Journal of Technology Education


JTE Editor: Mark Sanders

Volume 4, Number 1
Fall 1992


DLA Ejournal Home | JTE Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search JTE and other ejournals

BOOK REVIEW
 
          Westrum, Ron. (1991). Technologies & society: The shaping of
          people and things.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Compan
          $24.50 (paperback), 394 pp.  (ISBN 0-534-13644-3)
 
          Reviewed by Alan C. Finlayson
 
               Technology educators and university students will find
          no better general introduction to the broader social issues
          and contexts of technology than this new book. What seems to
          be an acceleration in the rate of catastrophic failures of
          technological systems (Chernobyl, Bhopal, Challenger, and
          Three Mile Island to name but a few) has made the need for
          such a text all the more urgent. Westrum's general thesis is
          that the pace of technological change is more rapid than is
          the transformation of covalent social structures and
          institutions: "We have third generation machines [but] first
          generation minds." [p.5]
               This work gives us a superb "grand tour" of a crucially
          important field that is simply not available elsewhere.
          There are, to be sure, many excellent but more specialized
          articles and books in the emerging field of the sociology of
          science and technology and the interested reader is guided
          to them by Westrum's extensive annotations and references.
               Westrum's work is a fine example of applied
          scholarship.  The text is a generalized tool for teaching
          and learning about the complexities and subtleties of the
          interactive relationships between technology and society.
          Westrum's writing is open and inviting and the ideas
          accessible precisely because the author has rigorously
          purged his work of the "priestly language" which is,
          unfortunately, the taken-for-granted hallmark of "serious
          scholarship."
               Not only is this an excellent text for academic
          application, it could also be very usefully read and
          effectively employed by practicing engineers and managers of
          technologically intensive businesses and organizations.
          People in roles as diverse as military command and hospital
          administration could use the insights and broadly-drawn data
          from this book to improve their understanding and use of
          technologies.
               The book opens with a review of the history of our
          understanding of the relationships between culture, social
          organization, and technology.  This ranges from Marx's
          emphasis on the inherent political content of technologies
          to the autonomous and deterministic theory of technology
          propounded by William F. Ogburn in the early 1920's to the
          presently growing influence of the view that technologies
          are "socially constructed." Westrum's own treatment is an
          even-handed and sustained synthesis of all of these more
          radical and uncompromising perspectives.
 
               This book is about the mutual shaping of people and
          things.  It explores the interaction of people and
          technology in a changing society.It examines the social
          relations between people and milk bottles, parking meters,
          nuclear power plants, and many other technologies.  It
          explores how people and technologies shape each other...
          [p.5]
 
               The work is so well organized and transparently written
          that it is easy to overlook the fact that Westrum has
          accomplished one of the most difficult tasks in analytical
          sociology.  His exegesis of the social/technical nexus
          weaves seamlessly through all levels of social organization
          and does so from multiple perspectives.  A historical review
          of the role of innovative individuals flows into a
          discussion of how varying social structures and cultural
          environments influence the rate and direction of
          technological development. One chapter opens with a
          micro-study of the small firm that developed liquid hand
          soap, segues into an expanding analysis of the triangular
          dynamics of technology, corporate organization, and markets,
          moves on to examine the causes and conditions of social
          resistance to technologies, and closes with a look at the
          evolution of technological niches. Similar deft and
          thoughtful treatment is given to the interactive
          relationships with technology of our political, regulatory,
          and educational institutions.
               Applied in its intended context this text will be a
          extremely useful and effective piece of work.  Westrum's
          target audience is undergraduate students majoring in
          technological fields such as engineering and students who
          plan to concentrate on social studies of science and
          technology.  It should also be a required text in courses
          that prepare technology educators for the nation's K-12
          schools.  Ideally, the course should be taught by a person
          well-versed in the sociology of science and technology.
          Like the best of such books, Westrum's work is thought-
          provoking and will surely give rise to questions that are
          not directly answered in the text.
               However, it would be a pity if the readership of this
          superb and thought-provoking work was bounded by the walls
          of the academy.  We live in a thoroughly and relentlessly
          technological world of our own construction.  Every aspect
          of our lives is in some way dependent upon and affected by
          technology.  The clothes we wear, the housing that shelters
          us, the work we do, the food we eat, even the air we breathe
          reflect our socially mediated technological choices.  Anyone
          who's life and work intersects with technology--inventors,
          developers, designers, entrepreneurs, stylists, marketers,
          regulators, sponsors, opponents, competitors, users, and
          consumers of technology--could profit from an open-minded
          reading of Westrum's work.
 
 
          ---------------
          Alan C. Finlayson is currently in the doctoral program in
          the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell
          University, Ithaca, NY.
 
 
        Permission is given to copy any
          article or graphic provided credit is given and
          the copies are not intended for sale.
 
Journal of Technology Education   Volume 4, Number 1       Fall 1992

DLA Ejournal Home | JTE Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search JTE and other ejournals