CSE 275: Social Theories of Technology and Science

6. Social Theories of Science and Technology

Having (briefly!) surveyed some history and philosophy of science, we now consider the sociology of technology and science, which in some ways may seem a much more radical approach. A sociological approach must concern itself with what engineers and scientists actually do, which is often very 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.)

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 will not help us very much with understanding how various technologies relate to society.

6.1 Actor-Network Theory

We will mainly discuss actor-netowrk theory (abbreviated ANT), which was initiated by Bruno Latour and Michel Callon in France. (Note: much of this material comes from my class notes for CSE 271.) 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. The neologism actant is sometimes used as a neutral way to refer to both human and non-human actors, avoiding the strong human bias in the word "actor."

Latour says people and machines should be treated as equal, 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 philosophers (and ordinary people) think. Perhaps these terms seem strange because they are so anthropomorphic. Personally, I consider these terms mainly as 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 (in the role of sociologist) 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.)

Another piece of Latour's eccentric 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. This is part of his effort to overcome technological determinism, which he sometimes describes in terms of "heroic narratives of technological innovation." (In case you are still doubtful that technological determinism can be a problem, here are some additional examples. Probably we've all heard the aphorism "If you build a better mousetrap, then the world will beat a path to your door." A while ago in the local paper, I saw the sentences "Cloning is inevitable once it is possible" and "Fusion power just doesn't have the impetus to succeed." These articles were written as if the projects involved had nothing to do with their context of people and other things, but had a unstoppable momentum of their own.) The word mediate is sometimes used for the role of intermediate actants in these 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. Once all these translations, or recuitments, 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 view, 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"). 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.
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). Latour claims that technologists, in doing their jobs, are actually doing better sociology than the classical sociologists.

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 infrastructure that is usually left out of the "heroic" (or "hagiographic") accounts of scientific and technological achievements. Newton did not really 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 CSE 275 homepage). The same can be said of any scientific or technological project: a network is needed to support it. Other famous examples of 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).

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. Groups (and individuals) in general have different value systems, and translation, or compromise, among these systems is necessary for a network to succeed; this is the work that 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, since they must do acts of interpretation, which in effect are theories of the project; this work should be taken very seriously by sociologists of technology.
It should not be thought that applying ANT is just drawing a graph with some actants on nodes; the work that they do must be explored, the nature of the relations must be explored - often these are interesting translations; the possibilities for multiplicity and dynamic adaptation should be explored; etc.

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 leading scientists attack current movements in the arts and humanities, and leading scholars in the humanities counterattack.

A recent 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 for next week.) 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, 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; he has also called this the "Principle of Symmetry," and more technically it is known as methodological relativism. This principle 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 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.

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 deconstructionism. 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 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 issue of 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.

By way of concluding this discussion, please note that I don't think this is an area where the views of the teacher (me, in this case) should be taken as definitive. I feel somewhat strongly about my position, but I dont expect that everyone reading this material will agree with me; my main goal has been simply to encourage people to think things through for themselves.

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 absolutely 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.
To CSE 275 homepage
Maintained by Joseph Goguen
© 2000 Joseph Goguen
Last modified 22 October 2000