Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


The Social Shaping of Technology: Second Edition

Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman (editors)
Open University Press: Buckingham
1998
0335199135 (pb); 0335199143 (hb)
16.99 (pb); 50.00 (hb)
470

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In 1985, Mackenzie and Wajcman produced what was to become a seminal contribution to theorising the relationship between technology and society. The First Edition of The Social Shaping of Technology broke new ground in focussing attention on the social context of technological development, implementation and use, and questioning the overly simplistic assumptions supplied by technological determinism.

This first anthology was well-received, not just because it challenged established ways of thinking about the technology/society relationship, but also because of the accessibility of the content.

Fourteen years on and three factors throw into sharp relief the need for an update. First, the rapid developments in technology, especially in the field of information and communications technology, appear to raise new issues which demand we go further than 'these social conditions brought us these new technologies'. The sudden and massive expansion of the World Wide Web for example, cannot be explained simply in terms of technology push or demand pull. Relatedly, there is a greater public awareness of technology, evidenced in widespread and often heated debates about such things as genetic screening, genetically modified foods, gulf war syndrome or potential nuclear disasters.

Second, theoretical perspectives have also moved on. The short-comings of the 'social shaping' school have been recognised and other theorists such as 'social constructivists, actor-network theorists and, more latterly, ethnomethodologists have thrown their hats into the ring. What all seem to agree on now, at least, is that technology and society may be mutually constitutive. Third, just as we have seen convergence in technologies so too, we have seen a kind of convergence in sociological perspectives. Technology has now become an object of interest in sociologies of , for example, work, organisation, culture and media, amongst others.

A text which addresses these developments is long overdue and the second edition of The Social Shaping of Technology goes some way towards meeting the need. A revised and lengthened introductory essay takes into account theoretical developments and accepts the critique that the social shapers' focus on the wider social relations of class, gender or ethnicity often distracted attention from the technology itself. Part One therefore incorporates articles which reflect this acknowledgement with pieces by Kline and Pinch and Strum and Latour flying the flag for social construction and actor network theory. Social shaping arguments are still explicitly represented with Cockburn surviving to provide an account of gender shaping, joined by Dyer in a brief but pithy argument about ethnicity and technology.

The second section addresses technologies of production and does so in exemplary fashion. The historical ordering of the articles makes eminent sense and the addition of Fleck and Suchman acknowledges the tremendous strides which have been made in recognising the contribution social scientists can make to the design process. The absence of Barker and Downing is, one supposes, a consequence of their pessimism "now seeming wide of the mark" (p17). Their arguments are still strongly made through Cockburn and Hoffman, perhaps, but it is still a rather sad omission.

The humming of the refrigerator has also been silenced, although where exactly it might have lodged in the new structure is a puzzle. Am I alone in being a little irritated by the third section? Entitled 'Reproductive Technology', it is prefaced by the standard argument for including domestic technologies with those of human reproduction but reads as if someone said 'we need somewhere to put the women's bits'.

Why not call it Domestic Technology and have done? Or better still, why not move Schwartz Cowan and Berg into Part Two and augment Part Three into bio-medical technologies? In this way the political, which is rather down-played throughout, could be allowed to participate.

The final section is perhaps the most important given the prominence of military research in technological developments generally. At the same time, however, this section underlines the drift into generality the reader starts to experience at page 269. Perhaps this is a consequence of over-ambition. This is a laudable attempt to encompass the developments which have taken place since the first edition but maybe there have been too many for one text to deal with. That is not to say I would leave very much out. The last article in particular, makes the point that theorising serves a useful purpose. Those with an interest in the sociology of technology, and particularly, those engaged in teaching it have been waiting for this book. Maybe the editors should consider a two volume approach for the next edition!

Liz Marr
Manchester Metropolitan University

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999