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NATS 1760 Lecture Notes - Trevor Pinch, Wiebe Bijker, Technological Determinism

Natural Science
Course Code
NATS 1760
Vera Pavri

of 6
NATS 1760 Science, Technology and Society Introductory Lecture
Defining Science and Technology
Term scientist only coined in 1840
Prior to this, term natural philosophy used
According to the historian John Henry, natural philosophy can be defined as: “the attempt to
understand and explain the workings of the natural world”
Henry also points out that there are differences between what we considered science today
and what was the study of natural philosophy because, “a number of aspects of our notion of
science were not part of natural philosophy until the Scientific Revolution. In particular
empirical and mathematical studies had to be shown to be relevant to and combined with
traditional natural philosophy in the early modern period”
While term technology can be found as early as 17th century, used to describe treatise or study
of industrial (practical) arts
Term technology only popularized after WWII
prior to this, terms used were “practical arts,” “applied science” and “engineering”
technology often equated with invention and creativity; science as process of discovery – what
are some problems with this idea, especially in our modern age?
breaking down term: teks is Indo-European root word meaning to fabricate or weave; in Greek,
tekton refers to carpenter or builder and tekhne to art, craft or skill
Re-examining the History of Science and Technology
course surveys origins of modern science and technology from ancient civilizations to our
present day
in past, history of science and technology was usually about studying individuals whose
knowledge, theories and ideas most closely resemble our understanding of science today-
linear perspective
leads to what is known as “great (often Western European) man’s history”
this is a history of science and technology equated with geniuses whose findings have
“revolutionized” the field
problems with this concept include the fact that theories or ideas that do not mesh with this
linear perspective are often ignored or dismissed
also, the contributions of individuals and groups from other cultures have been largely
neglected throughout history
This course therefore aims to show that we can get a better understanding of
how science and technology have developed if we:
a. understand that social and cultural factors play a KEY role in the acceptance or rejection
of new scientific discoveries
b. realize that scientists themselves are not merely disinterested practitioners who seek
“truth.” Rather, their social and cultural beliefs will often permeate what kinds of
information they seek and the methods they use and how they interpret their findings
c. acknowledge that while individual contributions are important, science has often been a
collaborative enterprise and the very definition of what constitutes “good science” had
undergone significant shifts over time
d. understand that there have been limitations regarding who does science (and does not)
and whose knowledge is considered valid or credible. This also has a direct impact on the
historic relationship between practitioners of science and technology.
f. take into account the particular social and institutional settings in which scientific and
technological practice takes place
Popular theories of Technological Development Re-examined and Critiqued
in terms of history of technology, many popular theories have been offered to explain
technological development
these include theories such as: technological determinism and economic needs approach
lets look at these theories and see what are some of the MAJOR PROBLEMS with them:
A. Technological Determinism
Technological determinism is a viewpoint that regards technology as the prime agent of social
and organizational change
Technology is seen as an independent entity that changes and shapes society. It is an
“autonomous force” that once invented, appears to have a “life of its own.”
Once an object is invented, this artifact then transforms society and the way humans interact
with one another; central to this idea is that human agents have almost no control over a
technology once it has been built
Historian Heilbroner explains that determinism implies that technological change follows a
roughly ordered sequence of development and imposes certain social and political
characteristics upon the society in which it is found
The idea that technology is the “cause” of social, political, economic and cultural change is the
central element in determinist theories of technological change
Technology is thus the “driving force of history” that can have a revolutionary impact on
relatively passive societies
Ideas of technological determinism are most pervasive in popular discourse
According to historians Marx and Smith, “It is typified by sentences in which “technology,” or a
surrogate like “the machine,” is made the subject of an active predicate: “The automobile
created suburbia.” “The atomic bomb divested Congress of its power to declare war.” “The
robots put the riveters out of work.” “The Pill produced a sexual revolution.” In each case a
complex event is made to seem the inescapable yet strikingly plausible result of a
technological innovation
Ironically, what makes determinist accounts of technological change frightening is also what
makes them appealing: while technologies may appear to be out of control, humans are in turn
absolved of their own responsibilities regarding the impact of technological development
technological determinists have been criticized for simplifying what is a far more complex
relationship between society and technological change
Theories such as the social construction of technology and the social shaping of technology
have been developed to refute the notion of technological determinism (see below)
Generally, these theorists argue that determinists place technology outside society, and
neglect to account for the human factor in technological innovation
Determinists fail to see technologies as part of a pattern of social and cultural use and by doing
so absolve humans of their own responsibilities regarding the use of technologies.
Technological determinism is also universalistic; it does not account for the fact that
technological development, innovation and use varies within different groups and cultures.
B. Necessity is the Mother of Invention
economic approach to technological development whereby technologies are created according
to the particular needs or wants of society; “necessity is the mother of invention”
Assumption is that technological development follows a fixed one-way path and can be
explained by referring to economic laws, etc...
while this may be true for a certain category of invention, the major criticism of this idea is the
assumption that the inventors of a technology actually know what their technology will be used
as we will see time and time again in this class, inventors of a technology may not actually
know how users will respond to their technology; in many instances comparisons will often be
made to older technologies
leads to idea of UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES related to technological development
In addition, human beings have a variety of needs, not all of them economic; people produce
technologies for power, fame, honor, pride, fear, greed, curiosity, etc
economic necessity also does not explain technologies that are invented at one time, but are
used at a later date
example: windmills introduced into England around 1185 but spread only in 13th century after
landowners thought they could be profitable venture
instead of necessity as mother of invention, might be more prudent to argue that new
inventions often create needs that must then be satisfied by new technologies
C. Technology as Applied Science
In the past history of technology was usually subsumed under histories of science or economics
Technology as “applied science” refers to idea that technology is driven by scientific
While this might be true to some extent in the modern era, prior to the 20th century science and
technology done by different sets of people with different norms and values within their
established communities
examples: Industrial Revolution – inventions such as textile machines, steam engines, railways
had little scientific knowledge behind them
today, the debate still continues as to whether modern technology heavily relies on scientific
project Hindsight – 1960’s – Department of Defense – looked at development of military
defense system
researchers found 0.3% events relied on scientific; 90% had technical origin; 8% applied
project Traces – National Science Foundation – contraceptives, electron microscope, VCR’s all
rooted in basic scientific research
while this debate may appear to be purely philosophical, it can major implications in areas like
government funding and public policy
What are some popular theories that attempt to understand the relationship
between technology and society today?
A. The Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) Theory
the social construction of technology program is best known through the works of Trevor Pinch
and Wiebe Bijker, whose approach is based in part on the sociology of scientific knowledge
Pinch and Bijker propose that technological artifacts are constructed by social forces, and offer
a multidirectional model as to how technologies are developed
they question is why some variants of a technology die while others flourish
The social construction of technology theory involves three components: interpretive flexibility,
stabilization and closure, and the social, cultural and political milieu in which technological
development occurs
Pinch and Bijker argue that since technological artifacts are socially constructed, they can be
interpreted in different ways by different groups, and therefore there is flexibility in how these
technologies are designed: “Different interpretations by social groups of the content of artifacts
lead by means of different chains of problems and solutions to different further developments”
Different social groups will have competing and differing views of a particular technology. For
example, Pinch and Bijker show that the high wheeler bicycle was regarded as a “macho
machine” to some people and as an unsafe machine to others. In turn, this led to both the
development of even more daring bicycles as well as to the design of bicycles with lower
Next is the stage of stabilization and closure. Pinch and Bijker contend that social mechanisms
end technological controversies by limiting interpretive flexibility which in turn “stabilizes” a
technological artifact
Stabilization can occur in two ways: rhetorical closure and closure by redefining the problem.
With rhetorical closure, it does not matter whether problems concerning a technology are
solved, only that they are perceived as being solved by relevant social groups
Closure by redefinition involves redefining unsolved problems so that they no longer appear to
be problematic to interested parties.
Lastly, the third stage of the program investigates the, content of the artifact to the wider