Social construction of technology

Social construction of technology (also referred to as SCOT) is a theory within the field of science and technology studies. Advocates of SCOT—that is, social constructivists—argue that technology does not determine human action, but that rather, human action shapes technology. They also argue that the ways a technology is used cannot be understood without understanding how that technology is embedded in its social context. SCOT is a response to technological determinism and is sometimes known as technological constructivism.

SCOT draws on work done in the constructivist school of the sociology of scientific knowledge, and its subtopics include actor-network theory (a branch of the sociology of science and technology) and historical analysis of sociotechnical systems, such as the work of historian Thomas P. Hughes. Its empirical methods are an adaptation of the Empirical Programme of Relativism (EPOR), which outlines a method of analysis to demonstrate the ways in which scientific findings are socially constructed (see strong program). Leading adherents of SCOT include Wiebe Bijker and Trevor Pinch.

SCOT holds that those who seek to understand the reasons for acceptance or rejection of a technology should look to the social world. It is not enough, according to SCOT, to explain a technology's success by saying that it is "the best"—researchers must look at how the criteria of being "the best" is defined and what groups and stakeholders participate in defining it. In particular, they must ask who defines the technical criteria success is measured by, why technical criteria are defined this way, and who is included or excluded. Pinch and Bijker argue that technological determinism is a myth that results when one looks backwards and believes that the path taken to the present was the only possible path.

SCOT is not only a theory, but also a methodology: it formalizes the steps and principles to follow when one wants to analyze the causes of technological failures or successes.

Legacy of the Strong Programme in the sociology of science

At the point of its conception, the SCOT approach was partly motivated by the ideas of the strong programme in the sociology of science (Bloor 1973). In their seminal article, Pinch and Bijker refer to the Principle of Symmetry as the most influential tenet of the Sociology of Science, which should be applied in historical and sociological investigations of technology as well. It is strongly connected to Bloor's theory of social causation.

Symmetry

The Principle of Symmetry holds that in explaining the origins of scientific beliefs, that is, assessing the success and failure of models, theories, or experiments, the historian/sociologist should deploy the same kind of explanation in the cases of success as in cases of failure. When investigating beliefs, researchers should be impartial to the (a posteriori attributed) truth or falsehood of those beliefs, and the explanations should be unbiased. The strong programme adopts a position of relativism or neutralism regarding the arguments that social actors put forward for the acceptance/rejection of any technology. All arguments (social, cultural, political, economic, as well as technical) are to be treated equally.[1]

The symmetry principle addresses the problem that the historian is tempted to explain the success of successful theories by referring to their "objective truth", or inherent "technical superiority", whereas s/he is more likely to put forward sociological explanations (citing political influence or economic reasons) only in the case of failures. For example, having experienced the obvious success of the chain-driven bicycle for decades, it is tempting to attribute its success to its "advanced technology" compared to the "primitiveness" of the Penny Farthing, but if we look closely and symmetrically at their history (as Pinch and Bijker do), we can see that at the beginning bicycles were valued according to quite different standards than nowadays. The early adopters (predominantly young, well-to-do gentlemen) valued the speed, the thrill, and the spectacularity of the Penny Farthing – in contrast to the security and stability of the chain-driven Safety Bicycle. Many other social factors (e.g., the contemporary state of urbanism and transport, women's clothing habits and feminism) have influenced and changed the relative valuations of bicycle models.

A weak reading of the Principle of Symmetry points out that there often are many competing theories or technologies, which all have the potential to provide slightly different solutions to similar problems. In these cases, sociological factors tip the balance between them: that's why we should pay equal attention to them.

A strong, social constructivist reading would add that even the emergence of the questions or problems to be solved are governed by social determinations, so the Principle of Symmetry is applicable even to the apparently purely technical issues.