Journal of Technology Education

Journal of Technology Education

Current Editor: Chris Merrill,
Previous Editors: Mark Sanders 1989-1997; James LaPorte: 1997-2010

As an open access journal, the JTE does not charge fees for authors to publish or readers to access.

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Volume 4, Number 1
Fall 1992

               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
                              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
                              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...
                              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