These are some notes on my understanding of the influential “Social Construction of Technology” (SCOT) paradigm in Science & Technology Studies (STS), as oulined by Pinch & Bijker (1984)
In Pinch and Bijker’s social construction of technology (SCOT) approach, the development of technological artifacts is “multidirectional”. Artifacts are developed in view of many possible branching paths that are traversed in relation to “relevant social groups”, rather than proceeding according to some intrinsic, necessary, and linear logic of development. Different social groups place differing meanings in the artifact, and have different problems concerning its design (each of which may have multiple solutions). In the case of the bicycle, relevant groups might include engineers, different types of riders, and also “anticyclist” groups with beliefs about the artifact’s social consequences. Examples of problems include aspects like safety, vibration, and speed of the bicycle but also moral concerns e.g. around women wearing trousers to ride.
What does “stabilization” or closure mean in this framework? Put most explicitly in Pinch and Bijker, “closure in technology involves the stabilization of an artifact and the ‘disappearance’ of problems” (44). In short, stabilization occurs when social groups accept a particular form of the artifact as having addressed their concerns with it. Importantly, this framing emphasizes that stabilization and closure may happen to different degrees and at different times for different groups.
Pinch and Bijker also emphasize that the “disappearance” of problems (and consequent stabilization) does not necessarily mean “solving” the problems in a traditional sense, and take many varied forms. All that is needed for stabilization is that the relevant social groups accept or treat the problems as solved, regardless the mechanism by which this is achieved. Pinch & Bijker give the example of solving the bicycle “safety” problem by rhetorical means — i.e. by simply advertising claims that the bicycle was safe, without necessarily making any changes. They also note that the disappearance of problems could occur through broader social changes, such as changing attitudes towards women wearing trousers. Pinch & Bijker also allude to the role of “tests” in creating closure around problems. In the case of the bicycle they mention bicycle races as a convincing test that air tires solved the “speed” problem. There are many examples of tests — and especially quantitative tests — playing this stabilizing role in other contexts as well. For example, Jasanoff (1998) mentions the role of accuracy testing in creating acceptance of ICBMs, but also notes the contestedness of various testing procedures, underscoring the Pinch & Bijker point that stabilization is not monolithic and may happen differently for different groups. Current clinical trials regarding a coronavirus vaccine will play a similar stabilizing role (though will also likely be contested).
Pinch, T. J., & Bijker, W. E. (1984). The social construction of facts and artefacts: Or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other. Social studies of science, 14(3), 399-441.