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Reviewed by:
  • Technografie: Zur Mikrosoziologie der Technik
  • Ulrich Wengenroth (bio)
Technografie: Zur Mikrosoziologie der Technik. Edited by Werner Rammert, Cornelius Schubert. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 2006. Pp. 445. €39.90.

Technografie is an introduction to a fairly new approach in the microsociology of technology. The term had been first introduced by anthropologist Paul Richards in the 1980s in his work on indigenous agriculture in West Africa. Technography here is understood to be an ethnographic approach emphasizing the technological dimension of a culture, one more promising transfer of research skills from anthropology to the history of technology. Neither the editors nor the authors of the more theoretical and methodological chapters maintain that technography sets out to ask fundamentally new questions. Rather, it is a way to empirically investigate those aspects of social order that have been largely coconstructed by technology.

In this perspective, technology is not juxtaposed to society as an artifact deprived of any agency that is fully controlled by its human authors. Technology is understood to have some agency and even some autonomy. At the very least, technology—through many unintended side effects and, more recently, purposefully embedded learning capacities—meets people “as if” it had both agency and autonomy. For microsociological studies, the ontological status of technology is less relevant than its perception among human actors. Activities are seen as being distributed among people, things, and semiotic programs. An example is flying a commercial aircraft where human pilots, autopilots, feedback systems, and software for navigation, flight stability, and aircraft position all interact. “Agency in medias res” (Steve Fuller) rather than the more traditional “agency ex nihilo” therefore seems a much better concept to understand the performance of human pilots. In such a setting, technography sets out to give a “thick description” by participating observers. The similarities to earlier laboratory studies are obvious and technography, in this volume, places itself firmly in this tradition.

Werner Rammert and Cornelius Schubert are to be complimented for their efforts to contextualize their approach within recent STS scholarship. They stress their indebtedness to ethnography, ethno-methodology, constructivist laboratory studies, and pragmatism. They precede their own empirical work with reprints of three pathbreaking studies, by Bruno Latour (“Ethnography of a ‘High Tech’ Case: About Aramis”), Edwin Hutchins (“The Technology of Team Navigation”), and Alex Preda (“Socio-Technical [End Page 831] Agency in Financial Markets: The Case of the Stock Ticker”). From these well-known studies, the editors and their collaborators develop a theoretically coherent concept of technography that is put to the test in a number of case studies ranging from medical technologies to personal information management by engineers. The linchpin of this concept is both an idea of “technology in action” as a form of “distributed cognition” (Hutchins) and “distributed action” and the refusal to accept well-entrenched dichotomies like nature-society or technology-society. The two major fallacies the editors want to overcome are the fallacy of human autonomy in action and the fallacy of the determination of technical objects and nature.

Unlike many proponents of new approaches, however, Rammert and Schubert include case studies that show the limits and inconsistencies that technography still suffers even after their own thorough theorizing and methodology. Jörg Potthast, in his chapter on the fatal crash of Swissair 111 off the Canadian Atlantic coast, demurs that in technography, as it stands, too much hinges on the presumptive authority of the professional observer. Rather than flattering itself to be “critical sociology,” technography would have to incorporate the insights of the “sociology of criticism” along the lines of Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot’s On Justification: Economies of Worth (2006).

Technografie is a well-crafted introduction to microstudies of technology that are informed by ethnographic methodology. The theoretical and methodological foundations are laid out in detail, and the book convincingly shows the strength of its approach by a number of case studies, while not hiding some of its limitations. It leaves its reader well-informed. [End Page 832]

Ulrich Wengenroth

Dr.Wengenroth is professor of history of technology at the Munich Center for the History of Science and Technology



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