Social technology

Posted: August 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: articles & books, theory | 1 Comment »

What is the relationship between technology and social life?  How do our technologies shape us, and how do we shape them?

These questions have been hotly debated for ages, and it’s a testament to their importance and complexity that they still continue to dog researchers, scholars, and laypeople alike.  In fact, it’s safe to say that studying the relationship between technology and society will never go out of style.

So where do we start, and how do we frame, set up, and execute our studies?

My choice is to utilize a perspective called social technology.  Social technology is a “soft-line” deterministic perspective which holds that “technology has structures in its own right but that social practices moderate their effects on behavior.” (DeSanctis & Poole, 1994, p. 125)  In other words, the social technology perspective assumes a dynamic relationship between technology and society in which each shapes – and is shaped – by the other.

The social technology perspective is a logical middle ground between the extremes of technological determinism on the one hand, and social constructivism on the other.  Technological determinists believe that technologies will result in particular (social, cultural) outcomes.  In other words, technologies exert a force on us, but not vice versa. Social constructivists, on the other hand, study technologies from the perspective that they are entirely shaped by us, but not vice versa.

In contrast, social technologists believe that the ways in which people use technologies are not predetermined, but nor are they random or unshaped.  Rather, there is a constant push and pull between the technological and the social.  Social technologists believe that people create and engage deliberately with technologies and use them to reach goals, fill needs, and generally achieve things in the social world.  At the same time, social technologists are sensitive to the ways in which technologies do exert a force on us by limiting our choices, propelling us to select certain paths, and shaping our perspectives and our reasoning.

What does this mean for social technology researchers?  Three important implications come to mind.

  1. We never look at technologies in isolation, because doing so will never give us a complete understanding of their use and significance, or anything close to it.  Rather, we need to look at the social contexts of which technologies are a part.
  2. We accept that neither social life nor any technology is ever static, but always a work in progress.  Because of this, we have to pay attention to the ways in which both technologies and societies evolve and (more often) co-evolve.  In this way, we must look at the historical/social development of technologies over time.
  3. We recognize that while technology exerts a force on social life, it is only one of the many other influences, including institutional structure, member knowledge, social hierarchies, social rules and traditions, and others.

What social technology studies are you currently conducting?  What social technology studies inspire you?

Works Cited

  • DeSanctis, G., & Poole, M. S. (1994). Capturing the complexity in advanced technology use: Adaptive structuration theory. Organization Science, 5(2), 121-147.

Additional Sources

  • Barley, S. R. (1986). Technology as an occasion for structuring:  Evidence from observations of CT scanners and the social order of radiology departments. Administrative Science Quarterly, 31(1), 78-108.
  • Latour, B. (1991). Technology is society made durable. In J. Law (Ed.), A sociology of monsters:  Essays on power, technology, and domination (pp. 103-131). London: Routledge.
  • Latour, B. (1994). On technical mediation:  Philosophy, sociology, genealogy. Common Knowledge, 3, 39-64.
  • Neff, G., & Stark, D. (2004). Permanently beta:  Responsive organization in the Internet Era. In P. Howard & S. Jones (Eds.), Society online:  The Internet in context (pp. 173-188). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Orlikowski, W. J., & Yates, J. (1994). Genre repertoire: The structuring of communicative practices in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 39(4), 541-574.
  • Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. (1989). Institutional ecology, “translations” and boundary objects:  Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19(3), 387-420.
  • Yates, J. (1989). Control through Communication:  The rise of system in American management. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

One Comment on “Social technology”

  1. 1 Tabitha Hart » Blog Archive » Free materials on Social Computing said at 11:39 am on December 9th, 2011:

    […] I have blogged about before, I am very interested in theories of social technology as well as research on the ways in which techn….  How are technologies strategically designed to shape communication?  How can such designs be […]