Convergence of the history and sociology of technology from the mid 1980s

Bissell, Christopher (2017). Convergence of the history and sociology of technology from the mid 1980s. In: Interdisciplinary Futures: Open the Social Sciences 20 Years Later, 19-20 Jan 2017, Lisbon, Portugal.



In the Conclusion to the Gulbenkian Foundation Report we read: “What needs to be called for is less an attempt to transform organizational frontiers than to amplify the organization of intellectual activity without attention to current disciplinary boundaries. […] To be sociological is not the exclusive purview of personas called sociologists. […] Nor is it absolutely sure that professional historians necessarily know more about historical explanations, sociologists more about social issues, economists more about economic fluctuations than other working social scientists”.

At the time of the Gulbenkian Report, there had already been significant convergence of the history and sociology of technology. The Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) had been formed in 1958 to encourage the study of the development of technology and its relations with society and culture. SHOT describes itself thus: “An interdisciplinary organization, SHOT is concerned not only with the history of technological devices and processes but also with technology in history—that is, the relationship of technology to politics, economics, science, the arts, and the organization of production, and with the role it plays in the differentiation of individuals in society”.

Although this interdisciplinary nature was evident from the early days of SHOT, the mid 1980s saw a rather more radical shift. The first editor of the Society’s journal, Technology & Culture, was Melvin Kranzberg, who wrote a paper in 1986 introducing his ‘six laws’, which became seminal for much later work. His ‘laws’ are as follows (an elucidation will be given in the presentation):

1 Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.
2 Invention is the mother of necessity.
3 Technology comes in packages, big and small.
4 Although technology might be a prime element in many public issues, nontechnical factors take precedence in technology-policy decisions.
5 All history is relevant, but the history of technology is the most relevant.
6 Technology is a very human activity-and so is the history of technology.

Around the same time an extremely influential conference was held in 1984 at Technology and Culture, on the Social Construction of Technological Systems. The extensive papers appeared in 1987, and demonstrated an enormous range of scholarship. In addition to methodological chapters, a set of case studies included: Portuguese expansion in the late 15th century; the development of synthetic dyes and Bakelite in the 19th and 20th centuries; the social construction of missile accuracy; medical imaging; sociology and cognitivism; and expert systems.

The current range of interest can be seen from recent papers in Technology & Culture. In addition to more traditional papers, articles have covered: the pianist Glenn Gould and music technology; the ‘electronic church’ of Oral Roberts; questions of technology in Hayao Miyazaki’s 2013 film The Wind Rises; masculinity in the technology of printing 1960s – 1980s; how to glean culture from an evolving Internet; and pro-nuclear environmentalism. In addition there were reviews of books on: how engineers think; cultural histories of sociabilities, space and mobilities; and British art in the nuclear age. The cross- and interdisciplinary nature of the work of many contemporary historians of technology could hardly be clearer.

The Gulbenkian report has nothing to say about technology per se. There is a section on the ‘two cultures’, but it concentrates on topics such as non-linearity and complexity, irreversibility and the arrow of time’; nothing is said about the old ‘internalist / externalist’ debate, let alone the new convergence of science and technology studies with a whole range of social studies. This paper will attempt to redress the balance in the context of the twenty years since the publication of Open the Social Sciences.

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