Tuesday, March 29, 2005

SCOT: I’m glad it’s done

Here I am. I’m writing bits and pieces of proposal. The process isn’t linear, nor is it pretty. I’m hoping that the bits will eventually flocculate into a kind of formal… thing. I’m not sure how it will happen. But I have to just keep chipping away with varying degrees of sincerity. I only wish that I had an editor!

“Previously on Countdown: Dissertation,” says a very deep voice.

“We left our heroes considering how to actually work through the problem they were presented. They have some ideas but getting everything to work together is presenting some problems. There’s two choices: discuss the Janus face, or move to SCOT. What will our heroes do?”

Crap. Somehow what I have already written on Janus and Latour isn’t available. Oh yeah. I wrote that one for somebody else and don’t own the copyright. I can’t believe I’ll have to write it again. Ah well… let’s go to SCOT.

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Social studies of science and technology (STS) is a growing body of research with deep roots. The influence of STS has slowly been pervading general LIS studies for several decades. The importance of STS for LIS research was recently formalized with a dedicated ARIST review authored by Nancy van House (2004).

Van House reviews a number of different theoretical approaches that fall within the STS rubric such as laboratory studies, actor-network theory, symbolic interactionism, and workplace studies. She also provides an overview of the theoretical orientation that will be utilized within this study: Social Construction of Technology, or SCOT. Van House notes that SCOT is particularly relevant for studies of information systems, stating that “the notions of relevant social groups and interpretive flexibility are potentially useful in understanding various groups’ relationships to information technology and information systems, in making design choices, and in evaluating systems. An information system is not a single entity, but different for different groups.” (pg. 20) While van House is clearly referring to information technology, the applicability of SCOT can be extended to other “information systems” and genres. I contend that SCOT is a suitable theoretical orientation for the study of technical handbooks.

The orienting work of SCOT was published as a collection of papers in 1987. Various approaches and authors were represented. Historians, anthropologists, and sociologists all submitted papers. Wiebe Bijker and Trevor Pinch established the general tenets of what would be known as SCOT in their contributions and with a paper published three years earlier (Pinch & Bijker, 1984). The authors were attempting to shift the study of technological artifacts and systems away from what they saw as technological determinism. Following on from the contemporary work being completed in science studies, they stated that studying the social processes inherent in the creation and “stabilization” of technology was paramount. Van House summarizes their key positions:

“SCOT begins by identifying ‘relevant social groups,’ which include both producers and users of a technological object. Different groups have different arrays of problems; each problem generally has an array of possible solutions. The SCOT descriptive model proceeds with a ‘sociological deconstruction’ of the object of interest, showing different meanings an artifact has for different groups, focusing on the problems and associated solutions that each group sees with respect to the artifact. SCOT contends that a technological artifact possesses ‘interpretive flexibility,’ revealed through different meanings attributed to it by the different relevant social groups.” (pg. 19)

In response to various criticisms, SCOT has incorporated the concept of a “technological frame”. Embodying Giddens’s ideas of structuration (1984), a technological frame structures the interactions of social groups and technology into “sociotechnical ensembles” that include objects, theories, goals, and practices. In some ways, a sociotechnical ensemble can be equated to an actor-network. Various social groups act within their sociotechnical ensembles to attain “stabilization” or “closure” of particular technologies. In their original formulation of SCOT, Pinch and Bijker note “[c]losure in technology involves the stabilization of an artifact and the 'disappearance' of problems. To close technological 'controversy,' one need not solve the problems in the common sense of that word. The key point is whether the relevant social groups see the problem as being solved.” (Pinch & Bijker, 1987 pg. 44)

To summarize, SCOT has five key tenets. The first is “relevant social groups.” The second is that technologies approach a state of “closure” where the problems of the technology disappear from the perspective of the “relevant social groups” and the meanings and physical form of the technology “stabilizes.” To accomplish this stabilization, various members of the relevant social groups exploit a number of “closure mechanisms”—the third concept—that are unique to each particular combination of technology and social groups. Different groups may interpret and experience technology differently. Meanings can differ radically. This notion is “interpretive flexibility”, the fourth concept. Finally, members of social groups, technologies, and other actants are situated in a “technological frame.”

As a methodological approach, SCOT has met with great success and has been used in a number of different disciplines. Web of Science indicates that Pinch and Bijker’s work has been cited over 700 times since they first presented their theories in 1984 (analysis conducted on March 27, 2005). Over 70 of these citations have occurred since the beginning of 2004. Even LIS is represented in the corpus of citations evidenced by the recent work of van House, and Talja (2005).

While popular, SCOT has met with staunch criticism (Mackay & Gillespie, 1992; McGee, 2000; Rosen, 1993; Russell, 1986; Winner, 1993). On several occasions, Pinch and Bijker have found it necessary to defend the approach (Bijker, 1994; Bijker & Pinch, 2002). In one paper, Pinch (1996) summarized the main criticisms.

The first criticism is that “the jargon of social constructivism is obscurantist; nothing is added which good plain narrative history cannot do better.” (pg. 27) Pinch notes that this argument has been made for various approaches of studying history (see discussion of determinism in Hall, 1996), and that all methods are susceptible to certain embedded assumptions. Pinch explains that the point of SCOT is both to guide research and provide a framework of commensurability for various studies. SCOT is not a detailed method, but rather a methodological approach to guide analysis. This explanation also addresses the second criticism—in some ways the inverse of the first—that SCOT is too formulaic.

The third criticism is that “SCOT focuses upon the design stage of technology at the expense of users.” (pg. 30) Pinch states that this criticism is essentially correct but claims that the fault is not with the approach but rather with the types of study that have been conducted. In the ensuing years SCOT has been used to address use in addition to design but the criticism is well founded and needs to be addressed through method.

The fourth criticism is that “SCOT ignores power relationships” (pg. 31) and is strongly related to the fifth criticism: “SCOT is politically insipid.” (pg. 33) Again Pinch states that this may represent a fair criticism and explores ways that SCOT could be used as a means of addressing power relations, particular within the context of “technological frames.” This criticism was most vociferously leveled by Langdon Winner who notes that “although social constructivism escapes the bind of Whig history [teleological technological determinism], it seems not to have noticed the problem of elitism, the ways in which even a broad, multicentered spectrum of technical possibilities is skewed in ways that favor some social interests while excluding others.” (Winner, 1993 pg. 370) In Winner’s rebuke, however, there exists another threat. Through slavish adherence, “power relationships” becomes as totalizing a discourse as technological determinism. A compromise is present by Donald MacKenzie who notes that the study of technology must be about the artifacts, and the social practices that begat the features of those artifacts. For MacKenzie, any approach to the history of technology is not just about the narrative of events, or social discourse:

“And that is perhaps the ultimate reason why we need the history of technology. Not to settle priority disputes, not to satisfy antiquarian curiosity, not for celebration, but because only through history can we find how the ship got into the bottle, how the technological artifacts and the technological knowledge we take for granted became takeable for granted.” (MacKenzie, 1996 pg. 263)

Another criticism of SCOT was presented by Paul Rosen (1993). In response to Bijker’s seminal paper on the stabilization of the “safety bicycle” with pneumatic tires in the nineteenth century (revisited in Bijker, 1995), Rosen conducted a similar analysis of the modern mountain bike. The analysis indicated a number of shortcomings with the approach, although Bijker and Pinch (2002) later claimed they were the result of either mis-readings of their work or logical fallacies. One argument of Rosen’s, however, is quite evident and remains unaddressed. In the case of mountain bikes, it seems that a neat set of “relevant social groups” has not emerged and that arbitrarily creating them would severely limit the analysis. It seems that mountain bikes have not stabilized enough for SCOT to be an effective approach. Rosen’s comments resonate with those of Winner (1993): our conceptions of relevant social groups for historical examples may be more reflective of the intervening discourse rather than the actual conditions of the time. Both of these arguments are reflective of the broader problem of classification in any research program. As noted by Traweek (1996):

“A singular focus on simplicity, stability, uniformity, taxonomy, regularity, and hierarchy can, of course, be limiting. Furthermore, every way of making sense has its cognate forms of obsession. Certainly, there is an aesthetic of purification that can linger over the ways of the mind and body... Swirling around with Occam's razor, slicing away what cannot be categorized, leaves more than order behind.” (pg. 146)

The problem of determining relevant social groups is particularly relevant for the study of historical documents. Darnton (1983) provides an illustration of Winner’s argument with his retelling of “the great cat massacre”, “the funniest thing that ever happened in the printing shop of Jacques Vincent.” To modern ears, the story of herding cats together and butchering them with printing apparatus is horrific. To the social groups of the 1730s, it was high comedy.

This criticism—the difficulty in determining relevant groups—is a major shortcoming of SCOT that I intend to address this through method. The criticisms of Rosen and Winner are related to studies that generalize findings from a single case study, a problem with other studies of technical documents (see McGee, 2000 for criticism of Henderson's work). To increase the rigour of my analysis I intend to study two different eras. The first, quite distant from us in time, is susceptible to Winner’s criticism. The second, a relatively recent development, is inherently prey to the criticisms of Rosen. By analyzing works from both periods, and by testing theories developed from the study of one era with the findings of analysis conducted on the other, I hope to extract some grains of insight.

** cut in assumptions about methodology and method **


Bijker, W. E. (1994). Reply to Hull,Richard. Science Technology & Human Values, 19(2), 245-246.

Bijker, W. E. (1995). Of bicycles, bakelites, and bulbs : toward a theory of sociotechnical change. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Bijker, W. E., & Pinch, T. J. (2002). SCOT answers, other questions - A reply to Nick Clayton. Technology and Culture, 43(2), 361-369.

Darnton, R. (1983). What is the history of the book? In Books and society in history, Papers of the Association of College and Research Libraries Rare Book and Manuscripts Preconference, 24-28 June, 1980, Boston, Mass.

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society : outline of the theory of structuration. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Polity Press.

Hall, B. S. (1996). Lynn White's Medieval Technology and Social Change after thirty years. In R. Fox (Ed.), Technological change : methods and themes in the history of technology (pp. 85-101). Australia: Harwood Academic.

Mackay, H., & Gillespie, G. (1992). Extending the Social Shaping of Technology Approach - Ideology and Appropriation. Social Studies of Science, 22(4), 685-716.

MacKenzie, D. (1996). How do we know the properties of artefacts? Applying the sociology of knowledge ot technology. In R. Fox (Ed.), Technological change : methods and themes in the history of technology (pp. 247-263). Australia: Harwood Academic.

McGee, D. (2000). [Book review:] On line and on paper: Visual representations, visual culture, and computer graphics in design engineering [by Karen Henderson]. Technology and Culture, 41(2), 388-390.

Pinch, T. J. (1996). The social construction of technology : a review. In R. Fox (Ed.), Technological change : methods and themes in the history of technology (pp. 17-36). Australia: Harwood Academic.

Pinch, T. J., & Bijker, W. E. (1984). The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts - or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other. Social Studies of Science, 14(3), 399-441.

Pinch, T. J., & Bijker, W. E. (1987). The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other. In W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes & T. J. Pinch (Eds.), The Social construction of technological systems : new directions in the sociology and history of technology (pp. 17-50). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Rosen, P. (1993). The Social Construction of Mountain Bikes - Technology and Postmodernity in the Cycle Industry. Social Studies of Science, 23(3), 479-513.
Russell, S. (1986). The Social Construction of Artifacts - a Response to Pinch and Bijker. Social Studies of Science, 16(2), 331-346.
Talja, S. (2005). The social and discursive construction of computing skills. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 56(1), 13-22.
Traweek, S. (1996). Unity, Dyads, Triads, Quads, and Complexity: Cultural Choreographies of Science. In A. Ross (Ed.), Science wars (pp. 139-150). Durham: Duke University Press.
van House, N. A. (2004). Science and technology studies and information studies. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 38, 3-86.
Winner, L. (1993). Upon Opening the Black-Box and Finding It Empty - Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology. Science Technology & Human Values, 18(3), 362-378.


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