Manjikian (2017). Social Construction of Technology: How objects acquire meaning in society. (Technology and World Politics: An Introduction.)

Manjikian, M. (2017). Social Construction of Technology: How objects acquire meaning in society. In D. R. McCarthy (Ed.), Technology and World Politics: An Introduction (pp. 25–41). Taylor & Francis Group. Retrieved from

“To what degree do technological systems and artefacts, bearing a set of values and use regimes, cause its users to behave in certain ways? And to what degree do users themselves — either individually or collectively — have the ability to shape how new technologies are used and the roles which they will come to play in our lives, in our communities and in the wider international system?” (p 26)

“As Steve Woolgar and Javier Lezaun (2013) note, the traditional formulation put forth by political scientists is that politics is about ‘who gets what when and how’, as famously stated by Harold Lasswell (1936).” (p 26)

“… Science and Technology Studies (STS) …” (p 26)

“… Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) perspectives. In contrast to popular images of technological innovation as the production of brilliant lone innovators, SCOT outlines a complex relationship between designers, interest groups and the wider social environment. We will introduce central SCOT concepts — such as technological closure, *momentum*, path dependency, *reverse salient*, and the first-mover advantage — to outline a middle way between determinism and constructivism. … Another variant of social constructionism, radical constructivism, asserts that a technology’s meaning cannot be understood apart from the language or discourse which exists to describe it. We will thereby outline this approach and consider its emphasis on *interpretive flexibility*. The indeterminacy of physical objects for radical constructivists means that different societies and cultures can interpret a technology and its meaning differently, both across time and at the same moment in time.” (p 26)

[“Beyond the individual innovator: the Social Construction of Technology” …]

“Designers often have the power to shape who can and cannot use a tool, as well as the conditions under which the tool might be used. Designers thereby, consciously and unconsciously, carry out a policing function helping to establish what constitutes a correct or incorrect use of a tool or technology. In this way, one can argue that ‘artefacts have politics’ — designers can build their political biases into technological artefacts (Winner 1980).” (p 27)

“Those who are excluded may not be considered by designers as relevant actors whose needs are important, and these same individuals may not have the resources to come together to demand changes to the technological specifications once tools are created.” (p 27)

“Technological developments are not merely the result of specific decisions enacted by specific individuals or groups, as they often are in popular accounts of innovation, but are part of more general sociological processes in which multiple actors are participants. … the intentions of designers are entangled with multiple actors and in specific, and complex, historical contexts. Artefacts take on a particular shape as the result of social, political, economic and normative struggles between manufacturers, users, designers and a host of other interested parties.” (p 28)

“While engineers physically construct or make an object, interest groups also construct the object — by virtue of the language they use to describe the object, the ways in which it is marketed and sold, and the ways in which it is regulated and understood.” (p 28)

“Technological closure, the process by which the meaning of a given technology is settled, defined a specific version of the bicycle as acceptable.” (p 29)

“… large technical systems (LTS) …” (p 30)

[“Enduring technologies: momentum, path dependence, reverse salients and the first-mover advantage” …]

“‘Large systems with high momentum tend to exert a soft determinism on other systems, groups and individuals in society.’ (Hughes 1987: 54–55)” (p 30)

“… reverse salient describes the process whereby the constituent parts that enable a larger object may not all develop at the same rate.” (p 31)

“As a first mover into the e-reader market, Amazon was able to capture market share quickly and lock in its technology as the preferred format for readers and publishers. As we can see, SCOT provides a mid-range answer to the question of whether society shapes technology or vice versa. SCOT falls between social determinism (which says that society decides what a technology means) and technological determinism (Herrera 2006: 32–34) by stressing that both elements are central to the development of socio-technical systems at different moments in time, due to both ‘technical’ and social factors.” (p 32)

[“Discourse and interpretive flexibility: how radical a constructivism?” …]

“In one camp, technological artefacts are understood to have values built into them, shaping how users encounter the object and how it may be used (Bijker et al. 1987; Herrera 2006). For this approach, which is the most prominent strand of SCOT, objects literally ‘have politics’ embedded within their material make-up. The materiality of technology exerts pressure on society to act in some ways rather than others.

“In the other camp, technological artefacts do not have any meaning coded into their design — their physicality does not direct politics in any specific direction (Woolgar and Grint 1995; cf. Brey 1997).” (p 32)

“One cannot discern what an object is without considering what it means and how it is understood within a particular context. … [page break] … what one individual might term ‘wasting time on the internet’ might be seen as a valuable activity or enterprise in another context; wasting time is not a property of the Internet (Goldsmith 2016).” (p 32-33)

“Despite the difficulties inherent in predicting every way in which a new technology might be used, contemporary policymakers often _do_ assume that designers and creators of new technologies are able to anticipate how their products will be used, and that they therefore bear a responsibility for seeing that such technologies are used in a responsible and ethical way.” (p 33)

“… interpretive flexibility — the notion that the ‘facts’ or meaning of a technology, its use and function, can change depending on context.” (p 33)

“… Woolgar and Lezaun (2013) have extended the radical constructivist stance, arguing that technological artefacts are, like gender, performative. An object becomes something by virtue of how it is enacted, used and described.” (p 34)

“… Woolgar and Neyland (2014: 324) … ‘… objects are brought into being, they are realized in the course of a certain practical activity, and when that happens, they crystallize, provisionally, a particular reality …'” (p 34)

“The technology of international gestational surrogacy in particular is an act which is embedded and [page break] intertwined with questions of colonialism (including the power politics of the core and periphery); with questions of economics and the neo-liberal economic system; with questions of religion and culture; and with a discourse about women and bodily autonomy (Scott 2009). To grasp their context-dependent meaning, consider: How would the technology of egg donation and gestational surrogacy be described and understood by a group of actors (or interest groups) as diverse as an impoverished, illiterate woman from a village in India, a Catholic cardinal in Rome and a medical researcher in a Western developed nation? In each case, the technology means something different, is understood differently and, in a very real way, is something different ontologically.” (p 34-35)

[“SCOT, global pluralism, and the fluid meaning of objects” …]

“… learning management system (LMS) …” (p 35)

“Much of the original rhetoric about online education focused on the ways in which these technologies could alter social relations in the university, the university classroom and society. Early adopters spoke of the ‘disruptive’ potential of online learning, describing a paradigm shift which they argued would inevitably occur within the university environment. The traditional hierarchy between professor and student might vanish, and a more democratic way of learning, thinking and making knowledge would inevitably result, according to these analysts. Indeed, it is likely that the designers of such platforms had these end results in mind. They might have described the ‘correct’ or intended use of an LMS as one in which individuals and groups came together in a non-hierarchical, unstructured environment where everyone was free to contribute and participate.

“However, an online learning environment looks very different depending on the context in which it is deployed. And, in many cases, it does not represent a brand new environment, but rather reproduces the existing power relations and structures of the world in which it resides.” (p 36)

“Erik Byker (2014) describes how schools where students are predominantly of a very low socioeconomic status incorporate the technology, telling students that it is an important tool in achieving economic status in society. He notes that in classrooms where students have higher socio-economic status, the emphasis may be on mastering a [page break] technology which increases ties to the West, without the emphasis on improving socio-economic status.” (p 36-37)

“The pluralism of international society disrupts any uniform meaning being attributed to a given object.” (p 37)

[“Looking towards the future: what role will new technologies play?” …]

“While corporate actors could never entirely control the symbolic meaning users would attach to their products, the system of mass production gave them greater power to set the agenda within which this contest would occur.” (p 37)

[“Conclusion: beyond the material–ideational divide” …]

“… no reason to believe that a technology is inherently peaceful, inherently belligerent, inherently disruptive or inherently stable. … technological objects develop within systems where designers and regulators have some agency, but where they do not enjoy a monopoly to dictate the ways in which a technology emerges or functions within society.” (p 39)

“SCOT approaches have been effective in drawing out how moments of *technological determinism* and moments of social construction coexist, appearing at different times in the life cycle of a given technological system and empowering, or disempowering, different users.” (p 39)

Selected References

  • Bijker, Wiebe E., Thomas P. Hughes and Trevor Pinch. 1987. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Brey, Philip. 1997. Social Construction for Philosophers of Technology: A Shopper’s Guide. Techne: Journal of the Society for Philosophy and Technology 2(3–4): 6–78.
  • Byker, Erik. 2014. ICT Oriented toward Nyaya: Community Computing in India’s Slums. International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology 10(2): 19–28.
  • Goldsmith, Kenneth. 2016. Wasting Time on the Internet. New York: Harper Perennial.
  • Herrera, Geoffrey. 2006. Technology and International Transformation: The Railroad, the Atom Bomb, and the Politics of Technological Change. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Hughes, Thomas P. 1987. The Evolution of Large Technological Systems. In Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes and Trevor Pinch (eds) The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Lasswell, Harold. 1936. Politics: Who Gets What, When and How. New York: Peter Smith.
  • Scott, Elizabeth. 2009. Surrogacy and the Politics of Commodification. Law and Contemporary Problems 72(3): 109–146.
  • Winner, Langdon. 1980. Do Artefacts Have Politics? Daedalus 109 (1): 121–136.
  • Woolgar, Steve and Keith Grint. 1995. On Some Failures of Nerve in Constructivist and Feminist Analyses of Technology. Science, Technology and Human Values 20(3): 281–310.
  • Woolgar, Steve and Javier Lezaun. 2013. The Wrong Bin Bag: A Turn to Ontology in Science and Technology Studies? Social Studies of Science 43(3): 321–340.
  • Woolgar, Steve and Daniel Neyland. 2014. Mundane Governance: Ontology and Accountability. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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