Logan Lounge

A Collective Blog for Current and Former Members (and Friends!) of the History and Sociology of Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Structure, Structure, Structure

Calling all historians of technology (or sympathizers) in the Penn community. Have you ever had a sense of unease with some aspects of the Social Construction of Technology approach but weren't sure quite how to articulate your misgivings? Or you didn't want to be confused with a reactionary? (Okay, so maybe SCOT isn't the newest thing in history of technology or STS, but I think it still occupies a somewhat canonical position.) I just came across an article that, to my mind, sums up the limitations of social constructivism as it has been practiced and points out directions it needs to expand and change in order to retain its vibrancy.

To those of who have had the (is it tired?) old structure vs. agency debate with me, or the related debate over actors' vs. analysts' categories, this will all seem pretty familiar. But if you want a nice lucid account of how structure has been neglected in SCOT, why structure is vital and important (the return of power, once again!), and why non-actors' categories are essential, see Hans K. Klein & Daniel Lee Kleinman, "The Social Construction of Technology: Structural Considerations," Science, Technology, and Human Values 27 (2002): 28-52.

In my opinion, these arguments apply equally well to agency-centered, actors-category-only accounts in history more generally, including the history of science and medicine. It is also the same basic set of reasons that explain why I am uncomfortable with the Actor-Network approach in science studies, the whole notion of "co-construction" as supposedly obliterating distinctions between science and society, and so forth. I would highly recommend this article as a reading for history of technology orals lists that include sections on SCOT, as perhaps the best single source analysis of its limitations, not from a conservative or technological determinist point of view but from an emancipatory point of view that seeks to understand the larger social relevance of science.

19 Comments:

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  • At 5:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Yes, the return of power is key. Key! Interesting how Latour has recently backed off some of his more provocative statements since his ideas about co-construction seem to be mirrored (I doubt borrowed) by the right-wing in America:

    The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

    Suddenly, it seems important who has the power -- and suddenly it's clear that public transportation doesn't fail only because it's not loved enuf. Harumph.

     
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