CSE 275: Social Theories of Technology and Science

6. Social Theories of Science and Technology

Having briefly discussed the intertwining of social, technical and ethical issues, we will now consider the sociology of technology (and science) a bit more deeply. A sociological approach must concern itself with what engineers and scientists actually do, which is often different from what they say they do. This is a special case of a very general problem in anthropology and ethnography, called the say-do problem. Among the factors that produce this discrepency are taboos (things that people are not allowed to talk about in their culture), tacit knowledge, false memory syndrome, simple not knowing (which may not stop them from saying!), and the myths that all professions have about their work; very often the discrepency is not a deliberate deception. Tacit knowledge is knowledge of how to do something, without the ability to say how we do it. Instances are very common in everyday life and in professional life; for example, few people can describe how they tie their shoes, brush their teeth, or organize their schedule. As an illustration, numerous case studies have shown that a large part of "routine" office work actually consists of handling exceptions, i.e., of doing things that by definition are not routine; but if you ask (for example) a file clerk what he does, you will get only a description of the most routine activities. One clear example is the difference between what open source "hackers" say they are doing (their "ideology" or self-mythology) and what they actually do, as described in Homesteading the Noosphere, by Eric Raymond (at this time, you should read the abstract and section 3; we will read the whole paper later in the course).

The ubiquity of the say-do problem has very serious methodological implications for sociologists: in many cases they cannot just ask informants to tell them the answers to the questions that they really want to have answered; however, sometimes sociologists can ask other questions, and then use their answers to get at what they really want to know. Thus designing good questionaires is a delicate art, that must take account of how people tend to respond to various kinds of question.

In fact, much of today's sociology has a statistical flavor, being based on questionaires, structured interviews, and various kinds of demographics. While this seems to work rather well for selling soap and politicians, it does not help very much with understanding how various technologies relate to society. In general, better answers can be obtained in an interview if very specific questions are asked, and if the researcher is immersed in the concrete details of a particular project; general questions tend to produce general answers, which are often misleading or wrong - though of course the same can happen with specific questions. Concrete details are often much more useful than statistical summaries.

6.1 Actor-Network Theory

Our discussion of more appropriate social theories is mainly focussed on actor-network theory (abbreviated ANT), which was initiated by Bruno Latour and Michel Callon in France in the 1980s. Its sociological approach is hinted at by one of Latour's favorite slogans, "follow the actors", which means that the sociologist should not only look at what the actors do, but should also be interested in what interests them, and (more doubtfully) even believe what they believe. Actor-network theory focuses attention on the socio-technical networks that engineers and scientists create to get their projects done, emphasizing that no one acts alone (or if they do, then no one notices, so it doesn't matter). In contrast to most other work in sociology, actor-network theory does not distinguish (very much) between "human" and "non-human" actors. In my opinion, this is more of a rhetorical, or even dramatic, device than a theoretical axiom, but it certainly serves to bring forward the important roles played by resources of all kinds, including equipment, data, money, publicity, and power, and it is a useful counterbalance to approaches that concentrate on just one of the two. The neologism actant is sometimes used as a neutral way to refer to both human and non-human actors, avoiding the strong anthropocentric (i.e., human centered) bias of the word "actor."

Latour's view that people and machines should be treated as equal is called the Principle of Symmetry, and it is sometimes applied in ways that may be surprising. For example, he says we have to negotiate with machines just as with people, we need to recruit them as allies, to authorize and notify them, and to mobilize and delegate them; he claims that this kind of language should be taken literally not metaphorically. Of course, this is opposite to what most people think. Perhaps these terms seem strange because they are so anthropomorphic. Personally, I consider them as to be suggestive metaphors. What do you think?

Latour's book Aramis is the sad story of a project to build a highly innovative public transport system in the suburbs of Paris; the story is sad because the project fails, and the Aramis system is left without any friends (the system actually appears as a character in this book, and speaks for itself!). Latour claims that only in successful projects can you figure out what actually happened; this is perhaps a bit shocking. Does objectivity really only exist for successful projects? This strange viewpoint comes from his requirement that you (as the researcher) should take the viewpoint of the actors, plus the observation that the actors will not agree among themselves about what happened when the project failed, due to the dissolution of the alliances recruited to create the project in the first place. (There is a parallel here with the rational reconstructions that occur after a paradigm shift - see Section 5 of the class notes for these terms, which come from the theories of Thomas Kuhn.)

Another piece of Latour's unusual terminology is continous chains of translation, which refers to the ever ongoing efforts to keep actors involved with the project, by "translating" into their own languages and values along the links in the project. This process is also called recuitment, and the word mediate is sometimes used for the role of intermediate actants in chains of translation; this terminology provides a nice way to avoid the deterministic bias of the more usual ways of speaking of the role of (for example) a machine, a paper record, or a technology, in some project or part of a project.

In Aramis, Latour says (p.99, 101):

The only way to increase a project's reality is to compromise, to accept sociotechnological compromises.

The pertinent question is not whether it's a matter of technology or society, but only what is the best sociotechnological compromise.

These quotations not only deny the separability of the social and the technical (even munging them into a single word), but they also make the same point as mentioned above, about the necessity for translations. Note that this way of thinking has the effect of overcoming technological determinism, which Latour has described in terms of "heroic narratives of technological innovation." Heroic narratives, also called grand narratives and master narratives, are a major theme of contemporary cultural studies, including the sociology of science and technology; in essence, such narratives emphasize, or valorize, certain actants (e.g., Sir Isaac Newton), themes (e.g., physical theories of the solar system), and values (e.g., precise descriptions and predictions) at the expense of others (e.g., astrology, fate, and personal identity). Thus, grand narratives create coherence, a good story line, at the expense of diversity.

I would like to step outside this exposition of classical ANT for a moment to emphasize a feature that is usually quickly passed over, using ideas from Chapter 5 of our class notes. First notice that translation, mediation, or recruitment involves values in a crucial way, since the point is to "interest" the actors by appeal to their own values, using their own languages. This way of thinking about socio-technical systems includes a clear understanding of the fact that many different value systems and languages may be involved, and that communication is likely to be happening in all of them. For non-human actants, these languages and values may be technical, e.g., gears have some number of teeth per meter, and need oil. (It is amusing to note that the politics socio-technical systems is sometimes described using similar metaphors of gears and oil.)

An important methodological point is that, since values show up along the links between actants, we can use this as a guide in seeking to understand a socio-technical system: we should look for the values of actants by asking what translations are being done to maintain each link in the network. My belief is that these values are the key to understanding how any given system actually works.

When all the translations succeed, the technology "disappears", i.e., it becomes "transparent" and can be taken for granted. But if the translations fail to "interest" the actors enough, then the actors go their own ways again, each with a different view of what the project is (or was).

That's why ... it [i.e., the project] can never be fixed once and for all, for it varies according to the state of the aliances. (p.106)

... each element ... can become either an autonomous element, or everything, or nothing, either the component or the recognizable part of a whole. (p.107)

On page 108 of Aramis, Latour argues that the "division of labor" into subprojects (and other aspects of projects) can only be made after a project has succeeded (I called this the retrospective hypothesis in Requirements Engineering as the Reconciliation of Technical and Social Issues). This may sound like a radical claim, but it is what you see in real projects, and quotes from Latour's interviews, as well as my own experience, back this up empirically.

Pages 118 to 120 contrast VAL (a different French public transportation project that actually succeeded) with Aramis, arguing that VAL can be described "heroically" only because it succeeded (again, compare with "rational reconstruction" in Section 5 of the class notes). There is no "grand heroic narrative," no hero, because each actant has its own story to tell, based on its own values. Moreover, Latour argues that VAL succeeded because it continued to compromise and Aramis failed because it did not continue to compromise.

The more a technological project progresses, the more the role of technology decreases, in relative terms. (p.126)

To study Aramis after 1981, we have to add to the filaments of its network a small number of people representing other interests and other goals: elected officials, Budget Office authorities, economists, evaluators, ... (p.134)

A single context can bring about contrary effects. Hence the idiocy of the notion of "preestablished context." The people are missing; the work of contextualization is missing. The context is not the spirit of the times, which would penetrate all things equally. (p.137)

In fact, the trajectory of a project depends not on the context but on the people who do the work of contextualizing. (p.150)

In particular, Latour denies that sociology can ever attain a viewpoint that is "objective" - above and beyond the viewpoints of the participants - or of a metalanguage in which to express such a viewpoint.
Does there really exist a causal mechanism known only to the sociologist that would give the history of a technological project the necessity that seems so cruelly lacking? No, the actors offer each other a version of their own necessities, and from this they deduce the strategies they ascribe to each other. (p.163)

The actors create both their society and their sociology, their language and their metalanguage. (p.167)

There are as many theories of action as there are actors. (p.167)

To the multiplicty of actors a new multiplicity is now added: that of the efforts made to unify, to simplify, to make coherent the multiplicity of viewpoints, goals, and desires, so as to impose a single theory of action. (p.167-8)

To study technological projects you have to move from a classical sociology - which has fixed frames of reference - to a relativistic sociology - which has fluctuating referents. (p.169)

With a technological project, interpretations of the project cannot be separated from the project itself, unless the project has become an object. (p.172)
This is the only case where "classical" sociology might apply. Latour claims that technologists, in doing their jobs, are actually doing better sociology than the classical sociologists.
By multiplying the valorimeters that allow them to measure the tests in store and to prove certain states of power relations, the actors manage to achieve some notion of what they want. By doing their own economics, their own sociology, their own statistics, they do the observer's work ... They make incommensurable frames of reference once again commensurable and translatable. (p.181)
(The neologism valorimeter just refers to some way of measuring how well an actor's requirements are being met; examples are passenger flow, cost, publicity, etc.)
The interpretations offered by the relativist actors are performatives. They prove themselves by transforming the world in conformity with their perspective on the world. By stabilizing their interpretation, the actors end up creating a world-for-others that strongly resembles an absolute world with fixed reference points. (p.194)
(Performatives are speech acts that actually "perform" what they say, i.e., they cause it to be the case; standard examples are christening and marrying; this notion was introduced by the logician J.L. Austin. Here it is being used as a metaphor about the effects of successful chains of translations.) This explains how it can come to seem that classical sociology does apply. A similar but weaker point is that all stories told by the various actants are consistent with one another, due to the chains of translations, even though they differ in ways that reflect the different values of the different actants.

It is interesting to contrast the view of ANT with the "dead mechanical universe" of classical mechanics; the ANT universe is very much alive, full of actors and their actions, full of all kinds of interactions, that are constantly reconfiguring the network. This is a very non-classical point of view.

Actor-network theory can be seen as a systematic way to bring out the invisible or hidden infrastructure that is usually left out of the "heroic" (or "hagiographic") accounts of scientific and technological achievements that are unfortunately the norm. Newton did not act alone in creating the theory of gravitation: he needed observational data from the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, he needed publication support from the Royal Society and its members (most especially Edmund Halley), he needed the geometry of Euclid, the astronomy of Kepler, the mechanics of Galileo, the rooms, lab, food, etc. at Trinity College, an assistant to work in the lab, the mystical idea of action at a distance, and more, much more (see the book on Newton by Michael White listed on the course homepage). The same can be said of any scientific or technological project: a network is needed to support it. Other examples of famous heroic narratives in technology and science for which there exist good actor network studies which take a non-heroic view emphasizing infrastructure include Edison's invention of the electric light bulb and Pasteur's work on bacteria (the latter in a classic study by Latour). No doubt Newton, Edison, Pasteur, Einstein, etc. were extraordinary individuals with extraordinary talents, but they were also parts of extensive networks that had to be mobilized in order to accomplish any significant tasks.

For what it's worth, here is my own brief outline summary of some of the main ideas of ANT:

  1. There is an emphasis on networks and links, as opposed to heroic individual "genuises".
  2. The nodes in these networks, called actants, include not just humans, but also non-humans, such as physical objects; they all do some kind of work to maintain the integrity of the network.
  3. Individual actants, and groups of actants, in general have different value systems, so that translation among these systems is necessary for a network to succeed; this work is done along the links in the network. Socio-technical compromise is the work done to bring the various technical and social nodes into alignment.
  4. The structure of a project can only be seen clearly when these translations (and hence the project) have been successful; hence the values, and even the parts and structure, of a failed project are not in general well defined.
  5. The human actors in a project are in a sense sociologists, because they must do acts of interpretation, which in effect are theories of the project; this work should be taken very seriously by sociologists, who should not assume that their own views are necessarily superior to those of the actual participants.
It should not be thought that applying ANT consists of just drawing a graph with some actants on nodes; the work that is done must be explored, and the nature of the relations and values involved must be explored - often the translations involved yield very interesting data; possibilities for multiplicity and for dynamic adaptation should be explored; etc.

Throughout the above, I have tried to make clear any differences between what Latour says and what I think; it is also interesting to compare these two texts (Aramis and these notes) with the Kling reading that begins on page 32, "Information and computer scientists as moral philosophers and social analysts," and with classical sociology.

6.2 Science Wars

In the 1950s, CP Snow pointed out a large gap between the sciences and the humanities in a famous book called The Two Cultures. He noted that highly educated people in literature, classics, etc. typically had very little understanding of what (for example) Newton's laws say, and that highly educated people in physics, chemistry, etc. typically had very little understanding of current trends in the arts and humanities. Not only has this mutual ignorance increased over the years (due in part to increasing specialization, and to decreasing standards in education), but there has been an ominous, and very sad, new development, sometimes called the "science wars," in which scientists attack current movements in the arts and humanities, and scholars in the humanities counterattack.

One notorious exchange in this so called war was a hoax perpetrated by a physics professor at New York University, Alan Sokal, who submitted a piece of deliberate (but carefully crafted) nonsense to Social Text, a leading journal in so called "critical studies"; after some discussion, the editors agreed to accept the paper without their suggested modifications, for a special issue entitled Science Wars (Spring/Summer 1996). Sokal's paper, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity (dated "28 Nov 94, revised 13 May 99") is available from his homepage, along with much else; though very one-sided, this site shows the large scale of the debate that ensued. A less biased and even more complete website on this topic is maintained by Gen Kuroki of Tohoku University in Japan; this site has links to virtually everything of interest, and even a keyword search facility. (I have selected some items as readings.) Sokal described his effort as "an experiment" to determine whether or not academic standards were lower in the field of science studies than in the natural sciences; however, his real motive seems to have been considerably less "objective" than that description might suggest. In any case, an uncontrolled experiment that produced exactly one data point is not an adequate basis for confirming (or denying) such an hypothesis. (However, it is amusing to note that, as often happens in the social sciences, simply reporting this one result has greatly changed the social context in which any future experiments of this kind would have to be conducted.)

What is important for us about this affair is the way that it focuses attention on some key methodological issues for the social study of science. But first, let's backtrack a bit. Suppose that (like Galileo), you are interested in objects rolling down an inclined plane. Although, as discussed in Section 5 of the CSE 275 class notes, it is impossible to avoid making some theoretical commitments (such as the notion of length), it would be wrong to simply assume the outcome in advance; this would be completely contrary to the nature of empirical science (but it is what the Aristotelian physicists of Galileo's time did). In the same way, no scientific study of science could assume that the outcome of the science-in-progress being studied is already known; this would not only violate the scientific method, it would also mean assuming that the social scientists are better at science than the scientists they are studying.

Instead, a social scientist must "follow the actors," as Latour says; this principle is more technically known as methodological relativism. It seems to be the most contentious point in the science wars debate. Sokal believes it is wrong, insisting that priority must be given to the objective truth, instead of the momentary opinions of the scientists involved (of either stripe). The trouble with this view is that "the objective truth" is not in general known. This is of course true by definition for research that is still in progress, such as the currently much debated experimental confirmation of gravity waves. But it is also true for "classical" theories, which (in general) eventually get superseded by some closer approximation; for example, Newtonian mechanics has been superseded by quantum mechanics and relativity theory, and these two will, it is hoped, in turn someday be superseded by a general unified field theory. Of course, many lower level scientific assertions are almost entirely unproblematic (e.g., ice melts), and this fact must also be taken into account by any competent sociologist of science. But the situation is by no means so simple as Prof. Sokal would have us believe. In my opinion, a careful reading of Sokal's writings (e.g., A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies) shows the following:

  1. Sokal does not understand methodological relativism (e.g., see his goading remarks about jumping out the window of his apartment);
  2. in fact, he confuses it with philosophical relativism, which asserts that all truths are a matter of opinion; and more generally,
  3. Sokol confuses the sociology of science with more extreme movements (which are especially prevalent in France) such as extreme forms of deconstructionism and post-modernism.
For example, Sokal asserts that sociologists of science deny that there is a real world; but it is very easy to check that this assertion is false. By the way, it is interesting to think about the kind of relativism that is advocated by classical ANT: it appears to be a somewhat strong variant of methodological relativism, but the rhetoric used might suggest that it is instead a weak form of philosophical relativism.

On the other hand, the sociologists of science are not without their own problems. For example, some have claimed that they do not need to actually understand the science that they are studying, others have themselves confused methodological and philosphical relativism, and a few have seemed to embrace extreme forms of relativism and postmodernism. Many have been guilty of using difficult langauge and obscure jargon, and few have been prepared to explain methodological relativism in clear and simple terms; perhaps Harry Collins comes closest, in his very nice short piece What's Wrong with Relativism? in Physics World (in case that link doesnt work, try this one). In any case, physicists are also guilty of using obscure jargon (e.g., "superstring") and difficult language (e.g., tensor analysis), and of sometimes embracing (or seeming to embrace) ridiculous sounding philosophical positions. Some sociologists have pointed out that, since physics has been losing funding and prestige in the current post-Cold War period, it is natural that physicists should feel frustrated or even bitter, and look for scapegoats; of course, the physicists involved vehemently deny that this relates in any way to the so called science wars.

One thing that I find interesting is the way that both sides have, in the most recent items, avoided what seems to me to be the key issues concerning relativism. Perhaps this is because the social scientists know that they can easily be made to look foolish, as well as politically vulnerable (from the "family values" right), and because the physical scientists know that this is the weak point in their own arguments. In any case, this is an interesting example of a highly public debate about important philosophical issues that underlie the subject of this course. It is typical of important public policy debates that they are messy, with participants often taking strange public positions for tactical reasons.

Please note that I do not think this is an area where the views of the teacher should be taken as definitive. I do feel somewhat strongly about my views, having been recently involved in a skirmish on the frontlines of the science wars through my position as Editor in Chief of the Journal of Consciousness Studies (see the January 2001 editorial), but I don't expect that everyone reading this material will agree with me; my main goal here is simply to encourage people to think things through for themselves. However, you can find my point of view in my Review of Intellectual Impostures, by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont (second edition).

6.3 Sociology of Technology and Science

An important achievement of actor-network theory is that technological and social determinism are impossible if you use its method and language correctly. Of course, ANT has been much criticized, but (in my opinion) much of the criticism has been from people who either didn't understand it, or who rejected it for failure to conform with their own prefered paradigm. The most valid criticisms should come from within this new paradigm. One such criticism is that ANT dehumanizes humans by treating them equally with non-humans; there is a brave new world coming our way that involves more and more interaction with machines, to the point of our becoming cyborgs, but (they say) we should resist it rather than celebrate it. Another criticism is that ANT fails to provide explanations for the dynamic restructuring of networks. It is also said that ANT fails to take account of the effects that technology can have on those who are not part of the network that produces it, and that it therefore fails to support value judgements concerning the desirability or undesirability of such effects. ANT is also criticized for its disinclination (or inability) to make contributions to debates about policy for technology and science. Some other criticisms can be found in Traduction/Trahison - Notes on ANT by John Law, and in How things (actor-net)work: Classification, magic and the ubiquity of standards by Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, which are discussed in Sections 7.2 and 7.3, respectively.

Another criticism, which applies to most work in the sociology of technology and science (abbreviated STS) is that it destroys the credability of science, by leaving no place for the objective truth that science (allegedly) uncovers. The fact that sociologists deliberately avoid making commitments of this kind was discussed in detail above in Section 6.2. So this is definitely not a valid criticism.

ANT is part of an area of STS that is often called constructivist, because it focuses on how social systems get constructed by their participants. The developers of ANT (Latour and Callon) have recently declared that ANT is over, but of course it's too late now to stop others from using, criticizing, and modifying their ideas, or even using the name.

A name for the general method of looking for what supports a technical or scientific project, instead of telling a heroic tale, is called infrastructural inversion (this term is due to Geoff Bowker). Its converse, which is burying the infrastructure, I call infrastructural submersion. The work of lab technicians, secretaries, nurses, janitors, computer system administrators, etc. is very often subjected to infrastructural submersion, with the effect of creating a very misleading picture of the network involved.

Leigh Star has defined boundary objects to be data objects or collections that are used in more than one way by different social groups, and that therefore provide an interface for those groups, translating across their differences. One reason this idea is important is that it provides a model of cooperation that does not require consensus. The notion of translation used here comes from ANT. Boundary objects would seem to be especially relevant for studying many social issues in computer science, and should therefore have interesting applications to many design problems. This is important as a counter-balance to extreme post-modernist and relativist positions.

To Section 7 of CSE 275 notes.
To Section 5 of CSE 275 notes.
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