Winner, L.: "Social Constructivism: Opening the Black Box and Finding it Empty"

Winner, L. (2003). Social Constructivism: Opening the Black Box and Finding it Empty. In R. Scharff & V. Dusek (Eds.), Philosophy of technology (pp. 233-43). Malden,  MA: Blackwell Publishing. Originally published 1993.


Asks, "What do philosophers need to know about technology?"-- approaches may be experiential (part of the society, expert (knowledge of a specific field), study in a scholarly mode, looking upon histories and contemporary social studies). "An identifying mark of the different philosophical approaches to technology can be found in the typical locations writers prefer to visit, if only in their minds" (233).-- e.g., Marxist will look to Marxist resources, etc.

Where learn? Go to a place where tech is produced? used? discarded?

Defines purpose of article as looking at recent work in fields of science and technology studies and ask "how well does it help orient our understanding of the place of technology in human affairs?" (234). Will investigate social constructivism.

The Dynamics of Change

aim of social constructivist mode is to see what's taking place. look at artifacts and varieties of tech knowledge in question and at social actors whose activities affect their development. "plea"is that soc cons open the "black box" of historical and contemporary tech to see what's there--looking to see what happens between input and output.

technology (study of it) viewed as "lesser relative" (235). don't get how the penguin reference applies. social constructivists employ EPOR-- all sci knowledge must be bracketed, not judged true or false by independent standard. Reiterates goals/ means/ methods of social constructivist approach.

Distinguishes Latour's approach-- modern world is composed of actor networks in which the significant social actors include both living persons and non-living technological entities (236)

from Pinch and Bijker's stance: society is environment or context in which technologies develop.

General methodology of soc constructivist

  • find a field of tech development that's interesting
  • identify relevant social groups/design constuencies involved in process of tech choice
  • study how social actors express needs and interests and how those come to be defined as tech problems to be solved with not one but several possible solutions
  • notice that device/technique/system can be interpreted in diff ways
  • remain skeptical whether one person/group discovered/invented
  • look for areas of conflict, cooperation, agreement, disagreement, possible consensu
  • watch for moment of closure where struggle to define shape of tech artifact comes to end through negotiation or machinations of most powerful actors. 

results usually indicated technological innovation is multi-centred, complex. reveals spectrum of possible choices. Social constructivists call into question "highly arbitrary" distinctions between social and technical spheres (236)

Issue? Social constructed social construction of knowledge seeks to depict earlier and contemporary approaches as outmoded or dead. Asks whether it is improvement? what does one lose and gain through this approach?

Technology and Human Experience?

main critique: soc con disregard social consequences of technical choice. What does the tech do for people's sense of self, qualities of everday living, etc.?

more focused on origins of tech (works under assumption that consequences have been 'studied to death')

orientation: application of methods to 'less important' field of technology. Soc of science issues have to do with origins of knowledge about natural phenomen; the identified "corresponding" phenomenon in tech is the origins and dynamics of tech innovation (237)

little concern for ways technology transforms personal experience and social relations--instead focuses on artifacts and processes.

biased conception of social process, often in terms of political pluralism and bureaucratic politics. asks, "who says what are 'relevant' social groups and social interests?" (238). echoes Shrader-Frechette's concern for the underrepresented/unempowered minorities. How are these people affected? Notes that issues of labor rarely given serious concern.

Accuses social constructivism of ignoring elitism.

Although multi-directional research, does not consider "ebb and flow of social interaction among groups may reflect other, more deeply seated processes in society" (239).

Evaluation, Morality and Political Principle

takes issue with social constructivisms "apparent disdain for anything resembling an evaluative stance, or any particular moral or political principles, that might help people judge the possibilities that technologies present" (239).

Argues this is akin to political stance regarding status quo and  its "ills and injustices with precious equaniimity"-- becomes moral and political indifference (240).

Several charges-- seems more feminist in approach, that consideration of implications, others, the morality and responsibilities must come in to play. Quality of life is not investigated.

Charges social theorists to go beyond "value neutrality" or "interpretive flexibility"-- must take a stand.

A Remarkably Hollow Box (Conclusion)

soc constructivists show dynamics of conflict, survey evidence, but offer no judgment. for a philosophy, there's something missing-- a general position. contrasts with other social theories (Marxism, liberal theorists, Heideggerians). Charges that the soc constructivists are overwhelmingly academic.

Argues that within a social context, we need to know not how technology constructed, but the ways that a technology-centered world might be reconstructed (close para 242).