Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

Toward a Culture-Conception of Technology

Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

Toward a Culture-Conception of Technology

Article excerpt

Directing conceptions tend to be taken for granted after they have once come into general currency . . . failure to examine the conceptual structures and frames of reference which are unconsciously implicated in even the seemingly most innocent factual inquiries is the greatest single defect that can be found in any field of inquiry.

- John Dewey, 1938.(1)

Technology and the Dichotomy

A clear and non-controversial definition of what is often called "the Veblenian dichotomy" has continued to elude modern institutional economists. This is odd and a matter of concern given that some have argued that this dichotomy is the distinguishing characteristic of institutionalism [Munkirs 1988, 1043; Waller 1982, 752].

My contention in this paper is that the barrier to a clear conception is to be found in an issue that plagued the work of Clarence Ayres, who is arguably the dominant figure in institutional economics in the World War II era. Ayres passed the problem on to succeeding institutionalists without resolving it, and subsequent "solutions" have failed as well. Put briefly, the issue is this: Ayres interpreted the distinction that Veblen drew between "the industrial" and "the pecuniary" as a contrast between "the technological" (or instrumental) and the "ceremonial" (or institutional). However, Ayres's conception of this distinction was neither consistent nor always clear.

The conception of technology offered by Ayres apparently evolved over time.(2) Culture, as the primary explanation of human behavior, was divided by Ayres into two parts: the material and the nonmaterial. He did not include all of material culture in his conception of technology. Certain material artifacts of culture, such as "ikons," "fetishes," "vestments," and "consecrated edifices," were ceremonial and not to be classified as technology [Ayres 1961, 78-79, 135; 1952, 53]. By comparison, material technics (aspects of material culture) and their concomitant skills - the tool-skills nexus that were invoked in performing an instrumental function - were designated by Ayres as technology.

As with material culture, Ayres assumed that nonmaterial culture would also comprise the instrumental as well as the ceremonial. It was incorrect, according to Ayres, to assume that nonmaterial culture only embodies the ceremonial - incorrect to think "that all social structure is ceremonial" [Ayres 1961, 78, 82, 135]. "Indeed it is as a form of social organization that technology is most important" [Ayres 1952, 53]. To the question, "Is social organization as such identical with that which I have been calling 'the institutional system'?" Ayres answered: "I have tried to make a clear distinction between institutional and ceremonial status systems . . . and the organizational patterns and devices" [1967, 12, 15].

Elsewhere in his work, the distinction gets even more complicated and confusing. In his discussions of basic social institutions such as the family, church, state, and the business firm, as they were and are clearly defined in sociology, Ayres conceded and recognized their instrumental functions. The family performed instrumental functions in providing for the "nurture and education" of children [Ayres 1978, 178-80]. Consequently, and contrary to the apparent conventional wisdom among some but not all institutional economists, apparently Ayres did in fact recognize that institutions, as such, contained both instrumental as well as ceremonial functions [Mayhew 1981, 514-15; Hayden 1982, 639-40].

Ayres resolved this apparent impasse and conceptual conundrum by concluding that the ceremonial aspects of "power systems" and "mores" embedded in social institutions took over and dominated the instrumental functions: "'primary' institutions such as the family must be understood to contain tool-activities as well as ceremonial usages. But the peculiar quality of these foci of activity is unquestionably ceremonial [Ayres 1978, 180-83]. …

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