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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 336-338

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Book Review

The Social Dynamics of Technology: Practice, Politics, and World Views

The Social Dynamics of Technology: Practice, Politics, and World Views. Edited by Marcia-Anne Dobres and Christopher R. Hoffman. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999. Pp. xvi+240. $45.

The editors of this concise anthology set out a clear agenda. Marcia-Anne Dobres and Christopher Hoffman have brought together a collection of essays by cultural anthropologists and ethnoarchaeologists that they argue should serve as an explicit corrective to those disciplines' "lack of sustained attention to the social agency of technological practice" (p. 7). The range of [End Page 336] topics seems disparate, with essays on servant space in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New England homes, bead-making practices in prehistoric South Asia and East Africa, and the persistence of precontact bone-tool technology in the North Pacific. Some, such as S. Terry Childs's study of ironworking in East Africa, have the feel of classic anthropological field studies; in contrast, Bryan Pfaffenberger's "Worlds in the Making" is a theoretical study of discourse about technology in the scholarly literature. Yet this eclectic mix is unified by a common concern to foster a more robust analytical tradition for the study of technology.

Although historians of technology are likely to find themselves unfamiliar with aspects of the methodological discussions and particulars of the literature cited, readers of Technology and Culture will recognize many of the scholars mentioned here, including Wiebe Bijker and Thomas P. Hughes. Further, T&C readers will be very familiar with the volume's orientation toward viewing technology as a social process, and with the authors' commitment to opening the black box and embedding technique and artifact in a context that tells us how technology both reflects and refracts broader structures of state, society, and culture.

It is this more complex view of technology that the editors believe distinguishes this anthology's contributions from the traditional concerns of anthropologists and archaeologists with tools and material culture. Dobres and Hoffman themselves are both actively engaged with current scholarship, and they account for four of the ten chapters to Social Dynamics, coauthoring introductory and concluding pieces and contributing essays individually on their own research. The anthology has three sections-- "Technological Practice," "Technological Politics," and "World Views and Technology"--which are thematically and temporally porous. Readers seeking a tightly knit collection will be disappointed; historians looking for a book to use in courses would find it difficult to use the whole volume, although individual chapters could easily serve to introduce advanced undergraduates or graduate students to interdisciplinary studies of technology. Childs's essay on ironworking in East Africa offers a close examination of the social relations of production. Hoffman's on the cultural implications of intentionally damaged tools (broken and blunted axes, for example) in prehistoric Mallorca is prefaced by the author's memoir of petty vandalism by teenagers in post-1945 suburban America. In Robin Ridington's contribution on Athapaskan narrative poetry, long passages from lyrical poems not only enrich the analysis but also provide a poignant window into the struggles of indigenous peoples who face a world where technology has radically altered customary practice.

Although it lacks thematic coherence, this anthology succeeds because the individual parts succeed, in their various ways, in placing technology at the center of the analysis. There are occasional points when a historical perspective may highlight unanswered questions. In recent years among the [End Page 337] ironworkers in Childs's study, for example, the ritualistic searches for new ore deposits have been supplanted by scavenging springs and other parts from abandoned automobiles, a transformation that Childs leaves largely unexplored. Pfaffenberger's appreciation of the work of Bronislaw Malinowski lays out the development of anthropological theory, exploring how technology was understood (and misunderstood) by the eminent founding scholars of the field, yet aside from a passing reference to Malinowski's reliance on Victorian notions of "sympathetic magic" he neglects to embed their scholarship in its historical moment; we are left with a Progress narrative...


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