Society in the Making: The Study of Technology
as a Tool for Sociological Analysis
Callon attempts to define the actor network theory by using
the French EDF ministry's effort in the near past as an example.
In the early 70's they attempted to introduce an electrically
powered automobile to replace the internal combustion powered
automobiles of today. If successful, the development would usher
in the post-industrial society they anticipated. The engineers
did not intend to change the face of the current society, it would
take care of itself. They took clues to a future society that
were suited to their needs, and built upon it. This framework
(network) they created is comprised of components (actors)
not all of which are usually (if ever) considered by the academically
oriented sociologists. The network they devised, consisted not
only of people and social groups, but also artifacts, devices,
and entities. Engineers who elaborate a new technology as well
as all those who participate at one time or anotherin it's design,
development, and diffusion constantly construct hypotheses and
forms of argument that pull these participants into the field
of sociological analysis. Whether they want to or not, they are
transformed into sociologists, or what the author calls engineer-sociologists.
This approach defies certain accepted ideas. What the author
questions is the accepted idea that during this process there
are certain phases that are distinctly technical, or scientific,
from others that are guided by an economic or commercial logic.
For illustration, consider the following points:
The project was first presented in the early 1970s. This is
no easy project considering the status of the motorcar in the
The project supposed not only would technoscientific problems
be solved, but there would be a radical change in French society.
The plan presented for the VEL determined not only the precise
characteristics of the vehicle, but also the social universe in
which it would function. Like Edison nearly a hundred years ago,
they continuously mixed technical and social sciences.
First the EDF defined a certain history by depicting
a society of urban post-industrial consumers who were grappling
with new social movements. The future being offered was so radically
different it could only be percieved with difficulty.
Second by predicting the demise of the traditional
motorcar, and ignoring traditional consumers so as to better serve
a new breed of consumer, they defined not only a social and technological
history, but identified the manufacturers to be responsible for
the production of the new vehicle.
Third there is an extensive list of different entities
drawn together in an elaborate design to support the project.
This list combines people, technology (some of which has not even
been developed yet), gov't agencies, corporations, even going
so far as to incorporate societal trends.
One of the distinguishing factors in the actor network
theory is the complete dependency of one "actor"
on every other "actor" in the network to maintain cohesion.
Each part of the network is at the same time representing several
different smaller parts of a whole, while being minimized into
a small part of an even larger whole. Each part in this network
had an equal part, not levels in some larger hierarchy. The failure
of any one part of the network could cause the failure of the
entire network, if not corrected or replaced in time.
EDF's engineers did not have to prove their theories in any
academic arena, the originality or brilliance of their idea was
to them, secondary to the true goal, the success of their project.
The true test of correctness was for them a share of the market;
their projects' life was riding on the line. In the end, their
project did not prove feasible, but their approach is what is
of interest to us here, not the project itself. These engineers
attempted to visualize a society of the future, and to satisfy
the needs of that society. Not through traditional means, at least
not through means considered traditional to academia anyway.
For example: "By predicting the demise of the internal
combustion engine as a result of the rise of electrochemical generators
and by ignoring traditional consumers so as to better satisfy
users who had new demands, the EDF not only defined a social and
technological history but also identified the manufacturers that
would be responsible for the construction of the new VEL."
Therefore, the engineers were acting not just as technicians,
but as sociologists and historians as well. The simple fact is
that the EDF engineers left no stone unturned. They went from
electrochemistry to politics to sociology without transition.
One of the problems with the engineers constructed world,
is the reluctance of some of the actors in their network to assume
the part they were assigned. One example was Renault. Their vision
of the future clashed with the EDF's vision, and they set out
to make sure their corporation would not have to surrender for
all time the potential for automotive market dominance in Europe.
They were very uncomfortable with the idea of being relegated
to the role of manufacturing a simple container for a mediocre
vehicle meant to reduce the automobile to a simple means for transport.
Thier vision of the automobile was much more grand. . There were
other actors in the network that were belligerent to the role
they were assigned. Another was the technology of superior lead/acid
battery design necessary for the development of the VEL. This
was not a decision of the actor "battery development/design"
but the underlying network that it represented. The fact of the
matter was that the state of the art in battery design was not
yet up to the requirements of the VEL program. Thus the engineers
at Renault were correct in their assesment, and the engineers
at EDF were not. Still the fact of their assembling this amazing
network of actors, merits some attention.
The actor network describes the dynamics of society in terms
totally different from those usually used by sociologists. If
car users reject the VEL and maintain their preferences for different
types of the traditional motorcar, this is for a whole series
of rteasons, one of which is the problems of the catalysts that
turn poisonous. It is these heterogenous associations that sociologists
are unable to take into account and yet are responsibile for the
success of a particular actor network. Tourainian
sociological theory is bound to remain
hypothetical and speculative because it simplifies social reality
by excluding from the associations it considers all those entities--electrons,
catalysts--that go to explain the coevolution of society and its
artifacts. This critisism applies equally well to Bourdieu's
interpretation of society. Although
his theory happens to work better (explaining the success of the
Renault actor network), this is pure luck, for in his explanation
of car users' preferences, he omits most of the elements that
make up and influence these preferences.
In what way could the analyses andthe experiments developed
by the engineer-sociologists be useful to sociology? The answer
to this question is precisely the reason the author introduced
the idea of the Actor Network Theory, which allows us to measure
the distance between the heterogenous and impure sociology of
the engineers, to the homogenous and pure sociology of the academicians.
In the one case sociological and tehcnological conditions are
inextricably linked. In the other they are rigorously seperated.
According to whether one is more or less disposed to transform
sociology itself, other more or less radical choices are possible.
They all lead to a transformation of the study of technology into
an instrument of sociological analysis. The study of engineer-sociologists
can furnish more than a simple source of inspiration. In effect,
the sociology developed by the engineer-sociologists is concretely
evaluated in terms of market share, rate of expansion, or profit
rate. With the failure of the VEL, EDF's theories about French
society and its future collapsed (although perhaps only provisionally).
The sociologist here has a powerful tool for evaluating different
sociological frameworks of analysis. Engineer-sociologists, then,
work for the good of sociology.
But let the sociologist try something even more audacious.
They can put into question the very nature of sociological analysis
itself. From this point of view, the study of technology can play
a critical role. To transform academic sociology into a sociology
capabe of following technology through its elaboration means recognizing
its proper object of study is neither society itself nor so-called
social relationships but the very actor networks that simultaneously
give rise to society and to technology.
Emphasizes the role of class conflict in the function
Unlike Maxists, he believes the classses in conflict are no
longer working class vs. bourgeoise
but large concerns,( big corporations, R & D agencies...)
vs the consumer, whose needs and aspirations are manipulated
by the technocrats who run the large concerns.
This conflict explains the birth of social movements that
challenge (through categorical demands or through calls for a
move back to basics) the power of the technocracy or its orientations
for social and economic development.
These movements are relatively widespread and short lived.
This type of class conflict defines what Touraine calls Post-Industrial
Society is not arranged around a primordial conflict of ruling
class vs the classes that are ruled fighting for control
of technological development.
The confrontation is rather a fragmentation between various
spheres of specialists (the sphere of politics, science, consumption,etc)
that exchange mutual relationships of exchange and subordination.
Each field is the site of struggles for power between various
The different fields give diversity to society,and through
their differences,rely upon each other, lending cohesion to society.
This cohesion is organized around the dominant cultural model
of the different classes, in relation to which the other classes
define and orient themselves.
This competition is most lively in the field of consumption.
The result is social stratification...the elements being distinction,
differentiation, and mobility.