2 Social construction of technology and actor-network approaches

A related approach to that espoused by Mackenzie and Wajcman is called the social construction of technology (SCOT) approach. In the SCOT approach (see Box 2) the development process of a technological artefact (Pinch and Bijker, 19) is analysed from the perspective of all the different social groups and social interests that may be associated with its early development and thus may act to help shape its development. Pinch and Bijker use the development of the bicycle as an example. In the early days there were a vast range of design ‘variants’ and a ‘selection’ process funnelled them into the design which became the norm – a process ending in what they call closure. The argument of Pinch and Bijker is that although with hindsight the selection process appears to be a logical one with a successful final design (closure), at the time this was anything but the case – the successful design was just one of various serious rivals and ‘won’ through a process of dealing with problems arising from the various social groups interested in the bicycle’s development, including the anti-cyclists.

Critics of the SCOT approach see it as a kind of social determinism and some have proposed an alternative approach – called the actor-network approach, where the distinction between physical and social actors are collapsed together:

“The actor network approach is reducible neither to an actor alone nor to a network. Like networks it is composed of a series of heterogeneous elements, animate and inanimate, that have been linked to one another for a certain period of time. The actor network can thus be distinguished from the traditional actors of sociology, a category usually excluding any non-human component and whose internal structure is rarely assimilated to that of a network. But the actor network should not, on the other hand, be confused with a network linking in some predictable fashion elements that are perfectly well defined and stable …An actor network is simultaneously an actor whose activity is networking heterogeneous elements and a network that is able to redefine and transform what it is made of”.

Callon, 1987, p 93

Box 2 Social constructivism

Social constructivism is an outgrowth of the sociology of science, that assumes that artefacts and practices are best seen as the constructions of individuals or collectivities that belong to social groups (Law, 1987). Because social groups have different interests and resources, they tend to have different views of the proper structure of artefacts. The stabilization of artefacts is explained by referring to social interests that are inputted to the groups concerned and their differential capacity to mobilise resources in the course of debate and controversy. Social constructivists sometimes talk of this process as one of ‘closure’. Closure is achieved when debate and controversy about the form of an artefact is effectively terminated. The approach is useful because many artefacts are designed in the context of controversy – examples are airports, the bicycle.

Methods associated with technology shaping include case study methodology, the detailed and ethnographic study of particular technological changes, and careful rethinking of studies from the history of science. Social constructivism, the actor-network approach and technological systems approaches (see Box 3) have much in common. First, they agree that technology is not fixed by nature alone but by human interaction. Second, they agree that technology does not stand in an invariant relation with science, that the relation science/technology is a complex one (Faulkner, 1994). Third, they assume that technological stabilization can be understood only if the artefact in question is seen as interrelated with a wide range of non-technical and social factors.

Box 3 Technological systems approach

This approach (Hughes, 1987) understands technological innovation in terms of a systems metaphor. The argument is that those who build artefacts do not concern themselves with artefacts alone, but must also consider the ways in which the artefacts relate to social, economic, political and scientific factors. The argument is that innovators are best seen as systems builders. A good historical example of a systems builder was Edison as you saw in Block 1, who had not only to grapple with the technical (how to minimise the cost of transmitting power) and scientific (how to find a high resistance incandescent bulb filament) but also economic (how to supply electric lighting cheaper than gas), and political (how to persuade politicians to permit the development of a power system).

To summarise, I have introduced the social shaping of technology approach via Mackenzie and Wajcman’s classic text and considering social constructivism, actor-network and technological systems approaches. The social shaping approaches, worked on and developed in the 1980s and 1990s, are now integrated into the mainstream of research on technological innovation. Increasingly, technological changes are products of social processes. Consequently, outsiders or those people not directly involved in the design of, and decision-making about, a technology, can shape technology transformation.

Activity 9

Reflecting on your reading of the eco-toilet East African case study in section 1, in what ways does it demonstrate a social shaping approach?


The social shaping approach, where a range of actors are involved in bringing the technology to fruition, can be demonstrated at a technical level (licences, funding, business plan) and social level (changing peoples’ values and beliefs) in the eco-toilet case study. Thus, in order to commercialise the technology, the project manager David Kuria, had to negotiate with Nairobi city planners and lawyers, responding to their concerns in order to acquire land and licences. The Acumen fund, a social venture capital firm, provided the expertise and training to help him design a business plan and also funded the project. In tackling traditional resistance to paying for sanitation, Kuria first won acceptance of the eco-toilet among the wealthy citizens of Nairobi by placing an eco-toilet in a downtown, prime location. He was then able to locate eco-toilets in the slums of Nairobi which were enthusiastically received with the aid of marketing and the support of national politicians and local journalists. Thus, outsiders not directly involved in the design of the technology can have a significant impact on its commercialisation and success.

1 Technology shaping

3 Technology policy