Enterprise & Society 4.3 (2003) 556-557
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Paul Rosen. Framing Production: Technology, Culture, and Change in the British Bicycle Industry. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002. xi + 224 pp. ISBN 0-262-18225-4, $29.95.
Framing Production is a bicycle enthusiast's account of the British bicycle industry in the twentieth century. Unlike many enthusiasts' work, however, this study has great merit. It combines business history, history of industrial production, history of technology, and history of consumption with a revised and enlarged version of the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) approach. Inevitably, a book of 180 pages of text cannot do justice to all aspects of its subject. For students of corporate finance and the Chandlerian grammar of business organization, there is little of specific interest in Paul Rosen's well-written story. The Science, Technology, and Society community, on the other hand, will find it stimulating and rewarding.
Rosen sets out to overcome two often-cited shortcomings of SCOT: the cultural dimension of technological change and the industrial production of artifacts. His revised version of SCOT strengthens cultural aspects and recurring elements of change after first closure. In Rosen's account, what continues to look like a bicycle has very different meanings over the twentieth century for both consumers and producers. In addition, as consumers redefine the bicycle, producers rearrange production. Frames of production and frames of consumption dialectically combine to form sociotechnical frames of the bicycle.
In Rosen's periodization, there were three such frames. First, there was an early era of small-batch factory production by skilled workers within a culture of sport and leisure cycling in the decades before the First World War. The next phase, from the interwar years to the late 1950s, was governed by localized Fordist mass production and bicycling as the dominant form of individual transport. In Britain, manufacturers would use Fordist equipment primarily to eliminate customizing rather than to deskill workers. Low prices and reliability were more important than features, dramatically reducing the number of models. The 1960s and 1970s saw the decline of the bicycle in view of mass motorization, followed by its renaissance as an object primarily for play. The production regime changed from localized Fordism to global flexible specialization, with component suppliers from low-cost countries and assemblers in Britain. Bicycle ownership increased even as bicycle use decreased; one enjoyed riding a mountain bike after taking it by car to a point of departure in the wilderness. [End Page 556]
Rosen convincingly shows that neither Fordism in phase two nor flexible specialization in phase three came in their pure forms as we know them from the literature. Fordism in British bicycle manufacturing was not driven to the point where it would imperil labor relations. Control over the shop floor was not transferred to management in the times of standardized mass production. When the culture of cycling changed to nonutilitarian use in the 1970s and 1980s, many elements of mass production persisted. High degrees of product differentiation did not call for fully fledged flexible specialization. Components and frames continued to be mass produced and were increasingly being imported from Asia. What automated frame production at Raleigh had been to mass production of standard bikes, the Shimano system became for the super-Sloanism of globalized mountain-bike culture.
In the last chapter, Rosen wonders whether a sociotechnical frame of the sustainable bicycle was possible. Although he clearly would like bicycling to replace the three-fourths of all automobile trips reported to be fewer than five miles, his optimism is limited. The car culture is so firmly embedded that bicycling itself increasingly has become an activity based on automobile transport. Reluctantly, Rosen admits that "it is difficult to imagine bicycles—or sustainable transportation more generally—displacing the automobile until the latter has become thoroughly disentangled from the cultural values associated with transportation and mobility" (p. 175). Unfortunately, he does not discuss these values and what makes them so irreplaceable by bicycles, and one needs to know this to understand Rosen's last sociotechnical frame fully. There is no history...