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Between the politics of technology and the social construction of technological systems (SCOTS)[1], exists considerable tension over three distinct problems centered on the commitment of SCOTS to relativism. First, the SCOTS program can find no useful criteria to judge a technology. But can society in “an age of high technology” (Winner 1986) afford this position? Second, the defining of the “social groups” or actors involved in shaping a technology during the innovation and diffusion stages brackets off the agents in consideration. What about those impacted by a technology who are outside this consideration? And, while Latour (in Bijker and Law 1992) wants us to consider the nonhuman, the SCOTS program disregards issues related to the processes by which resources are made available and sustainable access to them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the question of whether the socio-political structure and the status of actors should be left out of the discussion. “Where’s the power?” we might ask.

The emerging and evolving theory of the social construction of technology has offered much to the collective knowledge about technology. Winner sees the utility of acknowledging “the social circumstances of [technological] development, deployment, and use,” and of shunning “naïve technological determinism … Those who have not recognized the ways in which technologies are shaped by social and economic forces have not gotten very far” (1986a: 21). Indeed, technologies are dependent upon their socio-historic context. I would additionally emphasize that the inherited technoscientific knowledge, the technical resources and raw materials available constrain the capacity for development. Social groupings hold to a “technological frame” (Bijker 2007; Bijker and Carlson in Bijker & Law 1992) and develop their technical knowledge, systems and infrastructures within its constraints[2]. The scope of possible technical artifacts is limited by the available physical tools and resources to construct them, maintain them and reproduce them.[3] Technology is socially ordered, but materially confined.

Russell criticized the SCOTS model which places relativism at its core because “a relativist approach is inadequate analytically and unacceptable politically.” These, he argues “are thus two sides of the same coin. It is no coincidence that some of the most valuable and analytically satisfying critiques of technologies and their justifications have come from movements opposing them and putting forward alternatives.” (1986: 332). He also criticized it for failing to consider the location of the groups negotiating the evolution of a technology. Pinch and Bijker wrote they were not “worried” about this issue, “since all forms of sociological explanation in which groups or structures are identified can never be adequate in the sense that all groups and structures are themselves embedded within an endless web of other groups and structures” (1986: 353). Using the complexity of a society and one’s inability to unravel it is a poor excuse to ignore power and disenfranchisement, especially when that person enjoys a considerable degree of social privilege, no doubt bolstered by one’s status in a highly technological society.

Additionally, the SCOTS project is limited in scope because of the obsession with the actors involved directly in innovation. Pinch and Bijker advocate a focus on the groups occupied in shaping a technology to explain “the success of the artifact” (1984: 24). In the process of innovation, pointing to Mulkay, they argue “almost everything is negotiable” (1984: 26). They set out to question the shaping of a technology and considering the social forces involved. The groups who shape the artifact are those who “share the same set of meanings, attached to specific artifact” (1984a: 30). However, they do not consider the forces external to this process. In failing to address outcomes, they do not address that those external to the development are often impacted. They proclaim that “the use of the concept of relevant social groups is quite straightforward … In deciding which problems are relevant, the social groups concerned with the artifact and the meanings that those groups give to the artifact play a crucial role: A problem is defined as such only when there is a social group for which it constitutes a ‘problem.’” (1984a: 30). In their methodology, however, a researcher is only able to identify empirically those engaged during the process of innovation. The “straightforward” quality of the concept is a product of its being incomplete – and apolitical.

Misa states “nature does not determine the form of scientific facts or technological artifacts and that their shape is negotiated among actors” (in Bijker & Law 1992: 109). While the form and shape is indeed not determined by nature, the boundaries of what is negotiable are determined – in part – by nature. Once the social constructions (in consideration) are stripped away from the artifact, something yet remains: the availability and means of accessing material resources. While much is indeed negotiable in the cultivation of an artifact, much remains either external, immutable or both. Also left behind is the political economy of the artifact and its impacts upon and relations with the range of groups not central to its genesis and its political demands. The integration and functioning of an artifact in society demands much of its arrangement and organization – “let us recognize that every technology of significance to us implies a set of political commitments that can be identified if one looks carefully enough” (Winner 1986: 52).

The SCOTS view takes us quite far, but not far enough. Perhaps it is not the point of termination that is the problem, but its point of origin. Where Bijker, Pinch and other proponents of the SCOTS view suggest relativism, Winner demands we focus on “forms and limits for technological change … that derive from a positively articulated idea of what society ought to be” (1986b: 52). “We should try to imagine and seek to build technical regimes compatible with freedom, social justice, and other key political ends,” he writes. “Insofar as the possibilities present in a given technology allow it, the thing ought to be designed in both its hardware and social components to accord with a deliberately articulated, widely shared notion of a society worthy of our care and loyalty” (1986b: 55)

When considering Pinch and Bijker’s “closure” stage, it is clear to this reader that “enclosure” is a more appropriate term. The actors involved in shaping the new technology enclose all those affected by the new technology. “Rather than insist that we immediately reduce everything to the interplay of social forces,” Winner claims, “the theory of technological politics suggests that we pay attention to the characteristics of technical objects and the meaning of those characteristics. A necessary complement to, rather than a replacement for, theories of the social determination of technology, this approach identifies certain technologies as political phenomena in their own right” (1986a: 22). The SCOTS view requires “flexibility in how people think of or interpret artifacts but also that there is flexibility in how artifacts are designed” (Pinch & Bijker 1989: 40; emphasis in original). This is more than simply contentestable – for their own program to have weight, the artifact must be seen as considerably flexible. In practice, the range of interpretations is materially and politically constrained – to use the more recent terminology of Bijker, artifacts become hard, obdurate, thick, resistant (2007).

Pinch and Bijker acknowledge SCOTS developed theoretically and without much empirical research. As more research has been published in the last decade, we have seen much ad hoc theorizing. Even Bijker’s discussion of dikes and dams (2007) reads much more like Winner’s politics of technology than SCOTS. Bijker’s concept of the “technological frame” and of “thick objects” shows the limits artifacts place on the community in which they are embedded. “Because technological innovation is inextricably linked to processes of social reconstruction,” Winner explains, “any society that hopes to control its own structural evolution must confront each significant set of technological possibilities with scrupulous care” (1986b: 54). This requires at least a temporary suspension of relativism.


Works cited:

Bijker, W. (2007). “Dikes and dams, thick with politics.” ISIS, 98, pp. 109-123.

Bijker, W. and J. Law (1992). Shaping Technology/Building Society. MIT Press.

Pinch, T. and W. Bijker (1989) “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts” in The Social Construction of Technological Systems, Bijker, Hughes & Pinch (eds.). MIT Press.

Pinch, T. and W. Bijker (1986). “Science, Relativism and the New Sociology of Technology: Reply to Russell.” Social Studies of Science, 16,2, pp. 347-360.

Russel, S. (1986). “The Social Construction of Artefacts: A Response to Pinch and Bijker” Social Studies of Science, 16,2, pp. 331-346.

Scott, B. (2005). Scandalous Knowledge. Duke University Press.

Winner, L. (1986a) “Do Artifacts Have Politics” in The Whale and the Reactor. MIT Press.

Winner, L. (1986b) “Techne and Politeia” in The Whale and the Reactor. MIT Press.

[1] I use “SCOTS” rather than “SCOT” to consider the tradition solidified around the publication of The Social Construction of Technological Systems, edited by Bijker, Hughes, and Pinch.

[2] This is not unlike Fleck’s concept of the “thought collective” limiting its range of scientific inquiry to that which corresponds to its “thought style” (Smith 2005), however significantly more materially constrained.

[3] These constraints cause considerable dilemmas for equitable diffusion.

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