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Comparing and Contrasting Social shaping of technology and Actor-Network theory


The approach of Social Shaping of Technology (SST) analyses the technology content as well as the innovation-based processes. This involves cultural, social organisational and political factors contrary to the traditional approaches addressing technological change impacts or outcomes. The SST approach emphasises the technology negotiability, demonstrating the scope for certain forces and groups in shaping technologies. Furthermore, SST according to Williams and Edge (1996, 867) focuses on irreversibility, the level through which choices could be foreclosed. On the other hand, the Actor-Network theory (ANT) central idea is theorising and investigating how networks come about, with the objective of tracing the type of associations that exist, the way the move, ways of enrolling actors into the network, how a whole network is formed by parts of the network, as well as how temporary stability is achieved by networks (Cresswell, Worth and Sheikh 2010, 2). The objective is to achieve comprehensive insights regarding how social effects like power materialise. As the essay will point out, ANT differentiates itself from other sociotechnical methods by taking into account both non-human and human elements equally as the network’s actors. This essay uses numerically controlledmachine and seat belt artefacts to compare and contrast social shaping of technology (SST) and Actor-Network theory (ANT).


The SST approach as mentioned by Williams and Edge (1996, 873) draws upon a wider torrent of social as well as economic analysis. The existing technological approaches recognised that the technology content and form are very crucial, and can be analysed socially. They problematise as well as define the process of innovation. Therefore, innovation is considered as an uncertain and self-contradictory process. The SST approach according to MacKenzie and Wajcman (1999, 28) is a process where there exists no dominant shaping force. Importantly, the SST approach captures the viewpoint where technology is perceived as the social relations’ embodiment. When the society is considered autonomous and technology is perceived to be completely flexible, then this is considered as social determinism (Martin 1998, 335). In Kidd (1988, 193) study, the author outlines three strategic choices that can be utilised by the system designers while developing technical systems. The choices include: Assigning every function that is very costly and challenging to the human operator, offering little attention to the work organisation, man-machine interface or facilities that the operator needs so as to carry out such tasks adequately. Allocating to the human operator every function that is very costly and challenging to automate by means of job design and ergonomics and principles with the objective of developing the work organisation as well as man-machine interface that the operator needs so as to complete such tasks and to generate improved working life quality. The last choice is allocating functions between machine and man by utilising the economic, technical and social considerations; with the purpose of using social science input to shape man-machine interface, work organisation, and the technology, so that the users’ existing skills are transformed into new skills.

The first strategic choice was espoused in the creation of the numerically controlled (NC) machine. Given that the NC machine is a technical system artefact, a programme must be developed prior to the start of the machining process. Besides that, the machine operator can effectively influence the process of actual machining by using the overrides positioned on the control panel of the machine (Kidd 1988, 194). The NC technology according to Noble (1978, 322) normally creates the need for separating the components of the decision making and planning. The NC technology leads to the control reduction which the machinist possesses over the machines as well as the work process; therefore, the machinist skill is undoubtedly reduced. As mentioned by Kidd (1988, 198), when operating the NC machine, the machinist is offered less choices. Clearly, there have been some developments on the conventional lathe technology; the technological changes have not lead to the process of deskilling. Rather, such technological changes have led to machinist’s skills evolution; while technology advanced, the machinists’ old skills also advanced into new skills with respect to the technological changes. Therefore, the challenge is finding means of ensuring that the evolutionary process through contemporary technology never ends. The SST approach has been influenced by numerous factors.

The technological paradigms’ notion is attributed to the scientific paradigms; therefore, machinist normally operates in certain paradigms, which occasionally changes. The development of SST approach was influenced by the social construction of technology (SCOT) model as well as actor-network theory. The SST approach sought to fill deficiencies related to the SCOT approach, such as disregarding the technical choices’ social consequences. Even though the SST research is normally initiated from the artefacts design, Williams and Edge (1996, 877) posit that the interactive paradigm exhibits the need to review the entire technology circuit so as to determine how the social implications and technologies are shaped. In their study, Williams and Edge (1996, 880) noted that the SST research engages with a broad scope of innovation social settings of economic and social forces that could shape. The concepts advanced to analyse the process of innovation as well as its multifaceted social environment can be established while contributing to an improved innovation understanding in certain technologies.

The Actor-Network theory (ANT) approach according to Garrety (2014, 16) is resolutely empirical and steer clear of clarifications utilising abstractions like social factors, forces or structures. The ANT approach has a ‘flat ontology’; specifically, the approach does not encourage categorisation of explanations as well as things into macro or micro, technical, human, legal, social, political, or scientific. Basically, the agency and power are not expounded by such categories, but rather by the networks effects. In order to enhance their concept regarding networks, the ANT theorists as indicated by Garrety (2014, 16) devised additional concepts and terms. In addition, “obligatory passage points’ like the mandated standards and laws may be integrated into the networks with the objective of limiting choice. The ANT critics consider the objects inclusion as key elements in knowledge creation, which are almost similar to the conventional positivist approaches wherein scientific evidences are already available. ‘Heterogeneous network’ or ‘sociotechnical network’ is a term consciously utilised by the ANT theorists with the objective of overcoming what they consider as redundant dichotomy between non-humans and humans. Even though philosophically radical, such an ontological levelling stems from empirically observing activities in field tests, research centres and laboratories, where all humans, technologies and texts equally play a crucial part in constructing actor-networks.

According to Tatnall and Gilding (1999, 958), the ANT approach proclaims that hybrid entities have filled the world, which contains both non-human as well as human elements. More importantly, the ANT approach focuses on the social-technical separation by repudiating that purely social or purely technical relations are probable. The approach provides the heterogeneity notion with the aim of describing projects like he one utilised in the barcode scanner, database management system, and programming language. The ANT approach considers both technical and social determinism as faulty; therefore, suggests a socio-technical account whereby the technical and social positions are not offered privileges. To fairly and equally treat both non-human and human actors, ANT is rooted in three principles: free association, generalised symmetry as well as agnosticism. The free association principle creates the need to abandon and eliminate every priori differences that exists between the natural or technological, as well as the social. The generalised symmetry principle seeks to explain the conflicting viewpoints of different actors in the same terms by neutralising and abstracting vocabulary, which functions in a similar way for all actors (human and non-human). Lastly, the agnosticism tenet connotes that analytical objectivity is needed by all actors participating in the project under consideration (Tatnall and Gilding 1999, 958).

According to the ANT Approach, objects have agency for translating interests as well as creating relations. For instance, Latour (1992) expounds how a car seatbelt inflicts morality on people. Even though it is deemed contentious, practitioners of ANT theory maintain that researchers should not differentiate between non-human and human actors as preceding categories. Latour (1992) provides a thought-provoking contribution on technology’s socio-technical perspective. He provides numerous encouraging observations regarding how technology failed actors are unable to maintain it using adaptation and negotiation. The seat belts technologies as mentioned by Carroll, Richardson and Whelan (2012, 63) is an artefact that influence the behaviour of humans. Latour (1992, 226) asserts that the seat belt desigers always use belt contradictory programs to produce firm and lenient seat belts that can be put on easily and fastened solidly. Seat belt according to Latour (1992) does not mirror the social, but instead it displaces and transcribes the conflicting interests of things and people. Latour uses the Car’s seat belt to demonstrate how the artefact and human are transformed and determined by one another. While impartially treating the human and non-human actors and rejecting the technical and social divide, and, The ANT approach eschews essentialism. When getting into a car, the seatbelt warning makes noise with the aim of convincing the driver to fasten his/her seatbelt. Latour (1992) questions if there a morality when an artefact’s mindless power dominates the human driver by forcing him/her to abide by the law that was clearly stipulated when acquiring the driver’s license.


In conclusion, the essay has used numerically controlledmachine and seat belt artefacts to compare and contrast social shaping of technology (SST) and Actor-Network theory (ANT). The SST approach clearly plays a crucial role in the integration of the social science and natural concerns; it provides a comprehension of the relationship between social and economic well-being, technological innovation as well as scientific excellence. As mentioned in the essay, the SST approach focuses on how the policy about technological advancement is executed using consideration of economic, social and scientific demands. The approach tries to construct or incorporate frameworks that originate in various intellectual traditions. As pointed out in the essay, the SST approach foundation is rooted in the proposition that developments of technology happen through a series of choices that the innovator makes. On the other hand, the actor-network theory (ANT) uses the qualitative research strengths to offer a powerful, but rather different model for understanding innovation. The ANT approach is considered beneficial over other research methodologies, predominantly in circumstances where political concerns are vital. According to the ANT approach, the world is contains intertwining networks that consist of numerous complex interactions that continually reconfigure itself regularly. In addition, the ANT approach offers lens that could be used to analyse the connections between the technical and the social and proposes the enrollment of actors so that the network could be stabilised.


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