The Social construction of technology, abbreviated SCOT, is a constructivist theory of technological innovation inspired by the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), and in particular by SSK’s principle of symmetry. In brief, SSK holds that successful theories are as much a product of their social context as unsuccessful ones; theories do not succeed because they are “true,” but rather because they are socially supported. Similarly, SCOT holds that successful innovations cannot be explained by assuming that they “work” better than failed innovations; the analyst must undercover the social context that promotes (or fails to promote) a given innovation (Pinch and Bijker, 1984; Bijker 1992).
SCOT pioneered a new way to examine the social context of technological innovation. In contrast to the linear model of technological innovation, which imagines a mythical, linear succession of basic science, applied science, development, and commercialization (Madhjoudi, 1997), SCOT sees a variety of groups (called relevant social groups) competing to control a design, which at this point is far from preordained (SCOT calls this the phase of interpretive flexibility). Each group has its own idea of the problem that the new artefact is supposed to solve and, in consequence, favors a distinctive technological design, including components and operational principles that may not be favored by competing groups. In a process called stabilization, one social group prevails over the others, so that group’s design prevails and the others are forgotten (Pinch and Bijker, 1984), or two or more groups negotiate a compromise (Bijker, 1996).
In sum, SCOT argues that technological innovation is not the result of mythical men who introduce new ‘technologies’ and release them into ‘society,’ starting a series of (un)expected impacts; rather, technological innovation is a complex process of co-construction in which technology and society, to the degree that they could even be conceived separately of one another, negotiate the meaning of new technological artifacts, alter technology through resistance, and construct social and technological frames-of-thought, practices and action.
SCOT was introduced in a seminal article by Wiebe Bijker and Trevor Pinch (Pinch and Bijker, 1984). Although SCOT has been widely criticized, it remains one of the two most prominent theories of technological innovation in science and technology studies (STS) (The second prominent theory is actor-network theory, developed by Bruno Latour and Michel Callon.
SCOT and technological determinism
SCOT arose in the context of a broad-based scholarly assault on technological determinism by STS scholars (especially historians and sociologists of technology). Technological determinism holds that a new, superior technology will ultimately push aside its competitors and force society to adapt. For STS scholars, technological determinism is problematic because it does not adequately describe or explain technological innovation. For activists concerned about the increasingly dangerous impact of new technological systems, such as nuclear power, technological determinism is problematic because it breeds passivity: Why bother protesting against a new technology, when it is certain to “win out” anyway? By depicting new technological artifacts as the result of a process in which several social groups each had their own idea about what “superior technology” means, SCOT radically undermines the central premise of technological determinism and, at the same time, makes a convincing case for broader public engagement in technological innovation processes. If technological artifacts are result of group interaction processes, why shouldn’t groups representing the public’s best interests be included during the period of interpretive flexibility?
This section more closely examines and illustrates SCOT’s basic principles: interpretive flexibility, the principle of symmetry, relevant social groups, and stabilization.
Some of these principles are related to the ‘Empirical Programme of Relativism’ (EPOR) which is an approach which developed in SSK and has been used when looking at controversies in science. SCOT is similar to EPOR, but instead of addressing the social construction of science, its focus is the social construction of technology. The ideas of interpretative flexibility and closure mechanisms which are important for SCOT are also found in the first two of the three stages of EPOR.
The paper that introduced SCOT (Pinch and Bijker, 1984) is titled, in part, “The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts.” This wording provides an important clue to understand how SCOT makes use of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK). In SSK-driven studies of science, the “facts” that science establishes (such as the particles in particle physics) are not given by Nature, but rather by intergroup negotiations over the interpretation of experimental results. Similarly, SCOT holds that there is no “one best way” to create a new technological artifact; rather, each participating group has its own, unique view of how the artifact should be made, based on its interpretation of the problem that the artifact is supposed to solve.
For example, in early personal computing, computer literacy educators argued for easy-to-use “closed architecture” machines, with color displays, that would keep children engaged (and prevent them from meddling). In contrast, hobbyists, who were later supported by those who foresaw business uses for PCs, argued for user-upgradable “open architecture” machines, with monochrome displays. From SCOT’s perspective, these are actually different artifacts rather than competing versions of the same artifact. Stabilization occurred as the result of a compromise, embodied in the design of the 1977 Apple II and the 1981 IBM Personal Computer: an open architecture design equipped with a video system capable of reproducing color graphics as well as monochrome text.
According to Pinch and Bijker (1987, 30) a relevant social group consists of “all members of a certain social group [who] share the same set of meanings, attached to a specific artifact; recall that, during the period of interpretive flexibility, SCOT sees the various alternative designs as distinct artifacts in themselves. In SCOT’s initial formulation, this definition is quite vague — deliberately so, because a major part of the analyst’s task lies in identifying and defining the groups who actually participate in the design process.
- Rhetorical Closure: When social groups see the problem as being solved, they will begin to talk about the problem being solved. This is often found in advertising.
- Redefinition of the Problem: Often flexibility is eliminated by redefining the problem.
A primary weakness of SCOT is that it goes too far in emphasizing the social and thereby neglects the importance of the physical world and the ways we are constrained by it (Jasanoff 2004, 19-20). Another argument is that the idea of the relevant social group means that if the absence of a particular group is an important part of the story you will miss it because only groups that are involved matter in SCOT (Wajcman 1995, 204). Finally, some see SCOT as a type of social determinism (Hughes 1994, 104; Lipartito 2003, 76).
- Pinch, Trevor J. and Wiebe E. Bijker. “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 14 (August 1984): 399-441.
- Russell, Stewart. “The Social Construction of Artefacts: Response to Pinch and Bijker.” Social Studies of Science 16 (May 1986): 331-346.
- Pinch, Trevor J. and Wiebe E. Bijker. “Science, Relativism and the New Sociology of Technology: Reply to Russell.” Social Studies of Science 16 (May 1986): 347-360.
- Bijker, Wiebe E., Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch, eds. The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.
- Sismondo, Sergio. “Some Social Constructions.” Social Studies of Science, 23 (1993): 515-53.
- Winner, Langdon. “Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding it Empty: Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology” in Science Technology & Human Values 18, no 3 (Summer 1993): 362-378.
- Susan J. Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989),
- Susan J. Douglas, Listening In : Radio and the American Imagination, from Amos N Andy and Edward R. Murrow to Wolfman Jack and Howard Stern, 1st ed. (New York: Times Books, 1999).
- Gregory John Downey, Telegraph Messenger Boys : Labor, Technology, and Geography, 1850-1950 (New York: Routledge, 2002), Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
- Claude S. Fischer, America Calling : A Social History of the Telephone to 1940′ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
- Janet Abbate, Inventing the Internet, Inside Technology (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999),
- History of science and technology
- Science and technology studies (STS)
- Social shaping of technology
- Sociocultural evolution
- Sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK)
- Theories of technology