My full name is Bryan Pfaffenberger. I’m a professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia. I conceived and developed STS Wiki and currently serve as its managing editor. This is done on an entirely non-compensated, volunteer basis as a service to the worldwide STS community. Rights to the domain names stswiki.org, stswiki.com, and stswiki.net are registered in my name.
During my undergraduate years, I studied social anthropology, archaeology, philosophy, and linguistics at the University of California (B.A., Anthropology, 1971), and stayed on at Berkeley to do my graduate work. After reading a wonderful essay by anthropologist Victor Turner on the relationship between religious pilgrimage and ethnic relations, I took an interest in Sri Lanka, where relations between the dominant Sinhalese (who are predominantly Theravada Buddhists) and the minority Sri Lanka Tamils (who are predominantly Saivite Hindus) were quite tense; however, there was (and still is) a pilgrimage center, called Kataragama, in which Sinhalese and Tamil pilgrims worked side-by-side. With funding from the Social Science Research Council, I went to Sri Lanka to find out whether participation in the pilgrimage served to moderate ethnic tensions, as Turner would predict. Between 1971 and 1977, I spent nearly three years in Sri Lanka carrying out this study. In my dissertation, Pilgrimage and Traditional Authority in Tamil Sri Lanka, and in a subsequent publication in the Journal of Asian Studies, I reported my findings — which, I am sorry to say, did not sustain Turner’s prediction. I received my Ph.D. degree (Anthropology) in 1977. Subsequently, I taught anthropology at one of the best small liberal arts colleges in the U.S., Knox College (Galesburg, IL), where I was tenured and promoted to associate professor in 1983. At Knox, I learned everything I know about how to be a teacher, a scholar, and an engaged citizen. Knox is a cultural treasure.
In 1981, however, my interests began to change. I was an early adopter of personal computer technology. When I realized its implications, I also realized that anthropology had to take the study of technology seriously if it hoped to avoid marginalization. Because these interests weren’t compatible with Knox’s teaching mission, in 1985 I left Knox for an untenured position in what was then called the Division of Humanities, in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) at the University of Virginia. Shortly after coming to Knox, I discovered STS. The next decade was far and away the most intellectually exciting and productive of my life. The Dean of SEAS back then was Edgar A. Starke, one of the world’s most prominent researchers in materials science. He strongly encouraged me to accomplish two goals with my research:
- Bring STS to anthropology; and
- Bring anthropology to STS.
Although there were several other anthropologists who were, at the time, trying to get anthropology interested in technology studies, not all of them were aware of STS, and I think I can justfiably claim to have been responsible for a large chunk of the early infusion of STS concepts into mainstream anthropological discourse. These efforts culminated in a [1992 review article http://pfaff.sts.virginia.edu/bphome/docs/pdf/Social_Anthropology_of_Technology.pdf ] that is still my most frequently cited anthropological publication.
As for bringing anthropology to STS, I decided to focus, not on field research methodology, but rather on anthropological theory, which is all but unknown outside the discipline. At the time, constructivist theories of technology had made progress toward understanding the social construction of technology on a microscale level, but had not yet developed a convincing way to examine the relationship between those activities and broader social and political dynamics. Drawing on anthropological theory (and in particular, the work of Victor Turner), I developed a model that identified three basic social processes in which people are likely to develop, modify, avoid, or reformulate technological artifacts. I call these processes technological dramas. In 1988, I published an essay titled “The social meaning of the personal computer, or, why the PC revolution was no revolution, which is still quite widely read even though it’s difficult to get (here’s a PDF. In 1993, I set out a programmatic statement of the theory titled “Technological Dramas”. This is my most frequently cited work in STS.
In addition to these pursuits, I also studied information technology from an STS perspective. My book Democratizing Information: Online Databases and the Rise of End-User Searching (1990) employed STS concepts to analyze the history and social impact of the online bibliographical database industry; unfortunately, I made a very poor choice of publisher and the book entirely escaped attention in the STS community. It was, however, received very well by the information science community; the book was awarded the Book of the Year award (1990) by the American Society for Information Science (ASIS).
Yet another interest developed during these years: history of technology. To the extent that I had STS colleagues at UVa back in those days, they were historians of technology, and I quickly learned that there is a very high standard of scholarship in this field. I decided to draw on my knowledge of Sri Lanka to explore an issue concerning the social impact of irrigation technology. The resulting publication, “The Harsh Facts of Hydraulics: Technology and Society in Sri Lanka’s Colonization Schemes” won the coveted Usher Prize, awarded by the Society for the History of Technology.
In the mid- to late-1990s, I realized that the free/open source software (FLOSS) movement was going to take off and make a significant impact, and that I needed to understand this movement (and the technology it was creating) if I was to continue to comprehend information technology from an STS viewpoint. I’m an anthropologist, remember, and I very strongly believe that scholars should be able to speak the language of the people they’re studying. So I spent quite a bit of time learning everything I could about GNU/Linux; one of the ways I learn this stuff is to write about it, so I published several how-to works (including Linux Clearly Explained) that were well received.
My current interests focus on voting technology, including the history of mechanical-lever voting machines and the social construction of electronic voting machines. I am also very deeply concerned about research integrity in the face of rising levels of corporate research funding.
PDFs of (most) of my publications
On this page, you’ll find links to the full text of the following articles.
“Social Meaning of the Personal Computer, Or, Why the Personal Computer Revolution was No Revolution,” Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 61 (1988), pp. 137-147.
“Technological Dramas,” Science, Technology, and Human Values, 17 (1992).
“Mining Communities, Châiines opératoire, and Sociotechnical Systems,” in A. Bernard Knapp, Vincent. C. Piggot, and Eugenia W. Herbert, Social Approaches to an Industrial Past: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Mining (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1998).
“’If I Want It, It’s OK’: Usenet and the (Outer) Limits of Free Speech,” Information Society 12 (1996): 365-388.
“The Rhetoric of Dread: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) in Information Technology Marketing.” Knowledge, Technology, and Policy 13(3): 15.
Anthropology of Technology
“Technology: Anthropological Aspects,” International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Neil Smelser and Paul Bates (eds.). Oxford, U.K.: Pergamon Press, 2001).
“[http://pfaff.sts.virginia.edu/bphome/docs/pdf/harsh-facts-of-hydraulics.pdf Harsh Facts of Hydraulics: Technology and Society in Sri Lanka’s Colonization Schemes.” Technology and Culture, Vol. 31, No. 3 (1990), pp. 361-397.
“Social Anthropology of Technology,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 21 (1992): 491-516.
“Anthropology of Technology,” in N. Smelser and P.B. Bates (eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (New York: Pergamon Press, 2004), 15515-15521
“Symbols do not create meanings- activities do: or, why symbolic anthropology needs the anthropology of technology,” in Michael Schiffer (ed.), Anthropological Perspectives on Technology (Tucson, AZ: Univ. of Arizona Press, 2001).
“Worlds in the Making: Technological Activities and the Construction of Intersubjective Meaning,” in M.A. Dobres and C. Hoffman (eds.), The Social Dynamics of Technology: Practice, Politics, and World Views (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998).
“Fetishized Objects and Humanized Nature: Towards an Anthropology of Technology,” Man, n.s., Vol. 23 (1988), pp. 236-252.
Free/Libre Open Source Software
”Linux Operating System,” in Hossein Bidgoli (ed.), Encyclopedia of Information Systems. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2002. 32 pp.
Sri Lanka Studies
“The Political Construction of Defensive Nationalism: The 1968 Temple Entry Crisis in Northern Sri Lanka,” Journal of Asian Studies 49(1): 78-96.
“The Kataragama Pilgrimage: Hindu-Buddhist Interaction and its Significance in Sri Lanka’s Polyethnic Social System. Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 38, No. 2. (Feb., 1979), pp. 253-270.
Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society
[http://www.seas.virginia.edu School of Engineering and Applied Science
University of Virginia Charlottesville,  22904