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.

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