside the boundaries of the living room, particularly if its messages were of an often oppositional nature, was a surprise for Sony, who conceived of more benign domestic practices. As Keen (1987) relates, video pirating, which came to dominate at least 70% of the market in the mid-1980’s, was also an unintended consequence of its developmental trajectory. In 1976, Walt Disney Productions filed suit against Sony alleging that their `time-shift’ advertising campaign was an incitement to breach copyright regulations. By the time the suit was finally settled in favor of Sony, entrepreneurs had started a fledgling and very profitable video distribution business, having already bought up all the software rights they could find. The early video market was also dominated by products not readily available through conventional television and film distribution channels, such as pornography. As Keen mentions, “as has happened so often in the past with the introduction of new communications technologies, the growth of video provided the ideal breeding ground for a moral panic of considerable proportions” (Ibid, 37).

The social constructivist methodology has been soundly criticized by Winner, when he comments that it eschews “an almost total disregard for the social consequences of technical choice…what the introduction of new artifacts means for people’s sense of self, for the texture of human communities, for qualities of everyday living, and for the broader distribution of power in society…” (Winner, 1993, 368). The stance of interpretive flexibility merely reflects “moral and political indifference” (Ibid, 372) and an “[un]willingness to examine the underlying patterns that characterize the quality of life in modern technological societies” (Ibid, 372).

The social constructivist agenda has been criticized as well, for not considering gender as constitutive of the `relevant social groups’ in the various case studies of technologies that have been examined. The notable exception has been Cowan’s examination of the history of home heating and cooking systems in the United States, where she outlined the notion of the “consumption junction”. This is “the place and time at which the consumer makes choices between competing technologies” and the place where “technologies begin to reorganize social behavior” (Cowan, 1989). By focusing on the consumer, then, the social implications of technologies for individuals and communities can be more easily understood and facilitated.

Fischer (1992, 21-22) has also recommended that studies of emergent technologies consider the social uses that individuals make of the technology, the effect on their everyday lives, and the change in social structure as a result of the collective use and response towards a technology. In Fischer’s social history of the telephone, he has stressed the agency of consumers (notably women and farmers) in adapting the technology of the telephone for myriad social uses, against the predisposed imperatives of the vendors.

These research imperatives, and the insistence on fixating on the users or consumers and their social attachments echo Winner, who has cautioned and cajoled us to “…come to terms with ways in which our technology-centered world might be reconstructed. Faced with a variety of social and environmental ills, there is growing recognition that what is needed is a process of redirecting our technological systems and projects in ways inspired by democratic and ecological principles” (Winner, 1993, 376). Winner’s admonitions are particularly timely, given the furious hype and hyperbole surrounding technological convergence and the development and deployment of virtual communities.


[1] Daniel Chandler writes, with respect to technological determinism: “Whatever the specific technological ‘revolution’ may be, technological determinists present it as a dramatic and `inevitable’ driving force, the ‘impact’ of which will ‘lead to’ deep and ‘far-reaching ‘effects’ or ‘consequences.’ This sort of language reflects an excited, prophetic tone which many people find inspiring and convincing but which alienates social scientists. See “Shaping and Being Shaped: Engaging with Media”, in Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine V3(2) February 1996.

Bijker, Wiebe E. “Do Not Despair: There is Life After Constructivism.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 18 (Winter 1993):113-138.

Bijker, Wiebe E. “The Social Construction of Fluorescent Lighting: or, How an Artifact was Invented in Its Diffusion Stage,” pp. 75-102 in Bijker, Wiebe; John Law. Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992.

Bijker, Wiebe E. “The Social Construction of Bakelite: Toward a Theory of Invention,” pp. 159-187 in Bijker, Wiebe; Thomas P. Hughes; Trevor Pinch. The Social Construction of Technological Systems. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

Bijker, Wiebe; John Law. Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992.

Bijker, Wiebe; Thomas P. Hughes; Trevor Pinch. The Social Construction of Technological Systems. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

Callon, Michel. “Society in the Making: The Study of Technology as a Tool for Sociological Analysis,” pp. 83-103 in Bijker, Wiebe; Thomas P. Hughes; Trevor Pinch. The Social Construction of Technological Systems. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. “The Consumption Junction: A Proposal for Research Strategies in the Sociology of Technology,” pp. 261-280 in The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology, ed.Bijker,. Hughes; Pinch. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989.

Fischer, Claude S. America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Keen, Ben. “Play it Again, Sony: The Double Life of Home Video Technology.” Science as Culture 1 (1987):7-42.

Knorr-Cetina, Karen, and Mulkay, M.J., eds. Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social Study of Science. London, Beverly Hills, Sage, 1983.

Latour, Bruno. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Law, John and Michel Callon. “The Life and Death of an Aircraft: A Network Analysis of Technical Change,” pp. 21-52 in Bijker, Wiebe; John Law. Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992.

MacKenzie, Donald; Judy Wajcman, eds. The Social Shaping of Technology: How the Refrigerator Got its Hum. Philadelphia: Milton Keynes, 1985.

Noble, David F. Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation. NY: Knopf, 1984.

Winner, Langdon. “Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding it Empty: Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 18 (Summer 1993):362-378.

Woolgar, Steve, ed. Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge. Beverly Hills, London: Sage, 1988.

Another resource:

Williams, Robin and David Edge. What is the Social Shaping of Technology? In Research Policy 15 (1996): 856-899.

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