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Social Theories of Technology

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Introduction

Technology is an essential element in life of every person. It affects economic development and social life of people. Therefore, in the framework of technology studies, sociology and other related disciplines a lot of theories have been developed to explain relationship between technological enhancement and society. Theory of technological determinism suggests that the nature of technology is predetermined, and it has a considerable impact on the economic life, work, and society at large. Being criticized for the imperative character and the way it was perceived by scholars, social shaping perspective theories of technology were developed.

The social theories of technology started to gain momentum since 1960s. They were originally based on studies of technology in the workplace (Willcocks and Mason, 1987; Mumford & Ward, 1968). Social theories of technology share common background with theory of technological determinism concerning technology’s transformative powers.  However, social theories of technology are primarily focused on the way economic, institutional, social and cultural factors affect direction and rate of technological innovation, technology form, as well as implications of technological changes for various groups of society (Williams & Edge, 1996).

Social theories of technology are focused on the understanding why “particular technologies – whether it is the bicycle, the washing machine or computer systems emerge and are adapted at particular time” (Knights and Murray, 1994, p. 21). Therefore, a particular attention in the social theories of technology is devoted to the nature of power relations in the public and how they affect and control the use and development of particular technologies.

In the framework of social theories of technology, the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and the Social Construction of Technology theory (SCOT) have been developed and constitute a substantial body of research in this area. Being developed in the same framework, the two social theories of technology share a number of similarities. At the same time, these theories are distinct, and each of them has its own strengths and weaknesses. Comparison and analysis of the Actor –Network Theory and the Social Construction of Technology theory are discussed in the following sections.

Background of Social Theories of Technology

The theoretical background of the theory of Social Construction of Technology is based on several ideas suggested by Bijker and Pinch (1987). The first concept is “interpretative flexibility,” which implies that scientific results, engineering process and the consequential technologies are created, and the content that is associated with the technology is relevant for various social groups. Different meanings and interpretations can conflict in the form of discussions and debates between these groups; and that is the true determinant of technology’s functionality and design (Klein& Kleinman, 2002).

The notion of the relevant social group is another element of the theory of Social Construction of Technology. They are considered to be personification of certain explanations that “members of a particular social group split identical meanings that are associated with a specific artefact” (Pinch and Bijker 1987, p. 30). Development of the technology is a process, during which each social group personifies a particular interpretation of an artefact and discusses its design with other social groups that percept and construct rather different objects.

Finally, the theory of Social Construction of Technology provides discussion of the stabilization and the closure. A design process handled by multiple social groups can come across with a lot of controversies due to the fact that different explanations lead to the confusing and contradictory images of an artefact. The design process lasts until the time when these conflicts are set on and, hence, the artefact no longer creates a problem for any of the relevant social groups (Klein& Kleinman, 2002).

The Actor-Network Theory represents one more theory in the framework of the social theories of technology studies. It is considered to be a relatively new area of research in the sociology of technology and science. The background of this theory was developed by Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, and John Law during the 1980s (Latour, 1997).

The primary idea of the Actor-Network Theory suggests that objects of technology jointly with their political and social context develop simultaneously and mutually shape each other into socio-technical entities with the help of regular interactions. The objects along with their context outline diversify networks that are made up of human and non-human components. The heterogeneous components include institutions, techniques, objects, human abilities, organisational solutions or even cognitive structures (Potts, 2008).

Human component, as a network builder, is considered to be constantly formed and associated with the networks which it is part of. In this network, actors are connected by intermediaries that often have certain social meanings. In particular, technical artefacts, texts, human skills or currencies can serve as intermediaries in this system.

Comparison of Social Theories of Technology

Even though the theory of Social Construction of Technology and the Actor-Network Theory are developed and exist in the framework of social theories of technology and share similarities, they have different explanations of some fundamental concepts. First of all, the Actor-Network Theory does not provide an explanation of human actions that are referred to the organizational or institutional context to which the agent has been socialized, like in the theory of Social Construction of Technology. On the contrary, Actor-Network Theory does not provide any general explanation of the action at all. It is not grounded on any established theory of the actor. Moreover, it rather presumes the fundamental indeterminacy of the actor. This implies that Actor-Network Theory does not have any underlying theory of action. It only provides claims about the establishment of action.

Developers of the Actor-Network Theory neglect the institutional and social theories of action that are extensively supported by the theory of Social Construction of Technology. Instead, they consider that organizations and institutions do not appear as a result of the artefacts’ translations that are under the study. Unlike in the Actor-Network Theory, proponents of the Social Construction of technology claim that organizations, social groups and institutions emerge as a result of social constructions. Moreover, these social categories are said to be constructed in the similar fashion as the artefacts (Bruun & Hukkinen, 2003).

Another distinguishing difference of the Actor-Network Theory compared to the theory of Social Construction of Technology is that the reorganization of the artefacts’ or other actors’ interpretations does not carry any modification in itself.

However, the most fundamental difference lies in the denial of the Actor-Network Theory to incorporate in its framework the causal theories of action, like this is done in the theory of Social Construction of Technology. Proponents of the former disapprove social scientists’ assumptions about existence of a distinct set of social causes of action, including rules, social groups, and institutions, because, according to the authors of the Actor-Network theory, these rules, social groups and institutions are created in the process of action. According to them, actors can enter new paths of action within a framework of old commitments. They consider that people and organizations are able to translate their personal histories in order to fit to the new identities. Nevertheless, this kind of attempts usually meets confrontation both within the actor itself and with the environment (Bruun & Hukkinen, 2003).

Strength and Weaknesses of Social Theories of Technology

The application of the Actor-Network Theory has its advantages and disadvantages. First of all, the Actor-Network Theory is easily applied in the framework of the qualitative research that is attempting to model relationship between society and technology (Tatnall & Gilding, 1999). In addition, since it does not differentiate among the types of actors, these can be either human or non-human, the Actor-Network Theory effectively skips essentialism and lack of heterogeneity, which are parts of other social theories. Moreover, the notion of networks provides researchers with an opportunity to get rid of considerations about proximity that can bring doubts in cases when objects with distant connections are analyzed. Finally, the idea of network in the Actor-Network Theory eliminates the idea of inside and outside, making the research of social artefacts a lot easier.

On the other hand, the Actor-Network Theory has several weaknesses. For instance, the use of notions like “actors” and “network” was largely criticized because they lead researchers to the confusion regarding lack of clarity which actor to “go after,” since there may be several actors within a given network. Moreover, the option of choosing the actor is left for the researcher’s own vision and he may make a wrong decision. Terminology in the Actor-Network Theory is often puzzling and in many studies “Actor-Network” is considered to be equivalent to its predictable technical or sociological notion. Also, according to the Actor-Network Theory, all actors within the network are claimed to be equivalent. Therefore, it does not take into consideration any pre-existing structure. Moreover, another criticism of the Actor-Network Theory is connected with its failure to provide any means for actors’ differentiation into humans and non humans. Finally, due to the fact that each network is affected by another network, it is quite difficult to provide an extensive and complete explanation of the whole network system (Lepa, 2006).

At the same time, the theory of Social Construction of Technology also has a set of advantages and disadvantages. One of its biggest advantages is its dynamism. This means that application of this theory enables researches to study the dynamic development of a particular technology without taking into account technological determinism. Therefore, accomplishments or failures of a particular technology may be fully assessed and explained with the help of the theory of Social Construction of Technology, since it endeavours to present sociological justification of the technology as well (Prell, 2009).

Nonetheless, the theory of the Social Construction of Technology has also been criticised. In particular, even though it relies on the theory of the social groups’ existence in the society, there is no specifically developed method to conclude that. Instead, the theory of Social Construction of Technology suggests an approach that is similar to “go after the actors” methodology in the Actor-Network Theory, which bears the same problem of leaving the decision for a researcher himself (Klein & Kleinman, 2002).

Conclusion

To sum up, technology is an essential component and factor in life of individuals and society as a whole. It affects economic growth and social life. Therefore, a lot of theories have been developed to explain the relationship between technological enhancement and society. Theory of technological determinism suggested that the nature of technology is predetermined and that it has a considerable impact on the economic life, work, and society at large. Being criticized for the imperative character and the way it was perceived by scholars, social shaping perspective theories of technology were developed.

In the framework of social theories of technology, the Actor-Network Theory and the theory of Social Construction of Technology form a backbone in the research. Even though both of the theories are developed and exist in the framework of social theories of technology and share similarities, they have different explanations of some fundamental concepts. At the same time, application of the Actor-Network Theory and the theory of Social Construction of Technology in the research finds a number of limitations, as well as provides researchers with implications for further research.

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