Social Shaping

The Social Shaping of Technology by Robin Williams, David Edge. This paper reviews the growing body of research that explores how the design and implementation of technology are patterned by a range of 'social' and 'economic' factors as well as narrowly 'technical' considerations. pdf .


Central to SST is the concept that there are 'choices' (though not necessarily conscious choices) inherent in both the design of individual artefacts and systems, and in the direction or trajectory of innovation programmes. If technology does not emerge from the unfolding of a predetermined logic or a single determinant, then innovation is a 'garden of forking paths'.

Many SST writers had deeper concerns: to emancipate science and technology - to dismantle their privileging as inevitable, or standing outside or above society; and to view them as areas of social activity, subject to social forces and amenable to social analysis.

An important critical strand within SST has highlighted the politics of technology, arguing that technologies are not neutral, but are fostered by groups to preserve or alter social relations; they are 'politics pursued by other means'

Innovation is thus seen as a contradictory and uncertain process. It is not just a rational-technical 'problem-solving'; it also involves 'economic and political' processes in building alliances of interests with the necessary resources and technical expertise around as yet unrealised technologies.

This focus on implementation counteracts the traditional privileging of technology supply and instead highlights the contribution of 'users' to innovation and the importance of supplier-user interactions. Particularly in relation to information technology, implementation is the arena in which supplier offerings interact with user needs. Powerful 'universal' information processing techniques, embodying computer science principles, are customised for use, drawing upon the contingent local knowledge of the various user groups.

Some feminist researchers have drawn upon SST concepts of 'interpretative flexibility' to insist upon the potential of even marginalised consumers/users of technologies to be 'actors', since the intentions baked into technology may restrict the flexibility of a given artefact but they cannot altogether determine its use or meaning'.

Research has shown that the introduction of discrete IT systems into office work brings about no single pattern of work organisation. Despite predictions that techniques of office automation would bring assembly-line regimentation to the office, officework organisation remains much the same, after implementation as before.

The repeated search for a 'technological fix' to organisational problems, on the assumption that technological change will readily deliver appropriate organisational change. Suppliers, consultants and government agencies and user managers, have all been enrolled in this search: technologies have been developed and promoted in the image of current concerns about production.

Integrated systems tend to be directed towards the overall performance of the organisation, rather than the conduct of particular tasks. Ideas about how integrated technologies will proceed are closely paralleled by concepts of industrial organisation.

The case of the home computer provides an illustration of how technologies are appropriated by domestic users. The evolution of this technology became subject to a web of competing conceptions articulated by various players: government, suppliers, parents, children. Though initially promoted as a means of carrying out various 'useful' activities, this was largely subverted by boys, whose enormous interest in computer games has shaped the evolution of home computers.

The multiplicity of possible representations or accounts of any technology and the difficulties, may impossibility, of providing a definite description of that technology or its outcomes. The result is a profoundly relativist perspective calls into question whether any analyst could ever obtain sufficiently robust knowledge to justify policy intervention.


This survey of sociological inquiry predates the web with its proliferation of both suppliers and consumers. Although it effectively refutes any simple model of technology production, it does not explain the "hit parade" of products making billionaires of lucky founders.

A more comprehensive model of industry's behavior could come from ecology's r/K Selection Theory wherein post-war r-selection must now be replaced with K-selected attributes of technology.