Social Construction of Technological System


The Social Construction of Technological System: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology, Ed. Wiebe Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1987.

What is the social constructivism of science and technology? The basic postulate, on which the scholars in the science and technology studies (fields including philosophy, history, sociology, and anthropology) labeled social constructivists presumably agree, might be that there is a complexity in the relationship between the artifact – scientific and technological – in investigations and its environment – social, political, cultural, economic, and so on. This complex relationship emphasizes the co-determinative or co-constructive characteristic between all the participatory components in the development of certain artifacts, instead of the one-way and mechanical influence and flow of information, so to speak, technological (or scientific) determinism. Thus broadly speaking, whatever the artifact might be, the social constructionist view assume that there are deep interactions between participating agents, needs, and institutions in solving the problems during the process of development. But the simplest explanation of the theory is that the scientific and technological development is not independent from the social systems or networks, and radically speaking, that the technology is nothing but the result of social construction.

The social constructivism is not just abstract or philosophical principle which can be explained in a couple of paragraphs or in a well-defined manifestation. Even though the core methodological strategy is common, it is important to understand its applications could be found in diverse disciplinary and interdisciplinary level. Nonetheless, in this social constructivist view, whether the object is hard science or applied technology, whether the area is history of science or sociology of technology, “all knowledge claims are to be treated as being socially constructed”(18) as Pinch and Bijker declared.


In “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts,” as their article’s subtitle shows, Pinch and Bijker are trying to find the mutual benefit of the social constructivist method in the sociology of science and the sociology of technology. They describe the concepts and methods both of the EPOR (Empirical Programme of Relativism) and SCOT (Social Construction of Technology), and seek to integrate them in the “empirical study of science and technology” by demonstrating the parallels between them. On the one hand, the approach of the EPOR, which has “emerged from recent sociology of scientific knowledge”(26), sees contemporary scientific developments in three stages: (i) interpretative flexibility of scientific findings; (ii) scientific consensus; (iii) closure mechanism. The procedure that scientific findings are developed might be very close to the Kuhnian explanation of the structure of scientific revolution. But what should be underlined here is that this method concentrates on the “controversy group” or “core set” in scientific controversies. This core set (a core group of scientists) determines the controversy and thus, say, “constructs scientific knowledge”(27) – it is also what Kuhn stresses by pointing out the role of scientific community.

On the other, for the description of SCOT, as an approach established in sociology of technology, they pay attention to a multidirectional model of developmental process of technological artifact, while describing in detail the development of the bicycle. This multidirectional model is useful in explaining the relationship between an artifact and the relevant social groups, the relationship between each social group and its perceived problems, and then the relationship between each problem and its possible solutions. Because of its multidirectional (network-like) character, this method has strength in showing “how different social groups have radically different interpretations of one technological artifact”(41) and how the different interpretations “lead by means of different chains of problems and solutions to different further developments”(42). In this way, we can overview the complex process of the development of an artifact, whether it was successful or failed.  

 Technological Systems

While Pinch and Bijker are interested in the interactive problem-solving process focusing on the role of users and consumers, Thomas Hughes stresses the role of entrepreneurs or system builders. In “The Evolution of Large Technological Systems,” Hughes looks into technological systems which contain “messy, complex, problem-solving components”(51) by following the history of . The components which constitute systems are physical artifacts, organizations (manufacturing firms, investment banks, books, university programs, and the like), legislative artifacts (regulatory laws), natural resources, etc. The characters of this model are:

  • Because they are invented and developed by system builders and their associates, the components of technological systems are socially constructed artifacts (52).
  • One of the primary characteristics of a system builder is the ability to construct or to force unity from diversity, centralization in the face of pluralism, and coherence from chaos (52).
  • Because components of a technological system interact, their characteristics derive from the system (52).
  • Over time, technological systems manage increasingly to incorporate environment into the system, thereby eliminating sources of uncertainty (53).
  • A crucial function of people in technological systems … is to complete the feedback loop between system performance and system goal (54).
  • Inventors, organizers, and managers of technological systems mostly prefer hierarchy, so the systems over time tend toward a hierarchical structure (55).
  • A technological system has inputs and outputs. … Within the system the subsystems are linked by internal inputs and outputs, or what engineers call interfaces (55).

According to Hughes, “large, modern technological systems seems to evolve in accordance with a loosely defined pattern”(56). The pattern of evolution consists of the sequences of phases: invention – development – innovation – transfer and adaptation – (technological style) – growth – competition – consolidation. The phases are discernable according to the system-builders. “During invention and development inventor-entrepreneurs solve critical problems; during innovation, competition, and growth manager-entrepreneurs make crucial decisions; and during consolidation and rationalization financier-entrepreneurs and consulting engineers … solve the critical problems” (57). To describe a certain problem encountered at the phase of growth, Hughes suggests an interesting concept of “reverse salients.” It means an obstacle or “a set of critical problems”(74) which has to be solved in order for the overall system and all other components of the system can work properly.

 Actor Network

Michel Callon, who tries to find a way in which “the study of technology itself can be transformed into a sociological tool of analysis”(83), looks into the electronic car (VEL) project in the early 1970s in France. Callon’s basic assumption regarding the process of innovation is that “from the start, technical, scientific, social, economic, or political considerations have been inextricably bound up into an organic whole”(84). A plan for the VEL presented by the engineers in EDF covered “from electrochemistry to political science without transition”(86) and defined and identified the role of other social, technological, and political sectors in the project, eventually predicting the disappearance of the internal combustion engine in the post-industrial French society. In the end, this plan ended in vain by reverse salients, such as technical difficulties and criticism claimed by the Renault engineers. Callon sees the different views on technology and society between engineers in EDF and Renault is parallel with the different analyses on social division between sociologists Touraine and Bourdieu.

In order to evaluate the sociological insights that engineers (engineer-sociologists) have, Callon suggests the notion of the “actor network” which can explain the idea of “heterogeneous associations” among different entities concerned such as “electrons, batteries, social movements, industrial firms, and ministries”(93). The actor network:

  • is reducible neither to an actor alone nor to a network (93).
  • is composed of a series of heterogeneous elements, animate and inanimate, that have been linked to one another for a certain period of time.
  • can be distinguished from the traditional actors of sociology, a category generally excluding any nonhuman component.
  • should not be confused with a network linking elements that are perfectly well defined and stable.
  • is simultaneously an actor whose activity is networking heterogeneous elements and a network that is able to redefine and transform what it is made of.

Callon argues the preference of the idea of actor network over that of technological systems claimed by Hughes, because (i) “the concept of actor network can be used to explain both the first stages of the invention and the gradual institutionalization of the market sometimes created as a result without distinguishing between successive phases” and because (ii) unlike the systems which presupposes a distinction “between the system itself and its environment”, the actor network “has the advantage of avoiding this type of problem”(100).

 Heterogeneous Engineering

In “Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering,” John Law attempts to compare two approaches to the social studies of technology – social constructivism (sociology of science) and history of technology (technological systems by Hughes) – and from it he extracts his methodological foundation for the case study of Portuguese maritime expansion. While “social constructivism works on the assumption that the social lies behind and directs the growth and stabilization of artifacts,” the systems approach “proceeds on the assumption that the social is not especially privileged”(113). By combining Callon’s network and Hughes’ systems, Law suggests that “the stability and form of artifacts should be seen as a function of the interaction of heterogeneous elements as these are shaped and assimilated into a network”(113).  He considers Hughes’ system building activity “heterogeneous engineering” and suggests that “the product can be seen as a network of juxtaposed components”(113).

 While tracing the history of the Portuguese maritime expedition to the Indian Ocean in the 15th century, Law tries to “discover the pattern of forces as these are revealed in the collisions that occur between different types of elements, some social and some otherwise”(114). In this process, he looks into the was how technological innovation (design of sailing ships and magnetic compass) interacted and struggled with the natural and physical obstacles (the currents and winds of the Atlantic and Cape Bojador), how navigational instruments was developed in a network of knowledge practices including scientific commission and the construction of general system of metrication, and how European advancement in gun making influenced the Portuguese domination of shipping in the Indian Ocean. In sum, as an alternative approach of social constructivism and the systems approach, heterogeneous engineers “seek to associate entities that range from people, through skills, to artifacts and natural phenomena”(129). In this way, “structure of the networks (or system) … reflects not only a concern to achieve a workable solution but also the relationship between the forces that they can muster and those deployed by their various opponents”(129).

 Missile Accuracy

Donald MacKenzie’s “Missile Accuracy” is a case study on the development of missile guidance technology. MacKenzie argues that even the technological development which requires extreme accuracy – seemingly only related with the inside of the laboratory – “cannot satisfactorily be treated in isolation from organizational, political, and economic matters”(195). As he acknowledges, his method was influenced by Hughes’ system approach and works of Callon, Latour, and Law. 

Consumption Junction

In “The consumption Junction,” Ruth Cowan proposes the concept of consumption junction as a research strategy. According to her, the consumption junction is “the place and the time at which the consumer makes choices between competing technologies,” and she tries “to ascertain how the network may have looked when viewed from the inside out, which elements stood out as being more important, more determinative of choices, than the others, and which paths seemed wise to pursue and which too dangerous to contemplate”(263). In short, she focuses on the interface of consumer and network – “the interface where technological diffusion occurs” and “the place where technologies begin to reorganize social structures”(263). 


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