The sociological studies of technology : Outline of the course

The sociological studies of technology :
Outline of a course
Zhongshan University, Faculty of Sociology

Rigas Arvanitis
version 1.3

Abstract :

The course is intended as a general introduction for sociologists. It will not get into deeper aspects ; rather it will try to understand the role of sociological analysis and help them in their fieldwork. First we will insist on the definitions of technology. We will propose an operational definition, that can be actually used in fieldwork (when making interviews or surveys). Second, we will remind that sociology has a special way of understanding technology. Sociology of technology will always insist on the interactions between social actors. Social actors (people, groups, institutions, firms, ...) define technology as well as they get defined by it. This interaction is different from the deterministic analysis of technology that is proposed by economics, engineering or many of the socio-historical analysis. I briefly state some aspects of the socio-economic type of analysis. Then, I expose some the intents to understand a whole set of social interactions, or socio-technical ensemble (Socio-technical systems, informational infrastructures, actor-networks, social construction of technology, engineering, communities, sets of imported technology). The interaction of sociological knowledge and science and technology policies is briefly sketched in some cases (the policy making debates, technology assessment, strategic analysis). I finish with some methodological observations useful in all types of sociological analysis of technology


The course is intended as a general introduction for sociologists. It will not get into deeper aspects, rather it will try to understand the role of sociological analysis. It is not intended as an introduction to the socioeconomic analysis of innovation, nor as a methodological analysis. Rather, I want to show the different manners in which sociology has addressed the question of technology. We will have no time to expose all aspects, so I wrote this small introductory paper for you.

I recommend three books as basic textbooks : Bruno Latour’s “Science in Action” is an excellent method book in order to do applied sociological research on scientific and technological projects. It also defends the idea that science and technology should no be seen as in the textbooks, but as it is done, on the way. There, scientists and engineers have a quite different way of doing things. Latour recommends to follow the activities of engineers as they work and as they argue about their work. A general introductory book on qualitative analysis along the same lines could be Howard Becker’s excellent “Tricks of the trade”.

As a general introduction to innovation analysis, with an ample view on the socio-economic and management issues, I would recommend Tidd, Bessant and Pavitt’s “Managing innovation”. The title is there to sell ! In fact, the book is much more than an introduction to the management issues. It relies heavily on the economic work done by evolutionary economists in the last years and by the reflection on competitiveness. It also opens up the way to a socio-economic understanding of innovation as complex processes which cannot be reduce to a single cause.

Doing empirical research on technology should always be done with an eye on other disciplines : economics, history and sociology of work. Ruffier’s book “L’efficience productive” is a good introduction to the question of technology on the firms. It gives clues on the analysis of a specific technology at work in a firm. The best introductory book on the way the concepts of research, technology and innovation should be understood is the book by economic historian Nathan Rosenberg titles “Inside the black box : Technology and Economics”. Although old, this book is still the best introduction.

I) The difficulty to define technology : A futile but necessary exercise

a) Technology

There are so many definitions of technology, wordings, covering different realities. Objects, places, persons implied...

Nonetheless, it is a necessary exercise because of policy matters. You need to know WHO is the beneficiary, what is the role of funding, how results might affect further research and investments

Lewis Branscomb states in Investing in Innovation, "definitions lie at the heart of public policy debates about technology policy, not only because science is both a source and a product of technology, but because the boundaries between research that leads to new technical knowledge and research that leads to scientific understanding are obscure and often misunderstood. Before one can create a policy for public investment in research, one must know more about the goals of the work, who its intended beneficiaries might be, and how these results might reach those who can use them beneficially. These are the attributes that should determine the role of government in funding technical work, not the narrow distinctions between science and technology".

I use the following definition : Technology is practical knowledge.

A technology is always composed of three things :
material objects such as equipment, machines, “hardware”, artifacts. Any object that as been processed by man can be seen as a solid component.
people that create and use the technology
knowledge and know-how that is used in creating, managing and developing the technology.

These three components are totally attached one to the other. They are linked in an inseparable manner. Empirically this means the analysis of a technological object alone is unsufficient, as is the sole examination of human resources or the isolation of knowledge from the other two components.

Knowledge as a new figure for sociology. There exist a sociology of knowledge which is quite complex in its statements because it has been very much applied to abstract objects. See Habermas for example. With the appearance of the debate on knowledge management and knowledge economy, things appear to be much more interesting in that they oblige sociology to focus on knowledge specifically linked to a technology, simple or complex : craftsmanship, know-how in the shop floor, artificial intelligence, and so on. Sociology of works has shown that informal, and collective knowledge play an important role. Sociology of science had a focus on tacit knowledge and it has been shown that this tacit knowledge is progressively integrated in the machines and equipment ; it is then called embodied knowledge. When you buy a machine you buy this knowledge. But it appears that in order to manage this embodied knowledge you need to develop a local knowledge, which is idiosyncratic (proper to your firm or your work environment) and is difficult to transmit. This is so because the exact conditions surrounding a piece of equipment are never exactly the same. This local knowledge may not be very elaborate, but it is crucial.

All discourse on technique (technology) is extremely prescriptive. You have to do in the manner it is indicated in order to make things function. You have to follow instructions. Technology is always defined as the only one possible, the best way. But sociology ands economics have shown that technology is always variable, depending on the context, the history, the technical links of a given technology. When a technical person tells you “there is no other way” this does not mean that “there is no other way” : rather the other possible ways have been eliminated in the particular context. The reasons why the engineer tell you “there is no other way” is an important indicator on its own technological achievements and position.

b) Research (R&D)

Research in companies is usually gathered in a Research and development department or unit. R&D is an essential component of technological development, but technology is not only linked to R&D. In fact, technological development has to do more and more with research because the sources of technological development are more and more linked to materials, arrangements that are beyond the scope of shop-floor knowledge. Even when engineering is concerned, R&D represents an important asset. Since a lot of information comes from patents and the literature, it appears that knowledge in the technological field will more and more depend upon the information you get inside the

Science and R&D have become an important source of innovation. Technology as an essential part of innovation and thus R&D becomes essential

R&D plays an important role in companies far beyond that of usual conception of R&D, that of an activity that is organized around research topics on a medium-term objective not directly oriented toward the on-going production.

R&D can play in companies different roles :
Medium-term project oriented research ;
Search of information on productive technologies (patents, tech lit., etc.) ;
Assistance to production on an everyday basis ;
Assistance to sales (including definition of clients needs) ;
Technical aspects related to technological negotiation and equipment installation ;
Technical help linked to test and material analysis not available elsewhere

R&D in medium firms and in developing countries play a more important role to than in industrialized countries, although it is usually “invisible” because firms do not report it as such.

Deterministic and interactive analysis of technology : Is sociology necessary for technology ?

As we will see, the analysis of innovation has been through a process going from a linear point of view to a more systemic one. For sociology this turn has been from deterministic explanations to interactive ones ; it has also been from single determinants to multiple determinants, from simple causes of analysis to multiple causes of analysis. Sociology has a job to perform related to science policy and innovation economics in showing how these multiple and interactive points of view can be integrated in the analysis.

The deterministic type of analysis

Technologists (engineers) usually say sociology is not useful. They will tell you that no need to study sociologically technical artifacts. For them, sociology should be limited to the study of the impacts of technology. The relation between Technology and Society is a linear relation FROM technology TO society.

In this linear point of view, technology can be devised without the use of a sociologist. Usually sociologists are called after the choices have been done, when there is an accident, a problem, a breakdown. Sociology should limit itself to the study of the impacts of technology on society and the conditions of life.

The linear view will promote a deterministic analysis of technology. That is, an analysis where technology impacts on society, more than the other way round. Then, we only have to adapt to technology. No other choices are given to citizens, people, communities, enterprises, than the acceptance of the proposed technology.

Deterministic studies of technology are common. They relate to two different aspects :
the scale of the analysis. Historians tend to be deterministic when they study the historical developments of societies (this not always the case). Usually, the larger the scale, the more deterministic the analysis.
the fact that technology is supposed to be self-sufficient. It works by itself. Nobody really acts on the technology.

Economic analysis tends also to be deterministic, but here its prices, competition or costs that will determine the technological development. As far as models of growth as concerned, we always stay in a deterministic point of view.

In classical Marxist analysis, we also have a deterministic analysis : technology affects the forces of production and thus affects society. The “S&T revolution” (a concept introduced by soviet researchers) affects thus society. There exist some Marxist analysis of recent technologies which examine specific sets of technologies like biotechnology (see Yoxen, for example). But most Marxist analysis looks at technology as a means of controlling the work force and dominate socially and economically the workers (see Noble, for example).

A special case, may be that of Lewis Mumford who distinguishes between the more concentrated technologies and the less concentrated ones. He gives a great importance to the rise of cities as an important ferment where technologies are devised and used. Mumford has a subtile and complex historical analysis, where technology is interwined in the fabric of society. A similar point of view is that of J.J. Salomon who develops the argument that politics and science are very closely related, because technology is determined by the political and social setting where the technology is developed.

The interactive type of analysis

Technology impacts : A deterministic assessment of technology would try to imagine what future evolution there might exist. It answers a straightforward question on why should a technology be funded and implemented.

Some reasons to study technology from a sociological point of view :

  • Technology is growingly complex (see Ruffier). More people are involved in the design of technical artifacts ; more people use them in different places. Technology is more and more complex, the number of actor implied is large, and the situations which are concerned are very different. Sociologist can study the interaction of these multiple actors.
  • The design of a technology needs to rely on its use. The use of a technology needs to be understood by those who create and develop the technology. Moreover, more and more technologies are designed for a specific use, a special “market niche”.
  • A specific technology is always a matter of decision that relies on a conception of society. Decisions on what is a useful technology are always a social matter. The decision process can be itself studied and, eventually, modified (or, at least, discussed, see for example Sclove). The organizational arrangement can be very important for the life development of the technology.
  • Technology is not limited to machines and people ; it is also a form of knowledge, rather independent from science (see Layton Jr.), but that gets closer and closer. As such it needs specialists (“technologists”) and also creates professional needs and professional communities (see Constant) in a similar way to scientific communities but with different ways of social organization (engineers, scientists in industrial environments, consultants, etc.) (see Downey and Lucena).

There exists a “world of technology”, as there exist a world of music, a world of art, a world of science, a world. To be exact there exist many worlds of technology, one for each specific technology (a world of catalysis, a world of aeronautics, a world of turbo-reactors engineering, a world of mechanical engineering, a world of hydraulic engineers, a world of agricultural technology....) . Each specific technology can be seen as the collective world where different social actors meet together.

Many social groups will interact in the collective process of designing and using technology. It is not a linear relation between technology and society, but an interactive and complex relation. This is why we need a sociological understanding of technology.

Social studies of technology

As we will se social studies of technology is a young discipline. So researchers have been from different fields. We can name mainly three fields :
the sociology of professions
the sociology of work and labour
the sociology of science

Additionally, some researchers were trained in sociology of organizations (but that was rather rare and curiously enough sociology of organizations has not focused on technology) and management sciences. In the later case we should mention that management sciences have been more we can see there are ,........ ici reprendre

Socio-economics of technological development

Socio-economics of technology grew out of the meeting of different disciplines, mainly economics, history and management sciences. Technology as a subject was introduced quite late into the models of economic analysis, although it appears as a driving force in Adams Smith’s book on the wealth of nations. What is interesting is that when finally economic analysis accepted technology in its models, it tried rapidly to eliminate the social and historical aspects of its study, a move considered as normal in a profession where formal thinking and non-historical models are used predominantly. Modelization of economic growth is today using technology as a factor of production and the new field of economics of innovation is built upon an abstract technological world. What is called today economics of innovation lets little room to sociological thinking. In this section, we want to offer a rapid critic of this new trend of the abstract economics of innovation that relies more on models than on the observations of real world technological projects and development.

Schumpeter is the only economist prior to 1950 to have introduced technology as an explicative factor of economic change (not necessarily growth). He develops a subtile argument about the interaction between a special kind of social actors (entrepreneurs) and diffusion of technologies and how they affect business cycles.

A usual difficulty of economic analysis of innovation is that it supposes actors to be rather independent (they choose to maximize their satisfaction or their benefits). Social determination as being prevalent in a specific social group is given, not explained.
Socio-economic analysis tries to gap this difficulty by looking at the social embededness of economic links and at the making of institutions (see Granovetter, for example).

Nonetheless, economics of innovation, should account somehow for the link between economy and society is essential. Innovation depends on the institutional set-up that permits to explain a specific set of organizations, costs and technology choices. Even by focusing on choices of techniques, one quite really has to face the different social contexts in which Socio-historical macro-analysis of industrial development is more useful than proper economic analysis (see for example Mowery and Rosenberg, Chandler, Bowker, Hounshell, Landau). Rosenberg is the very best exponent of this type of work. The historical analysis of industries has also a lot to say on the changing pattern of demand and offer. Landau, for examples, shows how resources are not any more a good explanatory variable. All these authors show the importance of institutions.

Organizational matters : The form of a technology might be the result of a specific organization (the organization that has conceived the technology, or the organization that uses the technology). Managing a technology might be the result of the management of the organization, in some specific cases. See historical examples as the railways in the USA (Chandler), accounting methods (Mackenzie), technical norms on for example the form of technical data (Bowker) or the working environments.

Socio-economics will insist also on the fact that social groups affect choices of technology, because they affect the use of the technologies. Economics have to take into account the fact that different social groups might use a technology differently. The use of technology is a very basic issue, and economics do not necessarily give a clue (see the case of QWERTY examined by Paul David).

Technology transfers as a particular type of social interaction. Technology transfers are the result of a technical choice, of an economic choice, of a political choice. They depend on the presence of many actors : type of company, role of public policy, role of markets. But they also depend on the development of a knowledge in the use of a technology. That is why we talk of technological learning (See Arvanitis and Villavicencio for example). Economists and sociologists now accept that a firm has to develop a learning capacity, or an absorptive capacity in order to integrate a new technology. What happens when you introduce a new technology is that a specific knowledge has to be created. So a technology transfer depends very much on who buys the technology even more than who sells the technology.

Not only social groups are important, but all economic terms “market”, “cost”, “investment”, have to be seen as the result of social choices.

“Sociotechnical ensembles ”.

Sociology of technology examines the interactive relations of actors around a technology. This can concern many different ways of doing so. But in all cases, sociological analysis has to grab a whole set of social interactions. (see article by Bijker and Law)

Socio-technical systems
The typical case is that of electrical energy networks (Thomas Hughes). Another very important large network is that of trains which in the USA have been developing rapidly in the nineteenth century modifying profoundly the way business, accounting and management was done (see Chandler). These socio-technical systems impose a specific way of doing things. It ties together people in different locations. You have to study the whole system as it laid down by the engineers, the economists, the promoters of the system.
A new and very specific type of system is informational infrastructure (See Bowker). Protocols for the exchange of data have an immense impact on economy and society (think of the Internet !). The way data are processed, transported and distributed affects business very much, although it is absolutely invisible to the user. Also interfaces between machines and humans in dealing with information are very important (see Bardini). They define the way users will act on the system.

Latour and Callon in many occasions shown that people, equipment and all other non-human actors are tied together in scientific and technical projects. In a project an actor is defined and by defining him you define a world to which it belongs. This actor may be or may not be human. Callon and Latour use a different meaning of actor than the common definition. In actor is always someone or something that is defined by others. When you define an actor you also define a network of interactions. The actor will act on others (it will have effects on others’ behaviour), but always inside the network of interactions that has been devised in order to define this actor. Artifacts, projects, machines, protocols, all these objects typically are actor-networks or belong to actor-networks. (A good methodological introduction to this analysis is Latour Science in Action). John Law who has been a persistent exponent of Actor Network Analysis shows that the objects mobilized in a network define the positions of other actors.

Social construction of technology (Bijker)
The authors belonging to this school say that technology is constructed socially over time. The bicycle, the incandescent light, the dams in Holland are all examples of technical objects that have been shaped over time by different actors belonging to different social classes and with their own view of society. Artifacts are thus constructed and modified over time, by the struggle of different groups in imposing their view of a technology. This type of analysis insists very much on the evolution of artifacts.

Social analysis of engineering knowledge.
Engineers play an important role, and have been very much neglected. Engineers, as scientists form communities that develop a specific language and a specific culture (see Constant). They also project the future in the design of the technology. Finally, the way they are formed has a great impact on the way they will develop professionally. Thus the technological choices are very much affected by their former education. A way to understand the making of a science and the study of a technology one can examine the activities of a particularly active engineer. An excellent to example is the story of Dough Engelhardt, among other things inventor of the mouse (The work has been done by sociologist Thierry Bardini and published in his book titled “Bootstrapping”).

“Imported technology”
Imported technology is a technology that is conceived in another country. The place where it was conceived differs from the place where it will be implemented and used. The company that will import a piece of machinery will have to import also (or create) some other factors that are necessary for the technology. (see Ruffier and also Akrich).

But in fact, all technologies can be seen as a transfer from one place to another. That is why the term “technology transfer” now refers to the transfer from a laboratory to a productive environment.

Politics and policy of technology as a matter for sociology

Science and technology policies always affect technology (see paper on “Science and Technology Policy” for the Encyclopedia EOLSS/UNESCO by Rigas Arvanitis). They also can be an object of study for the sociologist. In fact, the world of policy makers has mainly been studied in the United States, where great attention has been given to the role of experts and the interaction of policy-makers with scientists. Most scientific advisors to the government are scientists and they have had a great impact on technological development. The best known case has been that of Vannevar Bush who was the science advisor at the moment of the second World War and author of the famous report “Science : The endless frontier”.

But the sociologist can also directly participate into policy-making. In this case, sociological knowledge is introduced into policy making. A good example has been the introduction of the notion of “innovation systems”. Although it has been impulsed by economists (mainly through the work of OECD, by authors such as Lundvall, Pavitt, Chesnaix), the notion relies on the idea that firms and institutions interact in order to develop innovations. Networks of innovation are thus constructed in order to develop the technology.

Let us see some other possible areas where policy making and sociological analysis interact :

Technological assessment.
Technological assessment has been changing from a more bureaucratic to a more interactive point of view. It has been also called Constructive technology assessment (see A.Rip). Sociology is the discipline that most support this constructive technological assessment (CTA), as it adapted from the constructive point of view of technology (Bijker and Pinch).

Strategic analysis (in french “prospective et veille technologique”).
This is what usually a company does in order to detect what will be the future of a technological domain. They develop instruments in order to find out what is done in the field, what do competitors do, how they develop the technologies, what markets are intended to be targeted by a company. For sociologists this information is both an object (you can study the results of strategic analysis as a sociological object) and as a source of previous information that permits you to locate the social actors. A good example is bibliometrics, the statistical analysis of the publications in a scientific field. This information is strategic information. But it also permits to identify the different laboratories and persons that are implied in a specific domain.

Social interaction of social and technical matters.
Technical matters are more and more imbricated with everyday life. Think of different situations that you have read in the newspapers : Technological accidents (explosions, ship wreckings, fires,...), large technological projects, infrastructure projects, the administration of scientific proofs in a tribunal, biotechnological and medical manipulation of human reproduction, use of genetically modified organisms. All these are areas where policy makes a difference. It is of great interest also to sociologists to see how do the political decisions affect the development of the technology.

Commercial and industrial policies and technology.
A lot of studies can be done on local development of industries using specific technologies. This is not very different from other types of industrial sociology, or sociology of firms. But it is necessary to insist on the fact that technology plays a very peculiar role in industrial policies : it is both an object of trade and a tool of production, it is both a motor of growth and modernization and a limit to development. Because of its very special nature, technology needs a particular attention.

Technology Policy as a matter for sociologists.
The making of a policy, the workings of the authorities, the way different actors interact in defining the policy can be a matter for sociologists. The decision process itself is an interesting aspect and understanding it allows to interact with policy makers. The well known studies of Dorothy Nelkin on large scientific controversies, of th euse of knowledge in tribunals by Jasanoff, the work of Philipp Vergragt and Peter Groenewegen on decision making of particular R&D projects, the description of the policy making and evaluation mechanisms (Chubin in the USA, Laredo and Callon in Europe), the reflections of Salomon on the relation between social thinking and policy making (See his article in the EOLSS/UNESCO) are all topics that can be of help. In the same EOLSS/UNESCO Encyclopedia, an article by Susan Cozzens indicates both the content of the job of policy makers and the political context in which it takes place.

Conclusion : Methods.
Whichever your choice as an object of analysis, here are some simple rules for methodology that are a consequence of the above :

Study the people that are concerned directly by a project or a technology.

A technology will directly affect the life and the work of many people. You have to spot these people, the groups they belong to, and the way they think they will be affected by the technology. For example, in the introduction of a new machine in a workshop inside an industrial factory, the rhythm of work may be changed, the type of skills needed also will be affected. You need to locate and interview them.

The most common danger is to forget some important type of actor because it is marginalised by those conceiving the technology. Remember that a person who conceives a technology is always doing choices on who will be the users, how they will use the technology, how it is going to be inserted in the economy. Most commonly this happens because promoters of technology target the technology for a specific market. It can also be a political choice, where the local authorities try to evade some intervention by local authorities.

Examine the technical artifacts and objects of a technology or a project.

For example, if you visit firms you have to actually see the machines and the equipment. When looking at R&D in a compnay you have to visit the laboratories. If you want to study the policy of a local government regarding some city urban development, the object that is constructed is the city plan. You have to find the maps, the plans, the description of the project, the internal documents that have been designed in order to describe the project (Latour call these the traces of research). The most interesting things appear usually in the technical descriptions. In a visit, when showing the technical parts of a company (the machines, the laboratory, the places where production goes on), technical personnel explain a lot more than actual technical aspects. They explain what is their links to other types of technology, external support, inputs of knowledge from external sources, activities of the support personnel, working of the company. In the same way, sociologist may not understand all the sense of the technical description ; nonetheless in most cases it is in these documents that the uses of the technology are given, not in some accompanying discourse.

Study the interaction between different social groups around a common project or a technical artifact.

You have to interview the people that develop the plan, and ask them how they arrived at this project. In the case of the city plan, you have to find out how architects, city planners, government officials, investment promoters, speak about the project. They may say all the same thing. But they may also say slightly different things. This is one of the important things you have to spot : different things that can be said about a same project.

Examine the arguments and controversies that may affect the technology, including arguments on the use of technology, its costs and investments needed, without “believing” them.

Technical people will always present things as a belief. It makes sense to study their way of thinking as a “knowledge system” in the same way an anthropologist studies the knowledge of a nationality or a social group. But it is better to avoid this approach because it limits you to the internal coherence of the discourse. And there is no reason why a discourse should be the exact replica of the reality it talks about. In fact, the discourse will always appear as a belief system YOU have to believe. And this is not useful. A technical objects has always pros and cons and in some cases, for some reason, you don’t see them. You need to understand why it is you don’t see these controversies (hidden agendas, information that is not available, impossibility to locate the right people, unease environment where talking about such a subject triggers difficulties).

Usually arguments about the economic value of a technology are brought in order to convince of the quality of a technology. No economic argument is best that any other, since all uses and developments of technology have a cost. Some costs may be easier to compute than others. The way the costs are calculated are important. They way an economic argument is made is important more than the argument itself. Finally, the study of technical change and innovation has shown that it is not always the best technology that survives. Even with all good arguments in its favor, a specific technology can decline and disappear. The world of technology is not a world where the “best-fit survive” ; it is a world where the “best-supported” survive.

See Brief bibliography

Posté le 6 octobre 2004