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The uncertainty principle of social theories of technology: Comparing Social Construction of Technology and Actor-Network Theory

In the wake of Technological Determinism’s fall from grace (at least, “hard” technological determinism (MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999, p. 3) as a guiding cultural theory two other contrasting theories have gained attention as frameworks for investigating technology in a social context (MacKenzie & Wajcman, 1999, p. 37). The main arguments of these two theories – the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) and Actor-Network Theory (ANT) – will first be discussed in this essay (both theories have been subject to revisions and varying interpretations since their formulations, but discussion will be here limited to the main overarching concepts), before some comparisons and criticisms of them will be addressed. Finally, it will be argued that both theories are valid, but necessarily incomplete, methods of addressing technological discourses.Broadly, Potts (2008) observes that ANT considers a wide range of actors, both human and nonhuman, in a network of relationships, while theories such as SCOT assume that technology is determined by society. Both theories will now be examined more deeply.

SCOT primarily considers how social groups affect technology. In an early paper on SCOT, Pinch and Bijker (1984, p. 411) point out that it is only one of a number of methods of interpreting technology, further commenting that SCOT, in contrast to previous paradigms, represents a “multi-directional” approach with no predetermined pathways. It is social groups (Pinch & Bijker, 1984, p. 414) that are fundamental to defining the “problems” of technology and how they might be addressed. These interactions between various social groups and their permutations across differing problems result in closure and stabilization of technological issues (Pinch & Bijker, 1984, p. 424).

Klein and Kleinman (2002, pp. 29-30) outline a number of defining components they see in SCOT. These include the fundamental view that technology is open, or “undetermined”, and that social processes drive outcomes. Different social groups, in their turn, impart differing meanings to technology. SCOT also includes the concept of closure and stabilization, or the resolution of conflict between groups, when technology is no longer problematic.

SCOT therefore considers technologies as “pliant creatures” without predetermined meanings or outcomes (Prell, 2009, section 2.1). SCOT addresses such issues in a quasi-ethnographic manner, in a process of “following the actors” whereby actors relate their own experiences and perceptions, leading to other actors involved (Prell, 2009, section 2.5). Such a method leads to SCOT being effectively a historical way of viewing technologies (Prell, 2009, section 3.1). Technologies (and particularly digital technologies) are hence understood to be polysemic (Lister, Dovey, Giddings, Grant & Kelly, 2009, p. 201), by which particular meanings become engendered by social and cultural forces.

Latour (1996, p. 369) points out that a major difference of ANT, in contrast to other theories, is that ANT considers non-human entities as well as humans as being equally significant. This leads to the principle of “radical symmetry” (Whittle & Spicer, 2008, p. 612) where human and non-human actors are considered equally able to exert influence. For Latour (1996, p. 369) there is nothing outside the network, since the network is the space on which an actor works. In this sense, ANT foregoes the “social” in favour of associations (Latour, 1996, p. 370). Thus Latour states ANT is “not a thing but the recorded movement of a thing” (Latour, 1996, p. 378), and describes ANT as redistributing and reallocating actions through the network (Latour, 2010).

While ANT also considers stabilizations of technology, it is much more interested in how this process occurs via inscription (Monteiro & Hanseth, 1995), or the making material of various interests, and the “social process of negotiating, redefining and appropriating interests” between the various actors and their different levels of power or influence within the network. Law (2009, pp. 141-142) contends that ANT is not even a theory, since it is not explanatory but rather descriptive, a way of telling stories about technology as opposed to explaining them. He further emphasizes this ‘”how” aspect when discussing significant factors of ANT (Law, 2009, p. 146), including its emphasis on process, inclusion of multiple actors (not just humans) and its semiotic relationality (the network acts to define its own constituent parts).

To summarise, as the brief descriptions above show, SCOT focuses primarily on social actors in relation to technology, giving a historical view, and the possibility of closure. ANT, in contrast, equates all actors, human and non-human, and focuses primarily on the network paths through which they interact.

Neither theory is without criticism. Winner (1993, p. 367), for example, argues that the distinction between social groups and technology is arbitrary, and that proponents of SCOT are privileging their system as better than others. Winner (1993, p. 368) also criticizes SCOT for failing to deal with the consequences of a technology, though proponents of SCOT might see this as an advantage. More importantly, Winner also notes (1993, p. 369) that social groups may be excluded as irrelevant even when they are not. Furthermore, even within SCOT there are different interpretations of exactly how the theory should be interpreted (Sismondo, 1993, pp. 515-516). Klein and Kleinman (2002, p. 34) also list some issues with SCOT, at least as it was initially conceived. For example, it lacks an explanatory mechanism for the success of some groups and the suppression of others. Another issue with SCOT is that, in rejecting technological determinism, consideration to how technology shapes culture (rather than vice versa) may also be ignored (Lister et al., 2009, p. 201).

ANT is also subject to criticism. Amsterdanska (1990, p. 500) in relation to Latour’s work on networks, contends that the presence of the network fails to explain how that particular network came to be. She also contends (1990, p. 502) that network theory fails to examine motivations and morals, even though these are important issues for society. Whittle and Spicer (2008, pp. 614-615) also mention this, arguing that ANT is poor at determining elements such as technological meanings and affordances. Monteiro and Hanseth (1995) further note that defining the extent of a network can be problematic, since they can often be extended indefinitely.

Theories should not be confused for the thing itself. Glanz (n.d., p. 4) comments that theories are an abstraction which are useful for understanding, but which articulate different factors to varying degrees, according to the importance given by any particular theory.

Just as technological determinism presupposes an ultimate, if unseen, goal towards which technology constantly strives, always improving and becoming more perfect, so caution must be applied to attributing a teleological goal to social theories of technology, implicitly assuming that each new theory improves on and surpasses previous, inadequate, theories. While ANT is a more recent theory than SCOT, it should not be attributed with a grand narrative of superiority to other, imperfect, theories as Whittle and Spicer (2008, p. 618) warn. It is also important to realize, as Winner notes (1993, p. 367), that utilising a theory involves not only gains but also losses in understanding.

Rose and Jones (2005, p. 25) make the important point that different theories can equally be valuable while offering different insights (they are addressing Structuration Theory and ANT, but the differences they note relate closely to SCOT and ANT, especially since the more wide-ranging Structuration Theory (Wade & Schneberger, n.d.) is here limited to its application to Information Technology). One emphasizes social structure and conditions which sees technology as a tool, while ANT emphasizes agency across networks, and the relative symmetry of machine and human.

If people using technology creates a “language” of usage, then SCOT can be considered the nouns of its sentences – the “what”’ of technology, how it is shaped – while ANT consists of the verbs – the processes of that shaping. ANT is a performative discourse (Law, 2009, p. 151) that only finds meaning when being enacted. Neither is adequate on its own to create a comprehensive meaning, but each may be more or less important depending on the context and the question being asked. Whittle and Spicer (2008, p. 624), despite a lengthy critique of ANT, nonetheless conclude that it is still useful in specific contexts, such as examining organized action.

In physics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that both the position and trajectory of a quantum particle cannot be simultaneously determined (Hilgevoord, 2006, section 1). In a similar manner, technology can be simultaneously subject to SCOT and ANT, both of which deal in different ways with the question of how social forces and technology act upon one another (Rose & Jones, 2005, p. 20) until a specific question collapses the possibilities into one or the other being more important. (Klein & Kleinman, 2002, p. 35).

As demonstrated above, SCOT and ANT as theories explaining the complex fluid interactions of technology with society have differing applications. Depending on which is chosen different views of cultural practices can be manifested. SCOT, for example, is suited more to a historical, explanatory, discussion of how societal groups interface with and mould technologies, while ANT can be used to examine the movements and transactions that a multiplicity of actors brings to shaping technological meanings. Neither theory can completely explain their subjects but both, judiciously chosen and applied, can lend enlightenment and clarity in different ways.

References

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