May 17, 2010

Bijker - On Bicycles

Bijker, Wiebe E.  Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs.  Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical ChangeCambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

This book is a key exposition of the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) theory.

Even examples of individual talent for invention and ingenuity can be linked to “wider social interactions and cultural processes.”  Bell, Edison, Morse etc. did not work in their own personal vacuums, cut off from society and its influences-processes.

We should look for a connection with individual actors (inventors, engineers, users) and social processes.

Power plays a role in the mutual shaping of technology and society – we can understand the nature of this power by looking at the inflexible nature of some technologies.

Bijker’s “Guideposts”
Bijker uses guideposts as a starting point to examine the concept of science-technology-society (STS), or the “seamless web”.  Using the metaphor of a ‘web’ is a reminder of the connectedness and interaction of these three elements, [how they together constitute a network].
  1. Constructivist studies of technology –
  2. Internalist vs contextualist (externalist) studies
  3. Technological creativity
  4. Power

Constructivist studies of technology
Never take it for granted that the meaning of an artifact/technology is to be found in the artifact itself.
Constructivist programme has three threads
  1. the systems approach
  2. the actor-network approach
  3. social construction of technology (SCOT) approach
Constructivist programme avoids the problems of
  1. assuming a linear development (which in itself presupposes an implicit teleology);
  2. asymmetrical analysis of technology[1]

Internalist vs contextualist (externalist) studies
How can we understand a technology’s development?
o        Internalists –by examining the technology’s internal working details.
o        Contextualists – by examining the social, economic, political, scientific contexts, as well as the tech’s technical features.

Technological creativity
How do inventions arise?
o        In order to fill a perceived need; or
o        Out of the inventor’s ingenuity?

Inventors as system builders [individual actors + systemic constructs/contexts]
Individual creativity examined using history of technology and psychology

What is the role of power in technological progress?
Which strategies do the various actors use to create a certain outcome?
Looking at the distribution of power will give us a summary of that outcome.

Requirements for a theory of sociotechnical change
There are two models of technical change:
  1. change as rational, goal-oriented
  2. change as a matter of trial-and-error

1.      contingency: provides no framework for human action.  Too much contingency à actors with no history of worth.  There must be structural restrictions to limit the number of possibilities.  Show how constancy and continuity exist in history.  This theory should explain both technical change and stability of artifacts.
2.      asymmetrical analysis – when an analysis is conducted in which the success and failure of artifacts are explained in different terms.  The fact that an artifact “works” does not explain its success.  Success and failure of an artifact must be explained symmetrically, with the same framework. 
3.      examination of the actor/structure network – contingency does exist but this is tempered by stability of artifacts and society
contingency of technical development + structural restrictions
i.e. strategies of actors are restricted by social structures
4.      seamless web of society – an engineer is not just a technical wizard, but also a political-social-economic wizard as well.

Metaphor of the seamless web is applied to our empirical work but should also be applied to our theoretical framework.  “I propose that we require our theoretical concepts to be as heterogeneous as the actors’ activities.”

Bijker’s book highlights:
Interaction between empirical research and theoretical modeling
i.e. relation between case study and conceptual framework

[1] An asymmetrical explanation might explain the commercial success of an artifact that we now consider to be working by referring to that “working,” while the failure of that same artifact in another context might be explained by point at social factors.  The same factors/framework must be applied in both contexts.  An artefact’s “working” or “not working” cannot be used to explain its success, or otherwise.  “asymmetrical analysis” = An analysis in which different terms are used to explain the success and failure of artifacts.

May 13, 2010

Thrift on Space

"Space" in Theory, Culture and Society (2006)

Approaches to 'Space'
  1. Everything is spacially distributed and has its own geography.  A sense of 'where things are'.
  2. There are no boundaries - spaces are porous.
  3. Every space is in constant motion, nothing is static or stable.
  4. 'Space' exists in many forms - there is no one kind.
Four more ways of thinking of space:
  1. Space as a place where everything comes together; a place of transcendence
  2. A place of metrics-measurement-calculation
  3. A place separated from movement
  4. A place separated from time

Structural Functionalism

  • Society's stability derives from its structure, organisation
  • Various groups within society perform activities that contribute to overall harmony
  • society=organism;  each part performs a useful function
Constituent elements (norms, customs, traditions, etc.) of a social structure are examined in terms of their function.

Social institutions interact as an inter-related system: none act as independent 'causes'.

Types of phone calls

Instrumental   vs.   Intrinsic   [Moyal]
Functional   vs.   Socio-effective/relational   [Perin]
Thing-orientated   vs.   Personal-orientated  [Claisse]

Instrumental - to save time; overcome time constraints by action at a distance; shorter phone call
Intrinsic - to spend time; longer phone call
[in Haddon, 1997]


Opposite of reductionism

  • The whole phenomenon, rather than study of isolated parts
  • Holistic interpretation proceeds from the whole
  • Assertion: "the whole is more than the sum of its parts" e.g. a working motor vs. its stacked parts
  • Hostility to analysis
  • Holistic interpretations have no single, independent causes
[in Chandler]

Thomas Theorem

W. I. Thomas:

"If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences."


Social Shaping of Technology

e.g. Mackenzie & Wajcman; Williams & Edge

  • Constructivist approach
  • Technology-society relationship is characterised by mutual shaping
  • Opposite to technological determinism
  • SCOT is a spin-off of SST


Social Construction of Technology

e.g. Bijker, Pinch

Social constructivists
Technology does not determine human actions: human action shapes technology

Critic of SCOT - Langdon Winner ("Upon opening the black box ...")

Social construct = concept/practice that is a creation or artefact of a particular group

August Comte (1798–1857)

Organic conception of society

Society as a collective organism
Society has:
  • structure
  • specialised parts function together
  • the whole is more than the sum of the parts
  • goes through evolutionary change

Hugill, Global Communications

Peter Hugill, Global Communications since 1844 (1999)

Attentuation (weakening of signal over longer lines)

Telephony was first an urban phenomenon.

Europe: state owns all PTTs [= Post, Telegraph, Telephones]
USA: different organisations operate PTTs


David Harvey.  The Condition of Postmodernity.  An inquiry into the origins of cultural change.  Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996 [1990].

The experience of space and time
Enlightenment thought
Time and space as sources of social power
Time-space compression
On Kern's "culture of time and space"
Public (vs. private) time

May 12, 2010

Rulers of the wire

Summary of "'Rules of the Wires'?  Women's Contribution to the Structure of Means of Communication"
Michele Martin
Journal of Communication Inquiry 1988; 12; 89
  1. Definition of communication from Raymond Williams, Armand Mattelart [i.e. it represents a real link between real people within a real time & space, and the link has different forms according to the social groups involved]
  2. Women as producers and consumers of communication: (a) Operators; (b) Consumers [party lines, easing of burden of housework, gossip]
  3. Women's social life before the phone
  4. Bell's advertising of phone
  5. Women insisted on using phone in their own way -- Bell forced to re-evaluate how it developed the phone system.
  6. Phone's impact: housewives modified their habits - characteristics of their regular haunts changed e.g. before they used to go to market to shop and socialise with friends; now they go only to shop.

Technological inertia

“Technological inertia in economic history” (1992)
Joel Mokyr

Sources of resistance to technological progress:
1.                  Protectionism: government attitudes; fear of job losses; resistance via non-market mechanisms.
2.                  Intellectuals: hinder progress due to social-moral reasons.
3.                  Good technology is put to bad uses: technological changes are related to other phenomena (e.g. nuclear weapons used in war).\
4.                  Philosophical resistance: manipulation of nature for human benefit is wrong.

May 11, 2010

Act of Communication

Says What
In What Channel
To Whom
With What Effect?
Description of an act of communication by Harold D. Lasswell (1948)
Creative Commons License
Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.