A Bit on Sociotechnical Systems

Science and Technology Studies (STS) research analyzes the relationship between technology and society through macro- and micro-level analysis of the development of technologies within larger social frameworks. Empirically-based analysis of technology development has sought tools, conceptual models, and terminology for descriptive purposes. The complex networks of people, institutions, laws, values, and technological artifacts are intertwined, depending upon the level of analysis. Determining the appropriate level of inclusion, however, is a continual source of controversy and variance in opinion both inside and outside of STS.

The term sociotechnical system describes these networks of interrelated actors, artifacts, and institutions in a manner that provides significant flexibility for researchers:

Sociotechnical systems is the generic name we use to refer to complex systems of social and technical components intertwined in mutually influencing relationships that STS scholars often take as their unit of analysis. The concept of sociotechnical system acknowledges that attempts to understand a device or a social practice (institution, relationship, etc.) as an independent entity are misleading… [which] helps us see the ways in which artifacts, social practices, social relationships, systems of knowledge, institutions, and so on are bound together an interact with each other in complex ways (Johnson and Wetmore 2008, 574).

While the term originally referred to social and technical systems in an organization, it has expanded in recent decades to include a broader view with very flexible limits (Emery and Trist 1960; Trist 1951). Determining the extent of heterogeneity within the network, i.e. which entities to include in the network analysis, varies based on scope and perspective, with differing views on the importance of humans, social components, technological artifacts, and organizations (Fuller 2007; Callon 1989a; Latour 1987a; Hughes 1994; Law 2002). Emphasizing the flexibility of the concept, Callon argues that networks cannot be “predictable fashion elements that are perfectly well defined and stable, for the entities [they are] composed of, whether natural or social, could at any moment redefine their identity and mutual relationships in some new way and bring new elements into the network” (1989b, 93). STS approaches attempt to redefine traditional sociological network analysis that highlights only actors, in the process incorporating flexibility for rapidly-evolving and complex systems. Variants of the concept have been applied through broad conceptual tools, such as actor-network theory, as well as more localized analysis undertakings, such as describing the growth of national electric power systems (Hughes 1993; Latour 1987b; Latour 2005; Hughes 1990; Wetmore 2004; Law 2002). As Irwin (2008, 593) argues, the explanatory power of such analysis techniques lies in the ability to de-mystify complex linkages into more understandable networks of interactions.

As an additional note of fun, a recent lecture from MIT’s Joseph Sussman discusses his view of the need for and development of research into sociotechnical systems. Notably, Sussman names a few other contributors to the field that do not pop out from the literature above. In the Q&A, he mentions the emerging field of behavioral economics, which has a lot of promise to add contributions for this realm.

 

References

Callon, Michael. 1989a. “Society in the Making.” In The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. 1st MIT Press paperback ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

———. 1989b. “Society in the Making: The Study of Technology as a Tool for Sociological Analysis.” In The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. 1st MIT Press paperback ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Emery, F.E., and E.L. Trist. 1960. “Socio-technical Systems.” In Management Science, Models and Techniques. Vol. 2. London.

Fuller, Steve. 2007. New Frontiers in Science and Technology. Cambridge  UK; Malden  MA: Polity.

Hughes, Thomas. 1990. American Genesis: A History of the American Genius for Invention. New York  N.Y.  U.S.A.: Penguin Books.

———. 1993. Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930. Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

———. 1994. “Technological Momentum.” In Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge  Mass.: MIT Press.

Irwin, Alan. 2008. “STS Perspectives on Scientific Governance.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. 3rd ed. /. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; Published in cooperation with the Society for the Social Studies of Science.

Johnson, Deborah C., and Jameson M. Wetmore. 2008. “STS and Ethics: Implications for Engineering Ethics.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. 3rd ed. /. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; Published in cooperation with the Society for the Social Studies of Science.

Latour, Bruno. 1987a. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

———. 1987b. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Cambridge  Mass.: Harvard University Press.

———. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network-theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Law, John. 2002. Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Trist, E. L. 1951. “Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Longxwall Method of Coal-Getting: An Examination of the Psychological Situation and Defences of a Work Group in Relation to the Social Structure and Technological Content of the Work System.” Human Relations 4 (1) (February): 3–38. doi:10.1177/001872675100400101.

Wetmore, Jameson M. 2004. “Redefining Risks and Redistributing Responsibilities: Building Networks to Increase Automobile Safety.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 29 (3) (July): 377–405. doi:10.1177/0162243904264486.

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