Reactors, Weapons, X-Rays, and Solar Panels: Using SCOT, Technological Frame, Epistemic Culture, and Actor Network Theory to Investigate Technology

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Abstract

The article explores how four different theories have been used to investigate technology. It highlights the worth and limitiations of each theory and argues that an eclectic, everevolving approach to the study of technology is warranted.

Every major technical change reverberates at many levels, economic, political, religious, cultural. Insofar as we continue to see the technical and the social as separate domains, important aspects of these dimensions of our existence will remain beyond our reach.

-Andrew Feenberg, Questioning Technology

Introduction

Traditional approaches to the history of science and technology have been challenged for being too narrow, deterministic, and selective. For instance, before the creation of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) and the International Association for Science and Technology Studies (IASTS), historical investigations of scientists and technology tended to focus exclusively on "men and machines" at the expense of larger social, political, and economic circumstances (Hirsh 1983; Nye, 1984). When these approaches did attempt to investigate the context surrounding science and technology, they typically reduced changes to secondary effects of economic and social policy, often subscribing to doctrines of technological and social determinism. When historians and sociologists of science and technology did endeavor to look closer at context and determinism, they tended to be inconsistent and parochial in their selection of case studies, habitually focusing on great technological systems like electricity or military weapons at the expense of topics such as gender, culture, and race.

In contrast, the progressive field of science and technology studies (STS) has adopted as its fundamental concern the "investigation of knowledge societies in all their complexity: their structures and practices, their ideas and material products, and their trajectories of change" (Jasanoff 2004, 2). This perspective views technological knowledge and its material embodiments as at once products of social work and indicative of different forms of social life. A growing number of academic STS programs, the increased technological sophistication of society, and the interdisciplinary nature of its subject matter have coalesced to deepen the significance and application of STS. Correspondingly, the number of scholars subscribing to its views - and the literature and intellectual momentum attached to them - has spawned dozens of different theories, case studies, and analytical tools designed to illuminate the interplay between technology and society.

To help focus on the foundations of the discipline, this paper will investigate four widely used methodological approaches for studying technology. Specifically, it will argue that the social construction of technology, technological frame, epistemic culture, and actor network theory together offer a more varied and dynamic way of differentiating the interconnections between the "black box" of technology and cultural, social, political, and economic structures. The central argument of this paper holds that these concepts are useful in describing (a) the different social groups involved in the production of technological artifacts that might otherwise remain concealed; (b) the relationship such technology has with socio-cultural structures and practices; (c) the tendency for technological artifacts to have meanings that are mediated and negotiated, rather than fixed, and contingent on discourses of conflict, difference, and strategy; and (d) the often invisible role of knowledge, expertise, technical practices and material objects that shape, sustain, and transform relations of authority and institutions of policymaking.

This paper is not intended to provide a comprehensive investigation of these technologies or theories. Rather, it is designed to provide a helpful and concise guide for scholars and educators wishing to sample a variety of STS methods and topic areas. …