JTE v3n1 - Technological Impacts and Determinism in Technology Education: Alternate Metaphors from Social Constructivism

Volume 3, Number 1
Fall 1991

Technological Impacts and Determinism in Technology Education:
Alternate Metaphors from Social Constructivism
                       John R. Pannabecker
               In technology education, teaching about
          technology and society has usually been em-
          bedded in the notion of technological impacts
          on society.  References to the impacts of
          technology on society are pervasive in the
          literature of technology education.  The
          notion of technological impacts is simple to
          comprehend and has permitted the field to in-
          terpret technology in the context of society
          and culture, but it has also contributed to a
          simplistic and inflexible view of the re-
          lationship between technology and society.
               The expression "technological impacts"
          is a metaphor that implies that technology is
          a discrete force with a discernible direction
          and influence.  Metaphors are figures of
          speech widely used in all disciplines and es-
          sentially involve the transfer of descriptive
          terms from primary usage to different, but
          analogous, situations (e.g., Joerges, 1990;
          Ortony, 1979; Sacks, 1979; Simpson & Weiner,
          1989, Vol. IX, p. 676; Winner, 1986).  Tech-
          nology is cast in a perspective of cause and
          effect relationships in which technology is
          the cause of impacts on society.  In technol-
          ogy education, this perspective has become
          the dominant metaphor for conceptualizing the
          relationship between technology and society
          (e.g., Bame and Cummings, 1988; DeVore, 1980;
          Hacker & Barden, 1988; Hales & Snyder, 1981;
          "Resources in Technology," 1989, 1990; Savage
          & Sterry, 1990; Schwaller, 1989; STANDARDS,
          1985; Wiens, 1989, 1990; Wright & Smith,
          1989).  There are, however, other metaphors
          that emphasize the role of humans in direct-
          ing technology.  Some of these metaphors may
          be more appropriate for technology education
          than technological impacts.
               The first part of this study examines
          the implications for technology education of
          a perspective committed to technological im-
          pacts.  The metaphor of technological impacts
          only too easily can become the cornerstone
          for a philosophy of technological determinism
          as described in the second part.  The third
          part introduces the work of social
          constructivists and several alternate per-
          spectives for interpreting technology and so-
          ciety.  Finally, implications for technology
          education are reviewed including suggestions
          for modifying current curricula, instruc-
          tional patterns, and research.
                      TECHNOLOGICAL IMPACTS
               The term impact is at the heart of the
          issue because of its primary meaning and
          connotations.  Impact suggests a striking to-
          gether, collision, or shock.  (See Simpson &
          Weiner, 1989, Vol.  VII, pp. 694-695 for ex-
          tensive illustrations of etymological founda-
          tion and usage, especially in dynamics and
          momentum.)  Consequently, technology is
          viewed as a dynamic force causing collisions
          or impacts on society.  Interpretations of
          social change are framed in a mechanistic
          perspective dominated by technology as pri-
          mary cause.  The impact of technology on so-
          ciety is likened to the impact of a hammer on
          a nail.  This metaphor does not necessarily
          imply that technology is the only cause of
          impacts, but it does promote a conceptual
          framework that emphasizes:  (a) cause and ef-
          fect relationships with resulting collisions
          or impacts; (b) a mechanistic world; (c)
          technology as dominant force; and (d) impor-
          tance of distinctions between society and
          technology.  The metaphor of technological
          impacts is attractive because of its simplic-
          ity but it is inadequate as a means of teach-
          ing about the complexity of technology and
               In contrast, one might focus primarily
          on the people or social groups who develop
          and direct technology.  For example, instead
          of focusing on changes in automotive design
          and production techniques, one would empha-
          size the interaction of relevant social
          groups in directing such changes.  This ap-
          proach shifts the emphasis to social groups
          with less importance on technology.  In the
          extreme form, this perspective would be char-
          acterized by a study of the impacts of soci-
          ety on technology.  Such a metaphor risks,
          however, to lead to just the opposite
          mechanistic perspective in which technology
          is fully controlled by society.
               These two perspectives have been con-
          trasted to identify some of the key problems
          for technology education in teaching about
          technology and society.  Alternative perspec-
          tives need to provide a more satisfying
          understanding of the technology/society re-
          lationship.  What if, for example, society
          and technology were not viewed as distinct
          categories?  Then the notion of technological
          impacts on society would dissolve.  What if
          the term impact were eliminated?  Then the
          notion of technology and society as opposing
          forces would need to be reexamined.
               The mechanical view of technology and
          its impacts on society reinforces the idea
          that technical systems have an independent
          existence, ordered according to materials,
          processes, and laws that can be fully under-
          stood from an objective standpoint.  It fol-
          lows that technology appears to have a mass,
          velocity, and momentum of its own which can
          be objectively studied.  Hence, the focus of
          study and interpretations are subordinate to
          these principles of technology rather than to
          individuals and groups who develop the
          artifacts and knowledge.
               This particular view of technological
          impacts often leads to technological
          determinism of which there are various forms,
          all related to traditional notions of
          determinism.  (See Trusted, 1984, for a sys-
          tematic and historical introduction to the
          implications of determinism.)  Determinism
          holds that everything is caused (determined)
          by a sequence of previous conditions and
          events, operating with regularity and, in
          principle, predictability.  In its most ex-
          treme form, technological determinism main-
          tains that materials and physical laws are
          such that technology is determined to develop
          in a particular way or pattern.  There are
          variations of determinism and technological
          determinism, often distinguished by the ex-
          tent of human intervention considered possi-
          ble, the importance of technical constraints,
          the relative autonomy of technology, and
          questions of the historical development of
          technology (e.g., Constant 1989; Ellul,
          1954/1964; Gille, 1978/1986b; Hickman, 1990a,
          1990b; Ropohl, 1983; Wilkinson, 1964; Winner,
               Determinism is inherently related to
          questions of free will and human responsibil-
          ity.  For example, if everything is deter-
          mined by previous events and conditions, then
          humans could have little choice or responsi-
          bility for what happens.  Such thinking is
          generally offensive to those who believe
          firmly in human freedom and liberty.  Simi-
          larly, technological determinism implies di-
          minished human choice and responsibility in
          controlling technology.  When pressed, few
          people would claim unadulterated determinism
          and most would assert that humans have some
          degree of freedom to influence the direction
          of technology.
               Nevertheless, the current curriculum and
          standards of technology education suggest
          that technology is a phenomenon with a par-
          ticular form, content, and direction result-
          ing in impacts that can be studied
          objectively.  For example, the notion of
          "universal technical systems" such as commu-
          nications, construction, manufacturing, and
          transportation implies a particular form and
          content.  Similarly, the notion of a uni-
          versal system such as "input, processes, out-
          put, and feedback" (Hales & Snyder, 1981)
          implies a unilinear direction.  (See
          Schwaller, 1989 and Wiens, 1989 for a dis-
          cussion of these standards in technology edu-
          cation.)  Technology is thus viewed as a
          discrete system with its relationship to so-
          ciety expressed metaphorically and pedagog-
          ically in terms of impacts.
               It may well be that the curricular model
          in technology education has surpassed its
          role as a content organizer and become an id-
          eological model for technology.  In this
          case, however, the model reinforces techno-
          logical determinism because of its fixed
          form, content, sequential nature, and result-
          ing impacts.  The more established the model
          becomes, the more it is taken for granted as
          THE form and content of technology.  The ad-
          dition of another category such as
          biotechnology only expands the breadth with
          little effect on the ideology unless it
          serves to reopen the issue of human inter-
          action in technology and society.
               The problematic nature of the relation-
          ship between social groups and technology has
          not received adequate attention.  Technology
          education models establish a firm distinction
          between the knowers (people) and the known
          (technology) by emulating the natural sci-
          ences, where the knowers are the scientists
          and the known is the natural world.  This
          traditional view of the natural sciences has
          also come under criticism, although science
          as taught in schools has not yet changed sig-
          nificantly (e.g., Engelhardt & Caplan, 1987;
          Suppe, 1977; Ziman, 1978).  Note that empha-
          sizing the objective knower is especially
          strong in industrial technology programs, and
          its influence on technology education is ex-
               It can be argued that a comprehensive
          study of technology must emphasize that the
          knower or student of technology is simultane-
          ously the author of technology.  In fact,
          both scientists and technologists study AND
          construct science and technology, thus form-
          ing a complex relationship between knowers
          and the known.  There is not necessarily a
          unilinear cause and effect sequence of tech-
          nology followed by impacts as in the case of
          two colliding inanimate entities.  (See Pinch
          & Bijker, 1987, p. 22, Ellul, 1977/1980, p.
          4, and Pacey, 1983 for critiques of linear-
          ity.)  There are, of course, specific phenom-
          ena such as the destruction of the ozone
          layer or traffic accidents, but their trau-
          matic nature and sensationalist media con-
          verge to emphasize the ideology of impacts.
          Even more pervasive, however, are the
          humdrum, daily interactions of people with
          other people, artifacts, processes, and know-
          ledge that gradually orient technological
               What then are the alternatives?  How can
          the notion of technological impacts be elimi-
          nated while retaining the importance of the
          social and cultural context?  What ap-
          proaches, models, or systems avoid the philo-
          sophical problems of determinism?  How can
          philosophical metaphors be more fully inte-
          grated with mission and curriculum?  Lest
          these questions be shrugged off as minor con-
          cerns, virtually half of the 11 most commonly
          noted weaknesses in NCATE technology educa-
          tion program evaluations as noted by Wiens
          (1989, pp. 3-4) are related to the issues
          raised in this study.  These items include:
          (a) the four curriculum organizers, (b) tech-
          nological systems, (c)
          socio/cultural/environmental impacts, (d)
          multicultural and global perspectives, (e)
          ethics and values, and (f) excessive influ-
          ence of technical programs.
                     TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY
               Abandoning the emphasis on impacts im-
          plies a shift away from traumatic events and
          the rigidity of cause and effect sequences
          typical of technological determinism.  Simi-
          larly, abandoning universal systems implies
          greater flexibility in conceptualizing tech-
          nology and change.
               Instead of focusing on the trauma of im-
          pacts, one can focus on the day-to-day
          decision-making of human beings in any tech-
          nological environment.  In addition to pre-
          senting linear cause-and-effect sequences
          such as input-process-output-feedback, one
          can emphasize the multi-directional inter-
          action of all groups affecting technological
          decisions.  Instead of emphasizing
          mechanistic metaphors of change, one can ex-
          amine the social conflicts, compromises, suc-
          cesses, and failures of the technological
          enterprise.  Rather than assuming universal
          systems, one acknowledges alternate systems
          and models.
               Thus far, the issues raised in this
          study have been organized and described in
          relation to dominant trends in technology ed-
          ucation.  The most concise yet comprehensive
          recent source on alternate concepts and mod-
          els is a volume of international scope and
          authorship edited by Bijker, Hughes, and
          Pinch (1987) called THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION
          OF TECHNOLOGICAL SYSTEMS.  This work includes
          topics ranging from domestic technology to
          biotechnology, and from maritime navigation
          systems to expert systems.  It is a synthesis
          of recent research and is readily accessible.
          For these reasons, it is used here as a major
          source of examples, although the reader is
          encouraged to consult the extensive bibli-
          ography included in the book.  Despite the
          variety of topics and interpretive models in
          this volume, the approaches converge in three
          important ways:  (a) emphasis on groups
          rather than individual inventors; (b) oppo-
          sition to technological determinism; and (c)
          deemphasis on technical, social, economic,
          and political distinctions (Bijker et al.,
          1987, p. 3).
               The latter issue seems to be the major
          point of contention between social
          constructivism and its critics.  Many histo-
          rians, for example, do not necessarily empha-
          size individual inventors or adopt
          deterministic approaches but do maintain
          clear distinctions among technical, social,
          political, and economic factors.  In so do-
          ing, they avoid one of the major weaknesses
          of some social constructivists who neglect
          the material and structural constraints of
          technology (e.g., Cutcliffe & Post, 1989;
          Hounshell, 1984).  Other perspectives also
          question technological determinism and need
          to be considered along with social
          constructivism in developing research in
          technology education (e.g., Bernard & Pelto,
          1987,/a>; Chubin, 1990; Durbin & Rapp, 1983;
          Rothschild, 1988).
               Bijker et al. (1987, p. 4) have at-
          tempted to achieve a degree of simplicity by
          delineating three methodological categories:
          (a) social constructivism, (b) systems meta-
          phors, and (c) actor networks, all of which
          are critical to the continuing development of
          technology education.  In the interests of
          simplicity, these three expressions are used
          as headings in the following analysis, al-
          though all three categories are part of the
          broad social constructivist research empha-
          sis.  In addition, critiques and supplemen-
          tary references are included to promote
          integration in technology education programs.
               In general, social constructivists em-
          phasize the centrality of "relevant social
          groups" and "interpretive flexibility" in
          technological artifacts and change.  They
          maintain that there is really more flexibil-
          ity in the design of artifacts than technical
          and linear analyses would suggest.  In par-
          ticular, diverse social groups all contribute
          their own values and concerns to the design
          process.  For example, Pinch and Bijker
          (1987) focus on the social groups most rele-
          vant to the design and evolution of the bicy-
          cle from the high-wheeler to the safety
          bicycle.  They show how, in the late 19th
          century, diverse groups interacted through
          conflict, compromise, and agreement.  The
          concerns of women cyclists (dress, social
          disapproval), young men (macho image), the
          elderly (safety), sports cyclists (speed),
          manufacturers (economics), and technologists
          (materials, processes, traditions) finally
          resulted in the stabilization of the safety
          bicycle design.  Bicycle design could have
          gone in different directions depending upon
          varying degrees of influence or power of the
          relevant social groups.  Pinch and Bijker
          provide a simple yet effective multi-
          directional graphic model as an alternative
          to linear process models.  Their model inte-
          grates technological artifacts, social
          groups, problems, and solutions.
               In contrast to this approach, technology
          education usually emphasizes the technical
          processes of change FOLLOWED by an examina-
          tion of their impacts on society.  Attention
          is focused on the effects or impacts of the
          successful artifact, often after it has been
          established.  Such models are based on a dis-
          continuous, sequential, and success-oriented
          view of production and social assessment.
          How then can one integrate the social
          constructivist approach with technology edu-
          cation as an educational process?
               To demonstrate a social constructivist
          approach, students could be divided into
          groups representing relevant social groups
          associated with a given technology or its en-
          vironment.  They would then develop competing
          designs based on the groups' dominant values
          or concerns (as found through interviews with
          relevant social groups).  The competing de-
          signs would then be debated in large group
          sessions.  Naturally, such a process would
          not replicate social behavior and its com-
          plexity but would emphasize how widely dif-
          ferent variables, conflict, resolution,
          success, and failure interact in the design
          and the development of technology.
               Perhaps the best-known example in tech-
          nology education of a form of social
          constructivism is found in manufacturing
          classes organized around a student corpo-
          ration.  The importance of relevant social
          groups, the multidirectional nature of de-
          sign, and social conflict with varying de-
          grees of power and influence would need to be
          emphasized, however, to achieve an under-
          standing of the social constructivist ap-
          proach.  Nevertheless, such a shift in
          emphasis should meet technology education
          standards and, at the same time, eliminate
          the limitations of the metaphor of technolog-
          ical impacts.
               Systems metaphors, as presented by
          Bijker et al. (1987), stem largely from the
          work of Hughes (1983), a historian of tech-
          nology best known for his systemic approach
          to analyzing the development of
          electrification networks in Western society.
          In brief, Hughes examines technological
          change as a system of interrelated factors in
          the context of artifacts, institutions, and
          their environment.  Two key concepts called
          "reverse salients" and "critical problems"
          are used to identify and analyze the dynamics
          of innovative energy in technological sys-
          tems.  Hughes' analysis could find wide ap-
          plications in technology education, though
          most likely at the graduate level.  His sys-
          tems approach does not have the graphic and
          conceptual simplicity of Pinch and Bijker
          (1987), but his work is essential for any re-
          searcher on systems approaches for technology
          education.  Hughes' interests in innovation
          and development coincide with the emphasis
          often given to these aspects of technology
          education programs.
               The notion of systems metaphors is, how-
          ever, much broader than Hughes' approach, for
          example, as illustrated by Gille (1978/1986a)
          and Ropohl (1983).  Gille began his work on
          the history of technology and systems prior
          to Hughes.  His most comprehensive work on
          technology (1978/1986a) contains detailed
          graphic descriptions of technical systems for
          different historical periods.  The scope of
          his topics is much broader than Hughes'.  In
          brief, Gille seeks to understand the interre-
          lationships among elements in entire techni-
          cal systems of a particular country or
          Western civilization and how they changed
          over the centuries.  To do so, he shows how
          mutations of subsystems occurred (e.g., iron
          production or transportation), thus stimulat-
          ing changes, imbalance, and eventually, a new
          technical system.  Although Gille focuses
          more on the internal dynamics of technolog-
          ical systems, he is sensitive to the highly
          complex interaction of society and technol-
          ogy.  While Hughes presents a very detailed
          analysis of the growth of electrification
          systems, including contrasting styles in the
          United States, England, and Germany, Gille
          tries to integrate major subsystems and
          shifts in the systems as they changed.  (For
          a brief review by Hughes of Gille's systems
          approach, see Hughes, 1988.)
               A third approach to technological sys-
          tems is illustrated by Ropohl (1983), which
          has the additional advantage of being pre-
          sented as part of a critique of technological
          determinism.  Ropohl's "action system" con-
          sists of three subsystems:  (a) goal-setting;
          (b) information processing; and (c) exe-
          cution.  In order to include social concerns,
          Ropohl assumes several levels of action sys-
          tems:  (a) micro-level of individuals; (b)
          meso-level of organizations; and (c) macro-
          level of national society (and eventually a
          fourth level of world society).  The meso-
          level includes the production of technolog-
          ical knowledge and technical goods and the
          application of technical goods.  Because of
          its sequential and matrix graphic form,
          Ropohl's system has some conceptual similari-
          ties with matrices used in technology educa-
          tion, although the subsystem categories are
          very different.  For Ropohl, technological
          determinism does apply to the systemic qual-
          ity of technical development as perceived by
          the individual but not to the controllability
          of technical development.
               Most systems metaphors reflect an empha-
          sis on technical process and development with
          variable degrees of integration of social
          factors.  Such systems tend to promote a mit-
          igated form of determinism in which technical
          systems have an inherent systemic quality,
          though allowing for a certain degree of human
          choice (e.g., Ellul, 1977/1980).  Differences
          in systems approaches suggest differences in
          intent, philosophy, scope, and disciplinary
          background of their authors.
               Actor networks are characterized by the
          elimination of distinctions between techni-
          cal, social, political, and economic factors,
          even to the point of "breaking down the dis-
          tinctions between human actors and natural
          phenomena" (Bijker et al., 1987, p. 4).
          Technologists build networks but these net-
          works are not viewed as systems of discrete,
          well-defined elements connected in ways that
          are always predictable.  Uncontrollable fac-
          tors, chance, and accidents are too pervasive
          in the concept of networks to justify the
          term "system."
               For example, Callon (1987) casts engi-
          neers in the role of sociologists as they
          built networks to introduce the electric car
          in France during the 1970s.  Elements are
          heterogeneous, ranging from electrons,
          electrodes, and lead batteries to auto man-
          ufacturers, governmental offices, and noise
          pollution, all combined in the actor network.
          Law (1987) also uses the concept of actor
          networks, but to show how the Portuguese were
          able to integrate people, ocean currents,
          winds, ships, money, knowledge, and a multi-
          tude of other elements to round Cape Bojador
          and thus sail around Africa to India by the
          15th century.  Cowan (1987) examines the de-
          velopment of domestic heating and cooling
          systems from an actor network perspective;
          however, she emphasizes the importance of
          consumers in influencing technological
          change.  The simplicity of her graphic illus-
          trations are comparable to those of Pinch and
          Bijker (1987) and can be easily adapted in
          technology education to teach about the actor
          networks approach.
               A major advantage of the actor networks
          approach is the elimination of arbitrary dis-
          tinctions and categories that often oversim-
          plify technological complexity and reinforce
          disciplinary boundaries.  Actor networks can
          be used to critique systems approaches which
          are based on the assumption that the system
          can be distinguished from its larger environ-
          ment.  On the other hand, actor networks may
          tend to reflect more explicitly the preoccup-
          ations of the researcher.  Actor networks are
          very effective in analyzing the role of con-
          troversy and conflict in the development of
          technology, thus shifting the emphasis away
          from a preoccupation with technology as suc-
               The expression technological impacts
          needs to be abandoned as the primary metaphor
          for conceptualizing relationships between
          technology and society.  These relationships
          are too complex to be understood solely as a
          set of causes and effects in which technology
          is the source of the causes and society the
          context of impacts.  The immediate task is
          not, however, to find a single alternate met-
          aphor but to recognize that there are differ-
          ent ways of approaching the study of
          technology and society.  This diversity
          should be reflected in technology education
          programs, standards, and in the evaluation of
          programs.  The current state of research and
          knowledge of the issues demand flexibility in
          the interpretation of the current technology
          education standards that address technology
          and society.
               Nevertheless, flexibility of interpreta-
          tion should not be construed to mean lack of
          rigor or "anything goes." Technology educa-
          tion has a mission with which its instruc-
          tional and conceptual metaphors need to be
          integrated.  For example, the emphasis on
          technology education for all students implies
          that women as well as men, non-experts and
          experts, and persons from all disciplines
          take an active part in decision-making.  This
          inclusivity suggests the need for curricular
          research and critiques of technology assess-
          ment models, gender bias in technology, and
          the distribution of power (e.g., Carpenter,
          1983; Noble, 1984; Rothschild, 1988).
               Furthermore, technology education empha-
          sizes the importance of DOING technology as a
          continuous and necessary part of the learning
          process.  And it is in doing technology that
          students socially construct technology.  Stu-
          dents direct, order, and influence technology
          and in so doing, belie the most extreme forms
          of technological determinism.  Even a brief
          observation of this learning process demon-
          strates the existence of the indeterminant
          and aleatoric, laziness and concentration,
          social distribution and acquisition of power,
          failures and marginal successes typical of
          all social processes.
               Studying impacts places the emphasis on
          a restricted and traumatic point in a se-
          quence, in a sense, after the fact.  Studying
          the social construction of technology places
          greater emphasis on the learning process of
          doing technology.  Social constructivism, in-
          cluding systems metaphors and actor networks,
          as well as other models (e.g., historical and
          philosophical analyses) provide frameworks
          for conscious reflection and extend our
          understanding of technological complexity.
          John R. Pannabecker is Professor, Department
          of Technology, McPherson College, McPherson,
          Kansas.  The author thanks Rodney Frey and
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          article or graphic provided credit is given and
          the copies are not intended for sale.
Journal of Technology Education   Volume 3, Number 1       Fall 1991