- Technology and Social Theory
More than twenty-five years ago social theorist Randall Collins aptly pointed out that technology was one of sociology’s “unexplored dark spots.” Had he then perused the pages of Technology and Culture, he could have noted that usable social theory was largely missing from the history of technology as well. Since then many historians of technology have embraced one quite-specific theoretical framework—social constructivism—and shown some openness to other perspectives as well. Despite lingering skepticism about its utility, SCOT has enriched the narrative and analytical range of scholarship in the field. At the same time, however, social theorists have shown no remotely comparable opening to the history of technology. As far as social theory goes, the history of technology is a dark hole.
Steve Matthewman’s Technology and Social Theory is the best book-length attempt to chart a map (his term) of the terrain of theory in technology studies. In addition, he provides a compass (my term) for navigating what can only be described as an immensely variegated topography of concepts, theories, metaphors, empirical studies, and programmatic agendas for understanding the importance of technology for social theory. Though aimed mainly at sociologists and other social scientists, this impressive book has much to offer theoretically curious historians of technology and their graduate students. Together with Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman’s outstanding edited volume, The Social Shaping of Technology (1985), Matthewman’s book could anchor an expansive, sophisticated, and critical introduction to the theoretical richness of technology as a sociohistorical phenomenon.
Matthewman, a sociologist at the University of Auckland, is deeply and broadly informed about his subject. After an opening chapter on “Theorizing Technology” in which Matthewman (citing Leo Marx) introduces a [End Page 918] range of issues bearing on the “hazardous concept” of technology, the book proceeds in a more or less chronological-thematic sequence. Two solid early chapters on general theory—on Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, and critical theorists—are followed by five more focused chapters on a spectrum of specific perspectives in technology studies and STS: artifacts and politics, SCOT, actor-network theory, ethnographic studies, and “thing theory” and post-humanism. Each chapter gives a balanced yet critical overview of the theories, theorists, and relevant empirical studies, and concludes with helpful suggestions for further reading. One useful organizing principle of the book is that the explicanda have shifted emphasis over time: as our most insistent technologies take on increasingly subjective meanings, so too do the theories redefine what needs to be explained.
The last chapter, “Objective Life: Things and Social Theory,” reminds us that technology-relevant social theory can be gleaned from unexpected—and otherwise well-tapped—sources. For example, Émile Durkheim emphasized long ago that “things in fact are a part of society, just as persons are, and play a specific part in it.” Like the totems of primitive (and modern) religions, technical artifacts are mundane material objects until they are endowed with powerful symbolic meanings representing a society’s moral and functional order. Although Marx is typically regarded as the classical theorist whose ideas are most germane to technology studies, Durkheim’s general theories of religion and social differentiation (and Marcel Mauss’s reflections on gifts and reciprocity) provide many suggestive leads for sociocultural analyses of technology: for example, is the extent of technological-systems coordination in a society inversely related to its degree of cultural integration?
Matthewman’s balanced and sophisticated treatment of each variety of theory is the book’s major strength. The principle of theoretical pluralism is his leitmotif and the main reason why the book will be useful to scholars who have not seen a good map of the subject matter. His compass, however, points toward actor-network theory as offering the greatest promise. ANT is attractive to him because it articulates a general theory of society—not only a “middle-range” framework for technology analysis. Matthewman deals intelligently with ANT’s most controversial claim, that agency is not confined to human actors but rather should be seen as distributed across a...