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Theories in technology evaluation
Theories in technology evaluation

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1.4.3 Beyond technological determinism

The socio-technical perspective

Although I’ll keep the discussion of alternatives to technological determinism rather brief, they are no less important as they offer different – and in two cases, substantially different – positions from which to view the relationship between technology and society. Once again, therefore, this ‘bias’ feeds through into any theories and models of how a particular technology, project or programme is supposed to function and what the outcome(s) are likely to be. Again, the design and direction of any evaluation or assessment will be guided accordingly.

The socio-technical perspective started to gain momentum from the 1960s onwards and was initially based on studies of technology in the workplace, (e.g. Mumford and Ward, 1968; Willcocks and Mason, 1987). The sociotechnical perspective shared some common ground with technological determinism in that there was a strong belief in the transformative powers of technology, but proponents of a socio-technical approach recognised the importance of variations in context for the development and application of technology, and began to take notice of the human and social dimensions of society in the design of technologies and technical systems.

Because of its acceptance of the transformative nature of technology, its lack of opposition to the ‘inevitability of technology’ argument, and its melding of these two features of technological determinism with a contextual and human-centred approach, the socio-technical approach became a popular half-way house for researchers and evaluators of technology, and it remains so today. Activity 7 will give you the opportunity to test this out for yourself.

The social construction and social shaping perspectives

Social construction and social shaping perspectives offer a far more robust challenge to technological determinism-inspired theories and perspectives than the socio-technical approach. Firstly, they move beyond the technology and its parts and processes to explore the social processes that shape the form and content of technical knowledge and technological change. In attempting to understand this relationship they accept the union of the ‘social’ and ‘technical’ phases of technological development, arguing that nothing is purely technological. By so doing both approaches challenge numerous assumptions regarding the relations and boundaries between the technological and social.

Furthermore, and very significantly, technological development is not regarded as inevitable. Consequently, both approaches are concerned with understanding why ‘particular technologies – whether it is the bicycle, the washing machine or computer systems ... emerge and are adapted (sic) at particular times’ (Knights and Murray, 1994, p. 21). It will come as no surprise to you, therefore, that a particular area of interest to researchers and evaluators whose work aligns to these perspectives is the nature of power relations in society and how these influence and control the development and use of certain technologies.

I cannot say whether the authors of the Corporate Watch material I’ve cited in this unit are proponents of either the social shaping or construction paradigms, but given their concerns, research and published material (such as the statement on techno-scepticism cited earlier) I would suspect so.

There are a number of distinctions between the social shaping and construction perspectives, but I want to focus on only one here. Although social shaping is more broad-ranging in its analysis, and therefore better suited to recognising the cultural and socio-political conditions which apply to the design and application of technology, its major focus is clearly on social interests.

This means there is a tendency to social determinism – the opposite of technological determinism – and therefore to be open to the same criticism of determinism that can levelled at technological determinism.

Activity 7 Socio-technical, social shaping and social construction in evaluation

You may undertake this activity using an example from your own experience (e.g. from current or past employment) or an example you researched from another published source (in which case you must reference your source).

Identify an example of the evaluation of a technology that exhibits features of any of the three approaches listed in the wiki title. Alternatively, use your example as the basis for an outline of an evaluation that incorporates features that are informed by any of the three approaches.

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