Social Theories of Technology – Actor-Network Theory vs. Social Construction of Technology
Posted by Warwick Janetzki
This is my major work for NET303, the follow up assignment to the essay that I posted yesterday. I wasn’t entirely happy with the assignment as I felt that I couldn’t get an expert view on either specific topic. However, I received a fantastic mark. It goes to show that the more you study and the more you put the work in the greater the result will be.
Actor-Network Theory and the theory of Social Construction of Technology are two important theories that theorize the relationship between technology and society. This essay explores both theories by first explaining individually what the theories are how they individually theorize the relationship between technology and society, identifying and analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of both before contrasting the two theories against one another by identifying what similarities they share and what differences they have.
The origins of ANT can be traced back to the mid-1980s when the theory was developed primarily through the work of Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, and John Law as they attempted to explain complex networks in scientific research settings (Ritzer, 2004, p. 1; Williams-Jones & Graham, 2003, p. 272).
In order to understand ANT we must comprehend what is implied by the words actor and network. Latour (1997, p. 2) provides a semiotic definition for actor – an actant – “something that acts or to which activity is granted by others”. Ritzer (2004, p. 1) states than an actant is without substance or essence and it is via networks in which they associate that actants derive their higher nature, developing as networks and that they are capable of nesting within other diverse networks. The network notion has “no a priori order relation” and is not tied to axiological myth of a top and of a bottom society making no assumption whether a specific locus is macro- or micro- and does not modify the tools to study the element “a” or the element “b”; thus it has no difficulty in following the transformation of a poorly connected element into a highly connected one and back” (Latour, 1997, p. 4).
ANT attempts to explain how networks strengthen internally, how networks stabilize, organize and convert network elements, how networks become durable, how networks enlist others to enroll, how networks bestow qualities and motivations to actors, how networks simplify and finally how networks become “functionally indispensable” (Ritzer, 2004, p. 1). Thus, as Elbanna (2009) educates, ANT offers a means of reconciling the schools of technology determinism and social constructivism by providing a way of analyzing the social and technical. Ritzer (2004, p. 2) informs that ANT does this by advancing three methodological principles – agnosticism by imposing impartiality and requiring all interpretations to be unprivileged; generalized symmetry, the employment of a single explanatory frame when interpreting actants, human and nonhuman and; free association, advocating the abandonment of any distinction between natural and social phenomenon.
There are a number of strengths that lend support to ANT. Williams-Jones (2003, p. 290) explains that one of the key strengths is that it demonstrates how certain effects are produced within the network, “including the connection to other diverse interests.” Cressman (2009, p. 2) identifies an important second strength of ANT stating that it can “be used as tools to better reveal the complexities of our sociotechnical world.” As a natural consequence of this ANT can also provide an insightful analysis of what is happening currently.
Along with its strengths ANT also has weaknesses. One of these is that of radical symmetry – ANT is based upon heterogeneous associations of human and non-human actors and thus is value-neutral (Williams-Jones, 2003, p. 278). This value-neutrality levels a second criticism on ANT and that is that the theory is not concerned with important ethical problems consequently ANT is decentered and the ambiguity of actor-networks is accentuated (Williams-Jones, 2003, p. 280). Finally, Risan (1997) critiques ANT’s conception of agency as it fails to presuppose intentionality.
The genesis social construction of technology (SCOT) can be found in Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker’s (1987) article titled ‘The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other’ (Klein & Kleinman, 2002, p. 28; Pinch & Bijker, 1987). Christina Prell (2009) explains that the basic premise of SCOT is that as technologies emerge from social interactions, among social groups and actors, SCOT sees no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ technologies, as all technologies have the potential to be shaped differently based on which actors and groups are involved. Elbanna (2011, p. 132-134) explains that the intention to develop SCOT as a theory was to “confront and challenge the technology determinism perspective’ and consequently attempts to reveal the roles played by ‘social in the development of technology along certain directions and not others”.
In order for SCOT to achieve its aim, Klein and Kleinman (2002, p. 29) explain the four related components that form SCOT’s conceptual framework. The first of four components is interpretive flexibility, that the design of technology is an open process that may produce different outcomes dependent upon the social circumstances of development. The second component is the concept of relevant social group, “all members of a certain social group share the same set of meanings, attached to a specified artifact” (Pinch & Bijker, 1987, p. 30). The third component is closure and stabilization with closure describing ‘when multiple interpretations cease to exist. Interpretive flexibility diminishes’ and stabilization describing “the development of the artifact within one relevant social group. This happens in degrees” (Prell, 2009). The final original component of SCOT is the wider context. By the wider context, it is inferred that this is the ‘wider sociocultural and political milieu in which artifact development takes place’ (Klein & Kleinman, 2002, p. 30). Prell (2009) expands on this fourth component by including the technological frame, micro political power strategies, semiotic power and semiotic structures, Klein (2002, p. 31) explains that the technological frame came into being since the original presentation.
It is the Connected Kids case study, as detailed by Prell (2009) that establishes the best example of the strengths of SCOT. Prell explains that the concepts of SCOT provide an “analytical vocabulary for making sense of the interactions that surround and give rise to a particular artifact” and illustrates how “different kinds of artifacts – not just new technologies – can be described and explained through this approach.” This provision demonstrates SCOT’s largest advantage as being able to provide a reasonable historical analysis of developments in technology.
Klein (2002, p. 32-35) identifies two inter-related weaknesses in SCOT with those being method and explanation. It is argued that SCOT’s snowball methodology does not guarantee accuracy or comprehensiveness and may introduce its own distortions. The methodology suffers from a propensity of excluding relevant social groups from participation. An inability to explain the struggle in creating successful working technology is due to a lack of discussion of capacity and power. A final weakness in SCOT (Klein & Kleinman, 2002, p. 34) is that it is an impossibility to distinguish cause and effect under SCOT.
Now that we have an understanding of the theories of ANT and SCOT it is important to recognize what similarities and differences the two theories share. Beginning with their similarities, Meyer (2003, p. 38) provides the most obvious and perhaps most important similarities of the two theories and that is that both are approaches that assist in the understanding of the role that social behavior has in the creation and use of technological artifacts and each reject technological determinism “as being too simplistic.” A further similarity is that each “draws on qualitative approaches including participant observation, interviews, ethnography, archival record collection, and other forms of fieldwork” (Sawyer & Eschenfelder, 2002, p. 437).
The differences between ANT and SCOT begin with the methodology each theory applies to provide meanings to technology. Cressman (2009, p. 8) explains that while ANT seeks “a symmetrical account of the social and the non-social in describing how and why we have the technologies we do’ that SCOT ‘looks for relatively stable social groups to explain the meanings ascribed to technical objects.” It is in this light that we must appreciate that SCOT derives much of its effectiveness by affording the principles of power to technology whereas ANT does not afford power. Law (1987, p. 113) provides the affirmation for this by stating that ‘other factors [natural, economic, technical or otherwise] may therefore, explain better the shape of the artifacts in question and, indeed, the social structure that results’ than does ANT. Meyer (2006, p. 38) makes the claim that ANT can be viewed as a subset of SCOT when SCOT is broadly defined but that ANT adds a number of elements to other SCOT research with a major difference coming with ANT explaining that non-human actants can have agency and that ANT theorists believe that SCOT black boxes artifacts within SCOT’s closure component.
This essay has found that Actor-Network Theory (ANT), as developed by Bruno Latour, Michel Callon and John Law and Social Construction of Technology theory (SCOT), as developed by Trevor Pinch and Wiebke Bijker, are two individual theories that attempt to convey the role that social behavior has in the creation and use of technological artifacts. This essay has found ANT to include a collection of actants which may be both human and non-human which has an influence on how each works. This essay finds that ANT’s analysis involves a complex series of interaction. SCOT, on the other hand views that technologies are the product of social interaction and human factors in that technologies are created, shaped and adapted by social factors which is in contrast to ANT’s non-human actants. Despite each theory having their own strengths they both have weaknesses which relate directly to their methodologies. This essay concludes by stating that SCOT completely rejects technology determinism and while ANT can be considered a subset to SCOT it shares some similarities with technology determinism.
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