SOCI 325: Sociology of Science


Standardization, bodies, & society

  1. Technology, society, and bodies
  2. Group discussion

Technological determinism

  • Technological determinism (TD) is the idea that technological change drives social change.
  • TD is fundamental to many Marxist analyses in which material conditions shape class relations.
  • TD relies on the idea that technologies embody certain essential features (a positivist or realist stance)
An old and weathered document, showing two 18th-century schematic drawings of a cotton gin.

Original 1794 patent for Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, a device that maintained the profitability of chattel slavery in the United States

Social construction of technology

Social construction of technology (SCOT)

  • Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker (1984)
  • All technology is subject to interpretive flexibility.
  • The use and inherent meaning of a technology depends on the relevant social group(s) that use the technology.
  • Existing ‘problems’ afford many different technical solutions.
    The ‘best’ solution depends on social/cultural/political context of the relevant social group.
  • Technologies can be used for different purposes.
    Can cause conflict over the ‘appropriate’ use of a technology.

Diagram of two bicycles: a large 'pennyfarthing' on the left, and a more standard 'safety bicycle' on the right.

Social construction of technology

SCOT: Technologies do not drive society

  • If technology is completely flexible in its interpretation, then it cannot be a driving force of history
  • Oppressive technologies (e.g.) are at most a reflection of underlying social and cultural patterns
  • (Contrast with this coming Thursday's reading (Winner 1980), who argues that technologies can have inherent political

Social construction of technology

Technology and society
co-constitute each other

  • Technology conforms to social systems
    E.g. AI and race (Benjamin 2019)
  • Social systems are influenced by technology.
    E.g. genetic testing on race and identity (TallBear 2013)

Social construction of bodies

SCOT and standardization of bodies

  • Technology is tied fundamentally to how we understand our selves and our bodies.

Race and gender (Herzig 1999)

  • The meaning of human hair and its relationship with race and gender (and class) is inextricable from the technologies for the alteration, removal, and measurement of body hair.

Disability (Woods and Watson 2004)

  • What is understood as a ‘normal’ versus ‘abnormal’ body is bound to the existence and implementation of technologies. (e.g. glasses, wheelchairs)

e.g. doctors vs women as relevant social groups and the appropriate use of x-rays relevant social groups can change meaning: e.g. torn jeans