Lisa's Reponse-Question2-5

5) Put Pinch & Bijker’s Empirical Programme of Relativism (EPOR) and Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) in conversation with one another. How do the authors highlight their similarities and differences, and how are these used to forge an argument for a new/ combined approach. Also, feel free to address the political and disciplinary work being done by their proposal, and how it may have influenced the field of STS. (Pinch & Bijker, pgs. 26-40)

Pinch and Bijker (pp. 26-40) describe both the Empirical Programme of Relativism (EPOR) and Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) approaches. Emerging from the sociology of scientific knowledge, the EPOR studies the controversies that emerge in contemporary scientific developments among practitioners of the natural sciences. Controversies spotlight the differences, large and small, between different perspectives or approaches. As Collins described in his studies of the core set of scientists making discoveries (Collins, 1981), the controversies are elucidated by experts within a given specialty – highlighting and making explicit tacit knowledge. As such, controversies provide windows for outsiders to understand how practitioners define and differentiate their positions. With EPOR, three stages can be observed: interpretative flexibility, when scientific findings can be interpreted multiple ways; emergence of scientific consensus via social negotiation and closure mechanisms to define “truth” in the interpretation; and closure to relate the consensus achieved to the broader society.
While EPOR focuses on the controversies that emerge in scientific discoveries and their closure mechanisms, Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) focuses on the technological artifact, with selection and variation leading to consensus among social groups who create the artifact and its meanings. SCOT enables understanding multidirectional opening after closure, for social groups interacting with and creating the artifact, while EPOR describes the process of scientific controversies becoming settled scientific facts among scientists. To apply a SCOT framework, the researchers must first identify the relevant social groups emerging around a problem. Each artifact can have multiple relevant social groups, who define themselves by sharing the same set of meanings around and artifact (Pinch & Bijker, 30). SCOT opens up understanding of who constitutes meaning of an artifact, by extending from users to subgroups, such as women bicyclists, adventuresome young men who raced their bicycles, and even “anti-cyclists, concerned about the disruption of pastoral life from the bicycles and the users. All these relevant social groups related to bicycles and their use in different ways. Attributes such as power dynamics and gender differences can be studied for the different groups. Instead of scientific controversies being resolved as in EPOR to facts, with SCOT, conflicts between relevant social groups can be defined in multiple ways. The conflicts can be resolved by different technical implementations, usage patterns, social meanings, or even moral interpretations (e.g. interpreting that moral young women should be provided with a lower cross-bar than the high cross-bar on men’s sporting bicycles so they can wear modest skirts to use bicycles for transportation without unduly displaying their limbs).
Pinch and Bijker consider EPOR and SCOT together. EPOR focuses on scientific controversies among scientists, which drive forward to consensus on what is fact. SCOT focuses on the process of social groups to define the technological artifact, which includes the meanings ascribed to the artifact. Interpretative flexibility exists for both situations, but in EPOR the social process of scientific consensus makes reopening the interpretative flexibility uncommon (the counter example may be climate change). In SCOT situations, interpretative flexibility of an artifact can be reopened by any of the relevant social groups, whether designers, users, or non-users. Solutions in SCOT artifacts also take a variety of forms, and the process can be reopened repeatedly, as long as a relevant group has a problem with the artifact. For SCOT, the context of the artifact matters substantially; for EPOR, post-closure scientific facts are settled and taught as “truth,” and the controversies no longer gain attention. Closure in SCOT can be rhetorical or through redefining the problem. After closure, SCOT enables the values and meaning of artifacts to be understood in a broader social context. Since EPOR had not yet observed this broader social settling to closure (e.g. controversies such as evolution and climate change), understanding how closure mechanisms function in SCOT may offer broader social and political paths for EPOR controversies. The field of STS demonstrates a wide variety of SCOT-focused analyses, building off earlier methods used to understand the sociology of scientific knowledge. Developing broader understanding of how people understand what is truth and what consensus is shared around artifacts may enable a more generalizable approach to studying social-technical-scientific activities and the resulting facts and knowledge.

Pinch, Trevor J. and Wiebe E. Bijker. "The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts, or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit from Each Other." In The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology, edited by W. E. Bijker, T. P. Hughes and T. J. Pinch, 17-50. Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1987.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License