Bringing science and technology studies to bear on communication studies research.
As the technological landscape has shifted rapidly over recent decades, the terrain of academic disciplines concerned with actors' engagement with technology has adjusted and expanded as well. Given the ubiquity of technology in our contemporary society, such engagement occurs in nearly all contexts, and is of increasing relevance to academic disciplines ranging across the social sciences and the humanities. Due to the desire and need to investigate the practices and implications of technology use from a variety of disciplinary standpoints, the insights and approaches gleaned from a field that has built itself around investigations of the complexities of technologies--that of Science and Technology Studies (STS)--are becoming more relevant than ever before. As the field of Communication Studies' long standing concern with media and communication technologies becomes both more prevalent and more routinized (Herring, 2004), a nuanced approach to research concerning engagement with, views of, and discourses concerning communication technologies is increasingly necessary. The field of STS, as it has investigated an incredible variety of technologies and their historical, social, and political contexts, contains analytic approaches that are especially beneficial for Communication Studies. Together, STS and Communication Studies approaches provide a fertile ground for research focusing on specific technologies, as well as that which is directed toward the social engagement, development, and societal implications of technology in general. The combination of these approaches can contribute many conceptual insights that can be used across disciplines to better understand the complex, socially situated role of technologies and their processes of creation.
Within Communication Studies, accounts of technology's role within society have traditionally been limited in scope, despite Communication Studies' many methodological approaches to research and objects of study. A consistently large section of the discipline has devoted an overarching emphasis on media content over form or attention to medium. Even the expansion of analyses of content into investigations of interpretation retains an emphasis on content at the expense of attention to technology. Other trajectories of research within the Communication Studies field have given technology more attention, but have done so in a limited way. These practices often focus so heavily on material features and tack so far away from the investigation of content that they become technologically determinist and often lack attention to either content or use. This phenomenon has occurred within the study of technologies past and present, from radio to television to ICTs and Internet-based technologies, and with a growing body of research concerning new media and Internet technologies, approaches that account for the role of new technology in a nuanced and multifaceted manner is of even greater import. In areas of Communications Studies that have begun to account for the role of technology, these accounts are often partial, choosing to ignore content to focus on use, forgetting both when focused on patterns of use, no matter whether the object of focus is historical or contemporary. With the help of theories of STS, hopefully these emphases can better engage one another and be fostered and developed.
Much research within the field of Communication Studies views technology primarily as a vessel through which people encounter content (Fiske 2011, McQuail 2010). Within such a view, media content is the overwhelming focus of analysis, and technologies simply allow greater, fewer, or more specific groups of people to engage this material. (Even Lasswell's, 1948, simplified but seemingly inclusive description of Communication Studies as studying "Who says what to whom, through what channel and with what effect?" locates the central topic of study as that of content.) The discipline as a whole has a deep dedication to the methodological approach of content analysis (Berelson, 1952; Krippendorf, 2004) and rhetorical/textual analysis (McKee 2003), and the descriptive and illuminating function that these approaches contain. Perhaps stemming from its historical roots of understanding communication through a lens of strong effects, the goal of much research is to show the presence and/or absence of certain ideas, discourses, patterns of terms, and so on, in order to argue that such content affects readers and society in any number of ways. Even as a hypodermic model of communication has long been considered naive across the discipline (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955; Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet 1944) much work still focuses on analyzing content and assuming its effects on readers and/or society.
The act of overlooking the relationship between the form of technology and its content occurs across various subdivisions of Communication Studies, even among seemingly disparate parts of the discipline. The counter to critiques of the hypodermic model of communication--the "weak effects" or "negotiated reading" (Hall 1973; Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts, 1978) trajectory of the discipline--contains an equal drive to analyze the content of messages rather than attend to the role of technologies in circulating such messages. Almost acting as an inverse to the strong effects tradition, these projects analyze interpretations of content (rather than the media content itself) in order to explain the discourses at play, highlight certain ideologies that are present, or show how certain ideas or populations are privileged by interpretations of media content. These canonical Communication Studies and groundbreaking research projects such as Ang (1985) and Morley (1980) have focused on the interpretation of media messages, but have often overlooked the structuring role of media technologies as active in transmitting these texts to be interpreted.
Of course, a sizable facet of Communication Studies has long observed the role of technology (Benjamin, 1968/2008; McLuhan, 1964/1994; Kittler, 2010). While overtly determinist readings such as McLuhan's (19641994) "the medium is the message" are no longer the custom in Communication Studies, this emphasis on the material capabilities of technologies--often argued to lead to either a utopian or distopian outcome--remains (Ong, 1982; Rheingold, 1993; Negroponte, 1995). These habits of focusing on techno logical capabilities come at the expense of inquiry of use or content, focusing on an object, rather than on objects as they are engaged in society (Whittaker, 2003). In such research, accounts of the potential uses of technologies stand in for both investigation of their actual practices of use and analysis of their content or lived effects. Media histories attend to the material components of technologies and their processes of technological development and evolution differently, but seldom focus on the content of these technologies. Instead, they often focus on the cultural factors that led to advancements in material technologies. As research concerning ICTs has grown increasingly common within Communication Studies research, projects detailing when, how, and why individuals use ICTs to communicate and the contents of these engagements span a variety of Internet technologies, from social media to blogs, to websites, to email, and so on (Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2006; Jenkins, 2006). Productive and nuanced analyses of the ways that ICTs are shaped by users to complement existing social, political, and economic conditions and needs (Mansell & Silverstone 1996) give depth to how the discipline sees technology. Still, while these studies provide accounts of the types of communication that are currently taking place and the details of such processes, they often fall short of reflecting upon the ways that the technologies themselves may have meanings that are associated or socially constructed within such use.
Some of the best accounts of the impact or role of media technologies in society go beyond discussions of their use and evolution to discuss the ways in which they gain cultural meaning or significance through people's engagement with them (Douglas, 1987; Ling & Pederson 2005; Marvin, 1988; Silverstone, 1994; Thompson, 2002). These accounts manage to bring together insight into media technology by focusing simultaneously on the processes of production and consumption, and understanding the technology as made up of both material affordances, and as containing socially constructed meaning. In her media history of the radio, Douglas (1987) discusses the material affordances of radio technology, and the way that people used them in ways that were unintended by producers of the technology; she details the ways that these new patterns of use not only gave them new purpose, but new cultural significance as well. Silverstone (1994) discusses the ways that television is used alongside the way it gains meaning among specific social groups and society as a whole. Katz & Sugiyama (2005) investigate the ways that people put the material capabilities of mobile phones to new use and redefine the social meanings of phones, their own personal identities, and their relationship to others in the process. Many of these outstanding examples are specifically rooted within theories of STS, and they represent the productive ways that Communication Studies can benefit from a Science and Technology perspective. Thus, inroads in combining the two areas of research have occurred, producing detailed and balanced accounts that give multifaceted perspectives on communication technologies, the ways they are engaged, and the social arrangements surrounding such engagement.
Research that can describe and analyze the ways technologies are comprised of both material systems and social contexts is moving towards this goal of a holistic account of the role of communication technologies and productively "highlight the interplay of symbolic content and meaning with the artifacts, practices, and social arrangements that are associated with them" (Boczkowski & Lievrouw, 2008, p. 955). So, some may ask: Why "bring" STS to Communication Studies research when productive facets of its approach may already be making their way into the field? In order to continue to build upon and expand the connections being made within Communication Studies, greater knowledge of the field of STS as a whole (and not just its handful of instantiations within Communication Studies) must occur. A theoretical sense of STS is important, as gaining an understanding of the wide variety of approaches that are available to the study of communication technologies will allow Communication Studies scholars to produce nuanced accounts of media technology in two ways. First, it allows scholars to choose from a wider tool kit of analytical approaches in order to find methods and frames that are relevant and productive for their object of analysis. Second, it allows for projects that bring together greater numbers of these approaches in order to study technologies from a variety of perspectives, thereby producing multifaceted and complex views of media technologies and their role in contemporary society. This interdisciplinary approach can foster continued and consistently and carefully detailed approaches to technology within Communication Studies, rather than relying on exceptional cases that are standouts in the field. While scholars have begun to explore connections between the two fields (Boczkowski & Lievrouw, 2008), Communication Studies would still benefit from a deeper understanding of the field of STS, and the theoretical lenses that it brings to bear on analyses of technologies. By understanding the disciplinary history, themes, and trajectory of STS, Communication Studies will become more capable of nuanced approaches to its objects of inquiry, and the role of communication technologies within society.
To give an overview of such an interdisciplinary and diverse field as STS proves difficult due to the field's wide-ranging methods, objects, and insights that resist categorization and demand attention to contingent situations. Moreover, STS scholars' self-proclaimed "aversion to universalistic claims" (Lynch, 2008, p. 9) positions reviews of the field as versions, rather than singularly correct accounts. In an effort to abide by the discipline's understanding of itself, and in accordance with STS scholar Sergio Sismondo's skeptical comment: "STS in one lesson? Not really" (2008, p. 13), I aim to provide but one view of STS's main tenets and their relationship to Communication Studies. Thus, rather than simply providing an overview of the theoretical milestones or methods and objects of analysis within the field, I find that STS is most productively understood through two major analytic lenses that are recurrent emphases within the breadth of the field as a whole. For this reason, this review focuses on these fundamental, cross-disciplinary approaches to inquiry, how they have become the backbone of research in STS, and the ways in which they are highly translatable to Communication Studies as well. First, STS has expanded the way we think of "invention." Second, it has explored a wide variety of ways that complex social relationships can be explored and analyzed. These fundamental themes have gradually shaped researchers' understandings of specific technologies as well as the role of technology within society. They also provide productive analytical insights for any discipline's study of technology, including an emphasis on the way that texts necessitate analysis of both their production and use; and they provide an insight that the binary relationship between object and process must be destabilized. In order to productively use STS within the field of Communication Studies, knowledge of its history and development as a field becomes necessary. In many ways, the history of STS directly relates to ideas and concepts that are at play within Communication Studies. I point out such connections within this overview, and note spaces that contain potential for further overlap as well. Following a short overview of the lineages of STS, these analytic approaches to the field will be discussed, and their interdisciplinary insights will be explored.
2. STS as a Field
The field of STS, like its objects of inquiry, reveals that origin stories are always more complicated than they appear on the surface. Providing any "history" of a discipline is difficult, but extremely so for STS, due to its emphasis on the contingency of characterizations of knowledge. Because, as STS scholar Michael Lynch (2008) has argued, "disciplinary histories and characterizations of the state of knowledge are topics and resources for STS" (p. 9), its own history must then be relayed as complex and as having many versions of its own lineage. Although the area of study coalesced in the mid-1970s, STS is, in many ways, better understood as the result of innovation and invention among other related fields, whose theoretical underpinnings can be seen in disciplines and philosophies extending far prior to its rise as a field in itself.
Theoretical groundings of social construction such as Kuhn's (1962) Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Berger and Luckmann's (1966) The Social Construction of Reality, provided the foundations for understanding science--and the knowledge and artifacts it produced--as a situated, social activity. These theories claim that "an adequate understanding of 'reality sui generis' of society requires inquiry into the manner in which this reality is constructed" (Berger & Luckmann, 1966, p. 18). These theories of social construction are deeply, even if not explicitly, related to Communication Studies, as the process of social construction occurs through public discourse in which definitions, ideas, and knowledge circulate among people and throughout public texts. one need not agree with a Habermasian notion of a single, bounded, rational public in order to see this connection. Rather, the emphasis here is on the process of discourse among individuals in society that produces shared understandings of the world in which they live. These can center around circulated texts (Anderson 1991), or can exist in multiple forms and/or counterpublics (Warner, 2005) and they can shift--in terms of their knowledge, size, and the people who inhabit them.
A foundational argument of political theorist John Dewey (1988) also gestures toward the way that the public sphere, which necessarily involves not only sets of individual actors but greater institutions as well, affects what is considered knowledge and fact, asserting that solidified "facts" are no more than "traditions in which are enshrined the emotions and imaginations of so many human beings, as well as the force of the established institutions" (p. 246). As thoughts such as these considered the intertwined nature of society and technology, they contained nascent kernels of the field that would come to be STS
As an observable and distinguishable area of inquiry, STS "began" as two independent fields with split foci of theory and object--Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) and the Social Shaping of Technology (SST), respectively. Though these divisions existed a long time, scholars now consider these separations unproductive and have condemned them (Barnes, 1982; Pinch & Bijker, 1984) due to the fact that "the divisions between science and technology are not between the abstract functions of knowing and doing. Rather they are social" (Layton, 1977, p. 209). STS represents the combined result of their shared emphases on the situated and collective processes that contribute to the creation of scientific thought and material goods and the desire to understand their complexities and consequences. Investigations into the way that scientific knowledge is socially constructed have been the subject of genres of Communication Studies research, such as the inquiry into the Rhetoric of Science, which investigates the persuasive structure, topoi, and epistemology of scientific findings, arguments, and knowledge (Gross, 1990). Even subsequent critiques and evolutions of this subfield (Gaonkar, 1997) are closely related to ideas found within STS, and can potentially be expanded upon through further interdisciplinary overlap between the two fields.
Within STS, scholars began to look for the causes of knowledge--not only how errors in knowledge were often seen as truth, but how seemingly correct knowledge becomes popularly accepted (Bloor, 1976/1991). As the sites and methods of research shifted toward an emphasis on research concerning what happened in scientific laboratories (Latour & Woolgar, 1979; Woolgar, 1982), the roles of individuals acting together (rather than society as a whole) became an emphasis of the field (Collins, 1982; Mendelsohn, Weingart, & Whitley, 1977), as did a turn toward investigating objects of technology rather than just ideas (Pinch & Bijker, 1984). To better understand these the way that objects of technology come to be understood by the public(s) in specific ways, STS is dedicated to understanding the way that science and technology are "patterned by the conditions of [their] creation and use" (Williams & Edge, 1996, p. 866). But this influence is not a one-way interaction. STS also approaches science and technology as simultaneously shaping and shaped by society (Bijker & Law, 1992; Law & Bijker, 1992) in a process of co-construction (Jasonoff, 2004) involving both society and technology as active agents.
Alongside theories of how science and technology come to exist, STS has been built on the belief that the concrete or material value of both scientific "facts" and technological artifacts are not to be taken as the whole story. They are both influenced by values and practices in production, and engage, encourage, or discourage values and practices as they are used. They are not "black boxes" that fail to influence the content or meaning of what is produced, but sources and spaces of complex interaction that affects both the input and output of any interaction with a technology (Whitley, 1972). Wanting to attend to these complexities, the discipline is "united by an insistence that the 'black-box' of technology must be opened" (Williams & Edge, 1996, p. 866), and an approach that stresses both the content of technology and knowledge and the process of innovation. Additionally, these black boxes have impacts and meanings that are both material and symbolic. Their material and technical capabilities allow users to take certain actions, and they also "serve as symbols that enable work and, through it, the creation of scientific knowledge and technical results" (Sismondo, 2008, p. 16).
In its efforts to illuminate black boxed technologies, STS has focused upon many objects of analysis, from light bulbs (Bijker, 1997; Marvin, 1988) to weather maps (Edwards, 2010) to methods of categorization (Bowker and Star, 1999). Today, newer media technologies are the subject of STS research (Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2006; Woolgar, 2002), and are the very same objects of analysis taken up be Communications Studies research as well. Within STS, this vast object domain not only leads to information about particular artifacts, but it has also become a "source of critical insight into the conceptual underpinnings of modern social and political theory" (Lynch, 2008, p. 10), and its turn toward new media provides insight into social and political theories concerning the digital era in which we exist. This outlook is shared by research concerning media and communication technologies that is undertaken within the discipline of Communication Studies, and can contribute to the field's understandings of technology--not only as it mediates social behavior, but as social and political in its own right. Among the insights into studies of socio-political relationships, two major approaches to inquiry have been fostered and extended by STS: expanding the concept of invention, and exploring the various ways that social relations can be organized and analyzed. Throughout its numerous instantiations, the STS lens has shown that attention to these topics can produce a better understanding of technologies and lead to a deeper theoretical understanding of sociality and the process of creation. Thus, by familiarizing themselves with major concepts of STS-based inquiry, Communication Studies researchers can better analyze communication technologies and their role in society. As it is a lens through which to view the world, STS can contribute to furthering these complex understandings of society across numerous disciplines and spaces of inquiry.
3. Expanding "Inventing"
A fundamental advancement in the mode of inquiry for STS has been to expand the ways in which we can understand the concept of invention. We can easily overlook the definition of invention as only meaning a technology or the creation of a new technology, but STS does not concede this simple answer, nor should Communication Studies. Instead, it calls for questioning the processes that go into creating an artifact, and troubles reified understandings of such artifacts. The result is a much more complex understanding of technological invention as a fluid concept that is neither just a process nor an object, and involves both material capabilities and practices of meaning-making. The field of STS expands, complicates, and strives to contribute to questions concerning what counts as (an) invention, which actors are involved, and over what period of time invention takes place, and forces us to reconsider the way we may reify the concept in our own work. This helps Communication Studies on multiple levels. First, it highlights the role of technologies at the outset of inquiry. In highlighting invented objects, STS argues that research concerning content (as is the focus of most Communication Studies research) must be fundamentally linked to discussions of the media technology to which any content is connected. Second, it highlights technologies in a way that is less static than that offered by many theorists within Communication Studies, due to its view of invention as a continuous process that results in an understanding of technology that, depending on its content and patterns on use, can develop multiple, socially contingent meanings. Bringing this STS approach to bear on Communication Studies will not only reaffirm the need to research conditions of technology use (in addition to production), but will necessitate that we view technologies as evolving and gaining socially situated, multiple meanings.
STS's own origin story serves to indicate the way that it has contributed to expanding the concept of invention. Eliding academic attempts to separate the fields of science and technology, or privilege one above the other, STS combines the previously separate object domains of knowledge and material goods, attributing the invention of both to situated social interaction. By investigating the tools of science and technology using the same methodological rubric, STS considers the processes of creating both the "fact and artefact" (Pinch & Bijker, 1984) invention of the same level. Moreover, the use of "invention" as both an action that is undertaken and the material result of this action implies that both the process of invention and the object that is an invention must be considered in order to fully understand any technology or technological advancement. The discipline of STS takes this collapsing of invention in both its noun and verb form seriously, and approaches all invented objects as inextricable from the complex and active process by which they come to be. Thus, whenever this review refers to objects as "inventions," the process of their creation is implicit. This language is not meant to say that inventions are static objects, but to more easily refer to their material nature and diminish confusion among readers.
Invention--as a process or product--is active. Just as the action of inventing suggests agency and movement, so too should the objects of invention. Within STS, objects of invention are not understood to simply be passive objects for use, but as agentive participants in (and influences on) the social world in which they function. Latour (1987, 1992, 1994, 1996) has long and forcefully highlighted this point, suggesting that "objects do do something, they are not merely the screens or the retroprojectors of our social life" (1996, p. 236, emphasis original). This active quality influences the everyday ways that human actors engage with technology, and is of fundamental importance for the discipline of STS. Describing the agency of invented objects, he discusses the need to understand both human actors and non-human inventions as equally effective within the system of influence, calling them both "actants" and describing non-human objects as the missing element of the social, "the hidden and despised social masses who make up our morality" (1992, p. 153). (Latour attributes the term "actant" to the field of semiotics, as used by Greimas & Courtes, 1982.) In using this terminology and in joining human actors and non-human inventions, Latour dispels ideas of inventions as passive black boxes and calls for research that gets at this mutually interactive and agentive process. STS not only understands both the process and product as invention, but it has radically rearticulated the relationship between material inventions and their creators (from traditional "inventors" to users), and expanded the understanding of temporal interpretations of production. This view forces Communication Studies to go beyond a content-based approach and acknowledge the relationships between material technologies and a text's content, interpretative possibilities, and its role in society. In approaching the study of media from this perspective, Communication Studies can gain a sensitivity to the wider interactions within its outlook from STS's long history of grappling with the idea of technology and invention.
STS's conception of invention begins to break out of the realm of production due to the idea that the entirety of the active process of technological engagement must be accounted for--from initial production to use. By viewing invention this way, STS extends invention into the realm of interpretation and use. In doing so, those associated with the process of invention and the temporality of what counts as "invention" extends radically. No longer confined to a specific moment of an object or idea's birth, the concept of invention that STS provides contains many phases of continued innovation and creation. This understanding of invention highlights a new set of agents who count as actors and a variety of practices: feedback from users, the original creation of new objects by users, fundamentally different uses of the same technology, and the attribution of different meanings to the same technologies. Each of these articulations of invention provides an additional moment at which the process should be attended to and analyzed.
The concept of invention expanded over time within STS, incorporating more and more actors into the fold of production, from user feedback that led to new inventions, to public power in producing the linguistic definition of inventions, and users' abilities to engage in alternative or unforeseen practices. A fundamental expansion of what counts as invention, numerous scholars have documented the processes of user feedback that are endemic to the invention of any technology or idea. Von Hippel (1986) discusses the concept of the lead user as one who holds great power to give feedback to engineers and thus become part of the invention process. In fact, users are even encouraged to be brought into the production process and ways to do so are prescribed by academics (Nambisan, Argarwal, & Tanniru, 1999). Despite Thorpe's (2008) skepticism, the fact that scholars are taking account of the user remains important. In some cases, the role of the user is even greater than simply providing feedback, and scholars and researchers see users as sources of innovation, rather than just extra contributors. Expert users were often in the position of inventing new technologies in order to complete their own work (urban & and von Hippel, 1988). Scientists were often shown to both make small and large changes to already-existing technologies in order to make them more useable or efficient, thus generating entirely new inventions. (These ranged from something as small as swapping out a foil made of gold for one made of copper, to adding entirely new components to machines.) Contemporarily, we may read the advent of user-generated computer programs such as iPhone applications as similar cases in which users innovate alongside producers. By creating original programs for a pre-existing technology, users and producers collaboratively produce new capabilities of the iPhone that re-invent the technology. In all of these cases, the process of invention extends well beyond the time at which the original object was first built. Some projects within Communication Studies have begun to focus on this convergence of production and use, especially in cases concerning ICTs (Jenkins, 2006; Mansell & Silverstone, 1996), but STS can broaden even these understandings even further.
Additionally, STS shows that even after a final version of an object is materially constructed, its "invention" can continue as its meanings, uses, and definitions shift over time, a concept that is fundamentally centered on investigating the way that language and discourses can create the meanings with which technologies are imbued. As such, the project of rhetorical closure of a technology can involve a collaborative interaction among users and producers that expands the temporality in which an invention comes to be defined. For example, deciding what counts as falling under the definition of "steel" became a debate that took place within the public as well as the industry (Misa, 1992). In this case, the process of inventing "steel" encompassed an extremely extended temporal period that went well beyond production. What had been understood as slight variations of the single invention of steel became many inventions such as "wrought iron" and "mild steel" upon public discussion and debate concerning the properties of "steel." Thus, STS's emphasis on discourses as constitutive factors surrounding technological production, definition, and use ties into Communication Studies, and should be given more consideration within the field. Similar shifting rhetoric has surrounded telephony in its shift from a predominantly wired to a wireless technology; television's opposite move from wireless broadcasting to a wired (cable) service has not received as much discussion.
This extension is not limited to defining technologies. Re-invention can also happen through new and different uses of already-existing technologies. In some processes of re-invention, users, wholly independent of producers, began to employ technologies in new ways, producing entirely new results with machines that had the exact same technological capacities. This use can be so different from producers' plans that it reveals entirely new sets of affordances and actually re-invents the device as a new technology. In these instances, small shifts in the types and purposes of use have the potential to radically shift the meaning of a technology, thus creating a new invention. This process exemplifies the claim that "even in the diffusion stage, the process of invention continues" (Bijker, 1992, p. 97). Dubbed "innofusion" (Fleck, 1993), the process of invention is enacted in and even after the diffusion phase, and fundamental changes in meaning are rearticulated as acts of re-invention or innovation that takes place externally of the modes of production. As an example of this approach applied to a specific communication technology, consider the different patterns of use that rural telephone users employed, such as eavesdropping on neighbors, broadcasting music and news on party lines, and the ways these uses fundamentally changed the local meaning of the telephone and the way that users understood the device (Kline, 2000). While the technical processes of use were identical--pick up receiver, dial, and communicate message to someone who is spatially removed--users changed the reasons and meanings for use, fundamentally re-articulating the technology in doing so. Rather than using the telephone as an object for interpersonal interaction that mimicked private conversations, the telephone existed as an invention that emphasized publicity and communal interaction. Similarly, Susan Douglas (1987) investigates the role of radio tinkerers, and the ways they began to forge toward a broadcast paradigm without interference or influence from radio companies. She describes this process as wholly independent, saying "it was the amateurs who pioneered using radio for broadcasting, not Marconi, its inventor, and certainly not David Sarnoff the president of RCA, who rewrote history to make it seem like broadcasting had been his brainchild" (p. 16). In the case of both the phone and the radio, technology that was developed and originally used for direct communication was actively re-invented as a technology that was used for mass dissemination and circulation. While the material components of each technology remained the same, the technology of broadcast was invented through new uses of both the radio and the telephone. Additionally, analysis of computing shows that the definition of "computer" held by early users did not match that of the producers, but it nonetheless became the dominant operating model and ultimate invention of the computer as we now know it (Ceruzzi, 1999). In the case of the telephone, what was once originally marketed as a business tool was reinvented as a social technology by users before advertised as such (Fischer, 1988). In all of these cases, invention occurs long after time in the laboratory is over. By upsetting the temporal frame in which the process of invention occurs, the object of invention can mean different things at numerous different times resulting in an approach that refuses to reify any invention as a single thing with static meaning. An implication of this genre of research is that there is much room for Communication Studies to investigate the ways that communication technologies contain different or shifting meanings among various populations of actors or across time periods or cultures.
By recognizing these nuances to the idea of invention, STS contributes to our understanding of technology, and to a larger understanding of society as it involves interactions with technology. Technologies are seen as active agents within the social process, and production and consumption are no longer defined as binary acts, but as connected and interactive undertakings. These advances are useful throughout a number of disciplines, and they provide a directly practical application within the discipline of Communication studies. STS's emphasis on destabilizing the object/actor binary implicitly argues that it is impossible to understand technology without understanding the social practices of communication and use that surround these objects, thereby necessitating attention to surrounding practices of communication. Within Communication studies, this means that studies focusing on technology as an active agent in the interpretation of media content (as media effects studies do) must look to the creation of texts if they are to understand the process of engaging with any technology. on the other hand, projects that are limited to the realm of production (as many concerning media economy are) must cross over into investigations of use as well. Moreover, its emphasis on connecting production and use traverses categories that are too-often separated, and whose intersection is so often the site for furthering insights pertaining to both spheres and the ways in which they are related (Boczkowski & Lievrouw, 2008).
4. Organizing Social Relationships
Communication Studies research is highly concerned with social relationships. Interpersonal Communication investigates how individuals interact with one another; organizational Communication focuses on how groups and institutions are assembled in ways that affect their communication processes; Network Theory social network methodologies focuses on larger groups of individuals and organizations. These traditions can certainly begin to inform us about the ways that social relationships factor into engagement with various technologies. In fact, Organizational Communication tells us that the arrangements of individuals and groups affect how they interact, communicate, and conceptualize things (Katz & Kahn, 1966), including how they use technology and what they use it for (Sproull & Kiesler 1991/1998), and how they give meaning to technologies (Orlikowski, 1992; orlikowski & Gash, 1994), and the ways technologies affect and organize groups in specific ways. Social network theory (Castells, 2010; Monge & Contractor, 2003) provides insight into the expansive social networks involving myriad links between and within individuals and groups that can be observed through--and are often argued to be enabled by--our contemporary media environment. Still, however, STS provides many additional and varied useful analytics for thinking through the role of the social as related to communication technologies as well. For instance, while Communication research often focuses on the ways that institutions and pre-existing organizations or collectives of people engage and interpret technologies, STS also focuses on how technologies can organize and highlight how groups of people are in relation to one another that go beyond preexisting designations and provide new visions of social relations. As STS has pursued these questions of sociality in a variety of ways that supplement and build upon one another, their many approaches to the topic can be of many uses for Communication Studies.
Intimately connected to its project of expanding the idea of invention, STS also enlarges, refines, and contributes to the ways we understand the social relationships involved--the who rather than the what--in the invention of science and technology. Particularly, STS focuses specifically on how certain social relationships, organization, and internal and external connections among groups and individuals affect the ways that people use, understand, and interpret technologies. Although the discipline of STS is awash in differing articulations of the roles played by social groups, the overarching emphasis on the types of use and meaning-making processes engaged by socially situated groups of actors shows the discipline's dedication to understanding technology--and its meaning and use--as contingent and locally situated. The primary conflict concerning how social relationships are organized hinges on disagreement over whether artifacts and practices are "best seen as constructions of individuals or collectivities that belong to social groups" (Law, 1987, p. 111, emphasis original) or as existing "in terms of a systems metaphor ... in which the artifacts relate to social, economic, political, and scientific factors" (p. 112). Within these competing paradigms, there lie deeper divisions that produce differing accounts of how social groups are made up or actors within a system are connected.
These allegedly contradictory explanations (that are less contradictory than building upon one another) ultimately form a combined approach from which Communication Studies can benefit as it attempts to fully understand the complexity of social relationships that always interact with technology. STS has, over the years, added to the complexity and insight with which it approaches social relationships, and I chart this progression, pulling from beneficial elements as well as shortcomings of systems theory and other approaches to collective modes of construction. These theories of social interaction are related to concerns of STS as a discipline--such as the flexibility and closure of technological innovation and the relationship between practices of production and consumption--and provide Communication Studies with attention to (and methodologies to investigate) the intricacies of social relations that are a useful analytic by which to unearth potential social consequences and effects associated with technologies. First of all, while Communication Studies has approached topics of communication within a group setting, it has given less thought to how media are invented (and constantly reinvented) within systems of relationships. Second, the various forms of social relationships and how they interact with one another that is the topic of STS can help Communication Studies further its areas of organizations Communication that focus on how groups use technologies in potentially new and productive ways.
Within STS, one main body of theory argues that a technology's social influences take the form of a system. Whether they are described as "large technological systems" (Hughes, 1983, 1987) involving loose confederacies of individuals, this line of thought refuses to engage in any analysis that might sever groups or objects from their contextually rooted positions. Instead, objects, people, and organizations are understood as inextricably connected and interdependent, and must therefore be studied as a whole, rather than as detachable parts. For systems theorists, practices of the creation and engagement of technologies are understood as a house of cards--try to take one piece out, and you will be left with an indecipherable arrangement and a collapsed system. The systems approach takes an in depth look at economic, political, social, and technological interactions across a variety of spaces and provides an approach that does not artificially sever some elements or populations of the system from the others. The overall intent of this approach--a call to attend to vast contextual specificities and interrelated events, desires, and acts--has the potential to be incredibly productive to STS and to Communication Studies, as both the form (technology) and content of texts that are the objects of study in each field are often both created and interpreted by systems of actors. Despite its relevance to such scenarios, when used by itself, the systems approach--whether within STS or Communication Studies--finds that much of its practical application leaves something to be desired.
First and foremost, if we are dealing with a system that is so complexly interconnected across economic, political, social, and technical fields, how and where are we to begin? Hughes (1987) provides a rather systematized approach to understanding the temporal patterns of activities that occur within the system, tracing invention, development, innovation, transfer, growth, competition, and consolidation (p. 56). Despite an emphasis on activity amongst many connected actors, and assertions of the pattern's malleability, this model over-emphasizes the role of inventors and producers of technology at the expense of users. This inclination to disregard users is clear within the foundational authors of the approach, and in much of the research it has generated. Remaining entrenched in the production side of technology, this approach sees the important participants to be "engineer-sociologists" (Callon, 1987) as the key to understanding how social relationships affect technology in general, and outside actors are never depicted as builders of the system. In each of these cases, actors are understood to be the engineers who build the technology, rather than the people who use it. While this tradition has--to the dismay to those looking for a more multi-faceted approach--over-emphasized the role of production within and the social relationships therein (Boczkowski & Lievrouw, 2008), its approach can be especially beneficial to Communication Studies, as the discipline often overlooks these very aspects of technology. In this way, it holds great benefit as a supplement or as one of many facets of a multi-perspectival approach that considers the complex interactions of technology use and creation.
In an effort to extend beyond views that privilege this engineer-focused approach to research, Latour (1987) and others have put forth the concept of actor-network theory (ANT). This line of thought contends that "actors" within a system extend far beyond engineers or those who create and build technology--that "an actor network is reducible neither to an actor alone nor to a network. Like a network, it is composed of a series of heterogeneous elements, animate and inanimate, that have been linked together" (Callon, 1987, p. 93). As discussed in the preceding section, not only does Latour argue that engineers themselves are interrelated subjects whose interaction with others necessarily implies that these others are also actors, but he argues that technologies themselves--springs, lab equipment, computers, etc--are also actors. By providing the title of actors across the board and discarding the idea of an independent, atomistic actor in the question, ANT has made great leaps toward destabilizing our understandings of who/what counts as social. Accordingly, productive thought about the ways that agents interact with one another and are never truly atomistic individuals has produced an attention to the complex and intricate web of social relations within systems theory. Still, the space of interaction that is the area of such complex analysis often remains limited to the spaces of production, even in the case of highly nuanced work such as that of Latour and Woolgar (1979). Thus, even if they are influenced by a variety of factors, actants who literally build technology--not users, politicians, or even financial backers--still hold the privileged position within the field of study. By focusing on production as the central system of any technology, these approaches overlook the fact that the social interactions among users can change a technology's purpose and meaning, and therefore must be accounted for. Without doing so, not only is an entire set of actors unrecognized for their ability to change technology through use, but the process of technological creation and construction becomes misleadingly limited as well. Figurative "building" of a technology occurs outside of and after production, and must be attended to if we are to really understand the complex ways technologies are understood and used in society. Although this approach may over-emphasize the realm of technological production, it becomes a much more productive approach when used in tandem with some traditional approaches to Communication Studies research. First of all, by combining an emphasis on the social relationships that go into producing a technology with organizational Communication's emphasis on social relationships in technology use, a multifaceted approach to technology results. Second, by combining these studies with the social relationships of those who literally build technologies with those of media economy (McChesney 2000; Herman & McChesney, 2001; Schiller, 1989), Communication Studies and STS can work in unison to create a more holistic approach to research concerned with the creation of media texts.
Additionally, the systems approach often implicitly argues that social relations that go into technology creation and use tend toward processes of "closure" that result in agreed upon and common uses and meanings. While scholars are careful to assert that closure is not final and can occur repeatedly (Bijker, Hughes & Pinch, 1987, p. 11), there is still a teleology toward stability that results in an incorrect understanding of technologies as reified and static objects. Law (1987) articulates this disciplinary emphasis, arguing: "the stability and form of artifacts should be seen as a function of the interaction of heterogeneous elements as these are shaped and assimilated into a network" (p. 113, emphasis original). Even in the corresponding analyses of technologies' "flexibility" in terms of the places where their uses and affordances were open to interpretation, the end result is closure. While some technologies' meanings and uses do appear to stabilize or close (especially in terms of its technical elements), taking the perspective that any technology is stable and static, no matter how common or everyday it may be, is inherently limiting to our understandings of the way it functions socially. For example, the very same email system can be used for communication that is interpersonal, or for disseminating a message to members of a public who are unknown. Its meaning to users can range from a tool to increase social interaction, an appliance used only for efficiency, or a tool by which to minimize power differentials. Each of these "meanings" or associations makes it clear that even a "closed" technology of a single email server by no means implies closure of the meanings of a technology, or of that technology as a whole. As a productive way around systems theory's emphasis on producers and an implicit move away from an emphasis on closure, theories of collective construction attend to social groups that construct both artifacts and intellectual thought, and give attention to people "doing things together" (Becker, 1986) to engage with technology that covers the realm of users in addition to producers.
One of the most beneficial elements of the collective construction approach is its focus on a variety of social groups, rather than just the group that physically builds a technology. By focusing on groups of actors, rather than individuals who are only linked through their shared existence within a system of production, similarities of interests, needs, uses, and understandings of a technology that occur within various populations become more apparent. Additionally, differences across groups provide interesting insight to contingent social situations as they relate to any technology. A car can be evaluated as a good invention either by its gas mileage, safety rating, or capacity for speed, with different machines succeeding at each of those categories. Due to the fact that, "for different social groups, the artifact presents itself as essentially different artifacts" (Bijker, 1992, p. 76), and the very definition of any technology as a specific object is thereby complicated. ultimately, theories concerning social groups argue that the only way to get at these different facets is to look beyond actors who built a technology or created a theory, to populations--types of potential users, investors, etc.--with specific needs or desires for an object or approaches to a scientific theory. There are many articulations of how these social groups should be approached and categorized, and each version has different implications for the study of STS and Communication Studies. From the tradition of EPOR [Empirical Program of Relativism], we have the idea of "core sets" (Collins, 1981), from SCOT [Social Construction of Technology] there are a few varieties of "relevant social groups" (Kline & Pinch, 1999), in addition to "social worlds" (Clarke & Star, 2008).
Actors within core sets are defined by similarities within the production of knowledge rather than objects; they represent "the scientists most intimately involved win a controversial research topic" (Pinch & Bijker, 1984, p. 410). Like systems-focused approaches, core sets are also confined to the realm of initial creation or production, but they do extend a little further than simply the engineers creating a technology, or the person who invented a theory. Core sets involve those who contribute to theories, as well as those who engage in controversies and arguments with each other (Collins, 1981), even if they are outside the laboratory in which technologies are produced. For example, a scientist's academic lineage can pertain to who counts as its core set. In the case of Kranakis's (1999) discussion of bridges, each scientist's competing and diverse core set included the academic tradition from whence he came. Because this is still relegated to the production side of the equation, "relevant social groups" represent a more fruitful approach to social relations. Spurred on by the apparent "interpretive flexibility" of technologies (the fact that many variations of one technology can occur), the "key requirement" of relevant social groups is that "all members of a social group share the same set of meanings, attached to a specific artefact" (Pinch & Bijker, 1984, p. 414). Problems may arise when these groups are created by researchers on the basis of a priori categories (such as gender or class), rather than by an historical ethnographic process of understanding the various potential uses and needs of populations (thus, women only become a relevant social group regarding the light bulb when a researcher discovers electric companies marketed to them as such, as Bijker, 1992, argues). In doing so, this approach groups social organizations according to the act of use and asserts: "the same artifact can mean different things to different social groups of users" (Kline & Pinch, 1999, p. 112). Pinch and Bijker's (1984) original analysis of the bicycle focuses on different groups of producers, women cyclists, sport cyclists, etc., thereby exemplifying the different needs and uses of various populations. This method of analyzing social relationships thus allows simultaneous insight into both the production and use of technologies, and acknowledges that the meaning and value of technologies comes to exist within social interactions and communication within and among groups of users.
While systems approaches to STS succeed at providing highly detailed and refined looks at a set of interactions, the benefit of this collaborative construction approach lies in its ability to reflect upon both producers and users as wielding similar levels of influence on technologies' stabilization, uses, and meanings--and even to privilege the agency of users in the later stages of a technology or idea's development. It introduces moments of re-invention or innovation that are outside the laboratory, or that are "offstage" in addition to Law and Callon's (1992) "backstage and front stage" of production (p. 51) and allows us to see the variety of actors involved in the process. Not only does this method frame users as actors, but it also helps reduce the sharp divide that is often assumed to exist between production and consumption. It allows us to understand the specifics of ongoing processes of invention that are the subject of the earlier section of this paper. Nonetheless, these collective construction formulae are still potentially problematic. They attempt to look at social groups as bounded interactions when, in reality, many influences bear upon these groups' needs and practices of use. By focusing on certain groups there is a need to artificially separate them from influential social conditions, which creates a definite risk of losing sight of the complexity of the whole situation. The social worlds framework (SWF) (Strauss, 1978) is an approach that brings together the productive elements of systems theory, but situates itself as focusing on processes of collective construction. (This framework predates Strauss as well, and, according to Clarke and Star, 2008, originally dates back to Mead, 1938/1972.) Not only does the SWF bring together elements of systems and social groups, but its approach is extremely valuable to the project of bringing STS together with Communication Studies.
Social worlds are described as "universes of discourse" (Strauss, 1978), or "shared discursive spaces that are profoundly relational" (Clarke & Star, 2008). Because these universes are made up of situated groups of actors, similarities to the project of collective construction are clear. The task of initial work in the area was "to make the group the focal center and to build from its discoveries in concrete situations, a knowledge of the whole" (Eubank as cited in Meltzer, Petras, & Reynolds, 1975, p. 42). Alongside this emphasis on the social, objects such as technologies or scientific theories are understood as "boundary objects" around which multiple, often divergent perspectives, uses, and meanings are constructed. Thus, social world frameworks do not focus on one social group (as do collective construction projects), but rather on multiple ones as they interact with a common object and with one another to create a network. So SWF does not sever social groups as some argue approaches such as SCOT do, and it emphasizes groups of collective construction while situating them within a system of the social world as a whole. Taking cues from systems theory, the social worlds framework describes the social worlds approach as "relentlessly ecological" (Clarke & Star, 2008), and emphasizes the relationships of "the arrays of people and things" (p. 113), similarly to Latour's actants. Social worlds frameworks are, on the whole, quite similar to ANT, but are also "insistently pluralist" (Clarke & Star, 2008, p. 123) and attentive to the effects of use, whereas ANT often stays within the realm of production. Again, by creating an approach that analyzes both production and use, social worlds frameworks are attentive to the need for an analysis that approaches objects from all perspectives. If we abide by the system theory-influenced statement that technology's role "can be understood only if the artifact in question is seen as being interrelated with a wide range of non-technological and specifically social factors" (Law, 1987, p. 113) and the claim that, even when engaging the same object, "different groups have essentially different technologies" (Bijker's, 1992, p. 76), SWF is a productive theory and method by which to get at both of these occurrences. This approach is able to account for interactions within the system, while also capable of looking outside the system to where meanings are being made in different formats by other social groups.
Although this blending of systems theories with a group focus and work within the often-separated spaces of production and consumption are extremely fruitful, they are not the only productive moves of SWF. Another particularly productive gain from SWF is that "social worlds framework emphasized a key interactionist assumption that cooperation can proceed without consensus" (Clarke & Star, 2008, p. 125) and groups are often "demonstrating the capacity for ongoing disunity" (Banzanger, as cited in Clarke & Star, 2008, p. 125). Thus, closure is not a preoccupation for SWF. In rejecting a teleology of closure, this approach provides an approach for the radically destabilized form of invention that the preceding section argues to be a benefit STS provides. By acknowledging that multiple, often conflicting, meanings circulate around a technology, closure becomes both unnecessary, and an overly-simplified answer. Not only are social worlds complex and contingent, they are inherently rooted in communicative practice, which makes SWF an especially productive lens through which to undertake interdisciplinary work in the realm of Communication Studies. originally defined as "universes of discourse" (Mead, 1938/1972) or "shared discursive spaces" (Strauss, 1978), social worlds are places where uses and meanings are defined and debated, all of which occurs through a process of communication that takes place through a variety of channels. The meaning-making discourses, interactions, and processes of use that are the subject of SWF are the touchstones of research in communication studies as well. Moreover, SWF gives an aptly detailed understanding of "discourse" as something that not only involves the words used to make meaning and communicate with others, but the texts that circulate, and the uses and practices associated with an object or idea. For SWF then, technologies can only be fully understood via the processes of communication by which they are surrounded, and the fields of Communication and STS are necessarily intertwined.
The numerous and complex approaches to social relationships that STS provides give researchers from all disciplines multiple options with which to study any number of interactions. Additionally, STS's emphasis on the social reminds Communication Studies that technologies are never "closed," gives us the tools to avoid reifying technologies as we study them, and takes up the project of de-simplification that is necessary to further the study of media technologies across all disciplines. Just as looking at the complexity of "invention" moves toward showing the organizations of social relationships between users and producers, the emphasis on social complexity begins to illuminate the fluidity of invention and approach it with a humanistic lens. These two interrelated and mutually informing topics hold equally heavy importance to the field, and to the contributions that STS makes to Communication Studies. While these two topics do bleed into one another a bit, they have roots in fundamentally different approaches--one emphasizing the object, the other emphasizing the arrangement of social relationships. Together or separately, they are both important to STS and to Communication Studies.
Together, these emphases within the field of STS provide researchers across a spectrum of disciplines with ways to better understand the role of technology within society. By expanding our ideas of ways to understand the process and object of invention, STS complicates our very understanding of how to approach any object of analysis. This approach asks researchers to attend to the ways that technologies and science always remain fluid and inherently connected to the process of their own creation. As such, it reflects a dedication to avoiding the reification of its own objects of inquiry. STS's focus on social relations and wide range of lenses through which to understand the ways these relationships are organized provides methodological approaches that are applicable across a wide range of potential research questions, whether entire systems or individual groups of users are the subject of inquiry. Additionally, it provides analytical bridges between traditional methodological divides such as a system/group focus and succeeds in bringing the relationships between users and producers into the scope of analysis. Together, these two analytics that provide nuanced understandings of invention and social relationships also interact to contribute to a better understanding of each other, and should be understood as contributing to Communication Studies in specific methodological ways that affect how scholars answer research questions, as well as large-scale conceptual ways that affect the scope of the questions being asked. Together, these two overarching focuses--an expanded idea of "invention," and a profusion of complex views of social relationships--also benefit other disciplines that attempt to broach the topic of technology, and will be of great interdisciplinary benefit as researchers attempt to better understand our technologically-laced lives.
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|Publication:||Communication Research Trends|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2011|
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