NET308 – Actor network theory and social construction of technology

There are several theories or concepts that conceptualise the relationship between technology and society and provide insight into the conditions that bring about technological development. Understanding these is key to understanding how the relationship between technology and society shapes the way we collaborate and organise ourselves to bring about technological change. This essay will define two of these concepts, Actor Network Theory (ANT) and Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) and compare and contrast them whilst also describing their strengths and weaknesses in order to help us understand the relationship between society and the design and development of technology.

The social construction of technology (SCOT) is a conceptual framework aimed at illustrating how technology is shaped by social influences. Prell (2009) describes SCOT as a ‘theory for technological development, and its basic premise states that technologies emerge from social interactions among social groups and actors’ and that ‘all technologies have the potential to be shaped differently based on which actors and groups are involved’. Pinch and Bijker first defined the concept in 1987 describing it as having four related components (Klein and Kleinman, 2002, p.28). The first component of SCOT is interpretive flexibility which allows for the development of technology to be influenced by social factors, such that the end result of the development could have been different had it taken place in a different social setting. The second component involves having a relevant social group, such that design will continue until agreement is reached between all relevant groups that the end result will deliver what they require (Klein and Kleinman, 2002, p.30). The third component is closure and stabilisation. This component of SCOT is where the design process ends, and no further changes are required as the end result has solved all problems that were present prior to the design of the new technology (Klein and Kleinman, 2002, p.30). The fourth and least visible component is the wider context within which the design of the new technology is taking place. This is where consideration is given to external influences on the design process such as economics and politics. This component will be considered in more detail later in the essay, particularly in relation to some of the criticisms of the SCOT concept. A fifth component, the technological frame, was added in 1995 by Bijker (Klein and Kleinman, 2002, p.31) and this is where the design process accounts for structural influencers that shape ‘group members’ thinking, problem solving, strategy formation and design activities (Klein and Kleinman, 2002, p.31). In summary, SCOT is a design process based on flexibility of design, negotiation and agreement between social groups, the reaching of an end point and an awareness that the design outcome will be influenced by factors outside of the design process. All of this is framed within the confines of factors that influence the way group members approach the design process itself.

Russell (1986) wrote about several weaknesses of SCOT, ‘in particular, its espousal of relativism and of an evolutionary model of technological change; its treatment of ‘social groups’; and its explanation of their means of influence on development’ (Russell, 1986, p.331). One of these weaknesses is the inadequate attention given to social structure, particularly within the component of social groups and also wider context. Russell writes that it is not enough to consider the relationship between technology and social groups and that the relationship needs to be viewed in connection with ‘other sections of society, the economic, political and ideological constraints and influences on them, the broad historical changes affecting them and the more specific events leading them to the (design) process under investigation’ (Russell, 1986, p.335).  The weakness with this is there is no acknowledgment of the impacts that external factors can have on social groups that will influence the design process and the outcome of the process. Winner (1993) writes that some social groups can be excluded for a number of reasons. ‘Who says what are relevant social groups and social interests? What about groups that have no voice but that, nevertheless, will be affected by the results of technological change? What of groups that have been suppressed or deliberately excluded?’ (Winner, 1993, p.369). Winner also writes about power imbalance and the need to consider exclusions that happen repeatedly such that certain social are being excluded regularly as part of some sort of political dominance. Klein and Kleinman (2002) also write that the capacity or power of a group is not discussed inside the SCOT concept, ‘what we believe is missing in all of these cases is a discussion of groups’ capacity or power. What enables one group’s interpretation to be embodied in the artifact?’ (Klein and Kleinman, 2002, p.34). These exclusions can stem from some of the wider context issues mentioned earlier, such as economic, class, political or just from oversight or lack of awareness of what constitutes relevance in terms of social grouping. This weakens the SCOT theory somewhat in that it does not factor in these influences, or potential biases on the technological design outcomes.

Actor Network Theory (ANT) is another concept for understanding the relationship between technology and society. ANT extends the term actor to include non-human and non-individual entities (Latour, 1997) and considers all surrounding factors in the design and development of technology rather than any single entity human or otherwise. Hence the name actor network. Latour states that ‘there is nothing but networks, there is nothing in between them’. Law (2009) describes it as a ‘disparate family of material-semiotic tools, sensibilities, and methods of analysis that treat everything in the social and natural worlds as a continuously generated effect of the webs of relations within which they are located’ (Law, 2009, p.141). Whittle and Spicer (2008) write that ANT ‘views the power of humans and non-humans as equally uncertain, ambiguous and disputable’ and that ‘no agential priority is accorded to the institutional, conceptual, natural or material’ (p.612). Khong (2003) writes that ‘Instead of perceiving technologically mediated action exclusively in terms of either artefacts or humans, Latour maintains that we need to understand the way in which technological artefacts and humans act upon each other symmetrically to produce action.’ Everything is a result of everything around it. Everything has an impact on everything else within the network within which it exists. ANT provide equality to all actors within the network, and focuses on the value created by the network itself rather than the actors within it.

Like SCOT, ANT has weaknesses which are worth considering. Whittle and Spicer (2008, p.613) write that stability is only guaranteed as long as all actors remain committed to the network. They provide an example of employee buy-in within a manufacturing system. The machinery may still be willing to work but of the employees aren’t, the network becomes unstable. ANT asserts the importance of the network but does not consider how the network came to be. Whittle and Spicer (2008, p.614) write that ANT does not allow for affordances of technology and nor does it describe how dominant versions of an artefact come to be dominant over another. ANT, like SCOT, does not allow for power imbalance or the influence of external factors that may limit the input of some actors in favour of others.

SCOT is a concept that uses social actors in relation to technology and does not use non-human entities as part of its model. SCOT accounts for closure and stability. ANT on the other hand uses non-human and human entities and focuses on the movement between actors rather than the actors themselves. It does not provide closure. Whilst neither ANT nor SCOT provide a complete view of the design process, as concepts, both offer value to understanding the relationship between society and technology and the resulting conditions under which technology develops.

 

References:

Lynnette Khong, Actants and enframing: Heidegger and Latour on technology, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, Volume 34, Issue 4, December 2003, Pages 693-704, ISSN 0039-3681, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsa.2003.09.003

Klein, H. K,, & Kleinman, D .L. (2002). The social construction of technology: Structural considerations. Science Technology Human Values 27(1), 28-52. doi: 10.1177/016224390202700102

Latour, Bruno (1997). On Actor-Network Theory. A few clarifications plus more than a few complications. In Finn Olsen “Om aktor-netvaerksteroi. Nogle fa afklaringer og mere end nogle fa forvikinger “, Philsophia, 25(3) et 4, pp. 47-64.

Law, J. (2009). Actor Network Theory and material semiotics. In B. S.Turner (Ed.), The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory (141-158). Hoboken, NJ, USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Lister, M., Dovey, J., Giddings, S., Grant, I., & Kelly, K. (2009). New media: A critical introduction (2nd ed.). London, UK: Routledge.

Pinch, T. J., & Bijker, W. E. (1984). The social construction of facts and artefacts: or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other. Social Studies of Science 1984(14), 399-441. doi: 10.1177/030631284014003004

Prell, C. (2009). Rethinking the social construction of technology through ‘following the actors’: A reappraisal of technological frames. Sociological Research Online 14(2)4 Retrieved from http://www.socresonline.org.uk/14/2/4.html doi:10.5153/sro.1913

Russell, S. (1986). The Social Construction of Artefacts: A Response to Pinch and Bijker. Social Studies of Science, 16(2), 331-346. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/285210

Whittle, A., & Spicer, A. (2008). Actor Network Theory critique? Organization Studies, 2008(29), 611-629. doi: 10.1177/0170840607082223

Winner, L. (1993). Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding It Empty: Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 18(3), 362-378. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/689726

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