The Social Construction of Technological Systems

The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology

Wiebe E. Bijker
Thomas P. Hughes
Trevor Pinch
foreword by Deborah G. Douglas
Wiebe E. Bijker
Trevor Pinch
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 472
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  • Book Info
    The Social Construction of Technological Systems
    Book Description:

    This pioneering book, first published in 1987, launched the new field of social studies of technology. It introduced a method of inquiry--social construction of technology, or SCOT--that became a key part of the wider discipline of science and technology studies. The book helped the MIT Press shape its STS list and inspired the Inside Technology series. The thirteen essays in the book tell stories about such varied technologies as thirteenth-century galleys, eighteenth-century cooking stoves, and twentieth-century missile systems. Taken together, they affirm the fruitfulness of an approach to the study of technology that gives equal weight to technical, social, economic, and political questions, and they demonstrate the illuminating effects of the integration of empirics and theory. The approaches in this volume--collectively called SCOT (after the volume's title) have since broadened their scope, and twenty-five years after the publication of this book, it is difficult to think of a technology that has not been studied from a SCOT perspective and impossible to think of a technology that cannot be studied that way.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-30162-6
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. vii-x)
    Deborah G. Douglas

    The ideas of this book are everywhere. Collectively, the authors of these essays have captured the most ancient and most modern notions of history and the telling of the story of technology. It is, quite simply, a treasure. However, every author, every publisher when contemplating a reprint has a fundamental concern: is this book now a relic or does it still have relevance and the capacity to shape a discipline? By analogy, I found myself thinking about a quarter-century-old Boston road map, which I recently discovered in my car’s glove compartment. It was fascinating as a historical document about the...

  4. Preface to the Anniversary Edition
    (pp. xi-xxxiv)
    Wiebe Bijker and Trevor Pinch
  5. Acknowledgments (preface from original edition)
    (pp. xxxv-xxxviii)
    Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes and Trevor Pinch
  6. General Introduction (from original edition)
    (pp. xxxix-xliv)

    The origin of this book can be traced back to the Burg Landsberg, an old castle crowning a steep hill in Deutschlandsberg, Austria. This is a remote place without worldly temptations, and the participants of the first meeting of the newly formed European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) could but stick together and work hard.¹ It was here, during a cocktail session in the early evening of September 25, 1982, that two of the three editors of this book met for the first time. Encouraged by their concurring interests in a constructivist approach to the study...

  7. I Common Themes in Sociological and Historical Studies of Technology
    • Introduction
      (pp. 3-10)

      System builders are no respecters of knowledge categories or professional boundaries. In his notebooks Thomas Edison so thoroughly mixed matters commonly labeled economic, technical, and scientific that his thoughts composed a seamless web. Charles Stone and Edwin Webster, founders of Stone & Webster, the consulting engineering firm, took as the company logotype the triskelion, to symbolize the thoroughly integrated functions of financing, engineering, and construction performed by their company, an organization responsible for many mammoth twentieth-century engineering projects. Nikolai Lenin, a technological enthusiast, also had a holistic vision when he wrote, “Soviet power + Prussian railroad organization + American technology +...

    • The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other
      (pp. 11-44)
      Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker

      One of the most striking features of the growth of “science studies” in recent years has been the separation of science from technology. Sociological studies of new knowledge in science abound, as do studies of technological innovation, but thus far there has been little attempt to bring such bodies of work together.¹ It may well be the case that science and technology are essentially different and that different approaches to their study are warranted. However, until the attempt to treat them within the same analytical endeavor has been undertaken, we cannot be sure of this.

      It is the contention of...

    • The Evolution of Large Technological Systems
      (pp. 45-76)
      Thomas P. Hughes

      Technological systems contain messy, complex, problem-solving components. They are both socially constructed and society shaping.¹

      Among the components in technological systems are physical artifacts, such as the turbogenerators, transformers, and transmission lines in electric light and power systems.² Technological systems also include organizations, such as manufacturing firms, utility companies, and investment banks, and they incorporate components usually labeled scientific, such as books, articles, and university teaching and research programs. Legislative artifacts, such as regulatory laws, can also be part of technological systems. Because they are socially constructed and adapted in order to function in systems, natural resources, such as coal...

    • Society in the Making: The Study of Technology as a Tool for Sociological Analysis
      (pp. 77-98)
      Michel Callon

      Social scientists, whether they are historians, sociologists, or economists, have long attempted to explain the scope, effects, and conditions of the development of technology. They consider technology a specific object that presents a whole range of problems that these experts have tried to solve using a series of different methods available to the social sciences.¹ 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. Not only would it...

  8. II Simplifying the Complexity
    • Introduction
      (pp. 101-104)

      As we noted in the general introduction, many of the recent developments in the social study of technology consist of detailed empirical analyses of the “content” of various technological artifacts and systems and their environment. This “thick description” results in a wealth of detailed information about the technical, social, economic, and political aspects of technology. In order to contribute to our overall understanding of technology, however, we need to simplify and structure this wealth of information, thus creating order out of the chaos of data. Of course, the construction of models or of “middle-range” theories necessarily oversimplifies the rich texture...

    • Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering: The Case of Portuguese Expansion
      (pp. 105-128)
      John Law

      How do objects, artifacts, and technical practices come to be stabilized? And why do they take the shape or form that they do? In this chapter I advocate and exemplify an approach to these questions that stresses (1) the heterogeneity of the elements involved in technological problem solving, (2) the complexity and contingency of the ways in which these elements interrelate, and (3) the way in which solutions are forged in situations of conflict. This “network” approach draws on and parallels work by Callon (1980 and this volume) and is developed in relation to secondary empirical material about the technology...

    • The Nelson-Winter-Dosi Model and Synthetic Dye Chemistry
      (pp. 129-154)
      Henk van den Belt and Arie Rip

      Although economics is virtually unique among the social sciences with its long-standing interest in analyzing the nature and causes of technological change, we do not think that most of its contributions are particularly relevant to the general student of technology.

      Some recent “neo-Schumpeterian” theories of innovation and technological change, in particular, those proposed by Nelson and Winter and by Dosi, should be exceptions to this stricture (Nelson and Winter 1982; Dosi 1984). These economists maintain that a major break with the neoclassical orthodoxy of the discipline is needed for coming to terms with the phenomenon of technological change. We think...

    • The Social Construction of Bakelite: Toward a Theory of Invention
      (pp. 155-182)
      Wiebe E. Bijker

      The aim of this chapter is to put forward some theoretical concepts whereby the development processes of technological artifacts can be understood. The approach I suggest extends the social constructivist analysis of the development outlined by Pinch and Bijker (this volume). In the earlier work we proposed a descriptive model that focused on the various meanings attributed by different social groups to an artifact. This allowed us to give a symmetric account of “successful” and “failed” artifacts, and it also had the advantage of incorporating both technical and nontechnical elements in the description. In this chapter I develop the model...

  9. III Strategic Research Sites
    • Introduction
      (pp. 185-188)

      One of the difficulties facing any study of technology is heterogeneity. Unlike the case of science, in which it is possible to identify communities of practitioners who produce and ratify scientific knowledge, in technology there is a variety of groups involved. Furthermore, it is hard to say that any one group is the crucial one on which research efforts should be concentrated. Among the different participants in any field of technology one can find individual inventors, research scientists, designers and design engineers, production engineers, sales and marketing teams, bankers and financial advisers, lawyers, politicians and state officials, and, of course,...

    • Missile Accuracy: A Case Study in the Social Processes of Technological Change
      (pp. 189-216)
      Donald MacKenzie

      Few processes of technological development are fraught with greater significance than the growth in accuracy of strategic missiles. In its current series of flight tests, the MX/Peacekeeper missile has demonstrated the apparent ability to hurl ten nuclear warheads, each with a force many times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, over a trajectory of 8000 kilometers—and have them land on average less than 100 meters from their targets.¹ Corresponding Soviet capacities are a matter of dispute,² and probably lag significantly, but not by enough to have prevented the fear of a Soviet first strike against American land-based missiles...

    • The Social Locus of Technological Practice: Community, System, or Organization?
      (pp. 217-236)
      Edward W. Constant II

      At the risk of doing some violence to the historian’s craft, it is probably fair to say that most serious historical treatment of technology falls into one of two broad traditions: intellectual and artifactual accounts that have their origins in classical approaches in the history of science, or in biographical and organizational accounts that count business and economic history as their nearest scholarly kin. Devotees of the first tradition have largely followed Edwin T. Layton’s lead and see technology as knowledge possessed by a “mirror-image twin” to the scientific community (Layton 1972). Adherents to the second tradition have focused primarily...

    • Regulatory Science and the Social Management of Trust in Medicine
      (pp. 237-252)
      Henk J. H. W. Bodewitz, Henk Buurma and Gerard H. de Vries

      Over the past two centuries treatment of the sick has become the monopoly of the medical profession, supported by an increasingly complicated medical technology and protected, regulated, and in large part paid for by public agencies. Folk medicine, magic, and quackery have waned. In all industrial societies social systems of medical care have evolved. Such systems may be conceived of as densely populated networks of heterogeneous arrangements and dependencies. Nodes of these networks include hospitals, pharmacies, insurance companies, government departments, university faculties, the multinational pharmaceutical industry, and, of course, doctors and their patients. Also part of these networks is the...

    • The Consumption Junction: A Proposal for Research Strategies in the Sociology of Technology
      (pp. 253-272)
      Ruth Schwartz Cowan

      The sociology of technology, if it is ever to justify its existence as a subdiscipline, should take as its proper domain of study those aspects of social change in which artifacts are implicated. The processes by which one artifact supplants another (technological change) or by which an artifact reorganizes social structures (technological determinism) or by which an artifact diffuses through society (technological diffusion) are fundamentally sociological in character, subsets, as it were, of the larger topic of social change. Properly constituted historical investigations can be used (and indeed must be used) as the raw material for studies of social change,...

    • Seeing with Sound: A Study of the Development of Medical Images
      (pp. 273-296)
      Edward Yoxen

      This chapter is a contribution to a growing debate on the sociology of technological innovation. It is organized around a case study that describes some of the stages in the origination of a medical technology, the ultrasound scanner. In particular, I discuss differing ways of trying to generate two-dimensional images using high-frequency sound waves in the 1940s and 1950s. Some of these attempts were productive, and some were unsuccessful, in the sense that no fully functional equipment that could perform to the standards of diagnostic accuracy required was produced by the group concerned. However, to write of success and failure...

  10. IV Technology and Beyond
    • Introduction
      (pp. 299-302)

      Much of the argument of this book has dealt in one way or another with the relationship between technology and society. Rather than studying the social impact of technology, the authors have been more concerned with showing how technology itself can be understood as a social product, or at least as possessing a social dimension. This entails a radical shift in how we conceive of technology and the innovation process more generally. The social aspects of technology do not start when a technological process or product is taken up by the wider society; rather they are always present.

      This new...

    • Reconstructing Man and Machine: A Note on Sociological Critiques of Cognitivism
      (pp. 303-320)
      Steve Woolgar

      The social study of technology is currently undergoing an expansion and a transformation. One impetus for this development is the application of many of the ideas and approaches of the sociology of scientific knowledge to the study of technology. Thus we now find the same post-Kuhznian reevaluation of preconceptions about technology as that which occurred previously with respect to science. This reevaluation produces the following kinds of argument. Distinctions between the technical (scientific) and the social must be broken down. Social analysis should attend to the content of technology (scientific knowledge). Technological (scientific) growth can no longer be thought of...

    • Expert Systems and the Science of Knowledge
      (pp. 321-340)
      H. M. Collins

      Artificial intelligence (AI) and its offshoots are of more than normal interest to historians and sociologists of technology. It looks as though AI will be the foundation of one of the key technologies of the later part of the twentieth century, and this is justification enough for a theoretically informed documentation of its development. In addition, however, AI has “internal” relationships to technology studies. Because “knowledgeable machines” can be seen as storage and transfer media for technological knowledge, the way they work must interest those concerned with the nature of technological culture or the transfer of technology. Historians and sociologists,...

  11. References
    (pp. 341-370)
  12. Contributors
    (pp. 371-374)
  13. Name Index
    (pp. 375-384)
  14. Subject Index
    (pp. 385-426)