Black boxes and soft systems

Creative Technological Change
McLoughlin (1996)McLoughlin - Creative Technological Change

This is summary of social-constructivism as described in McLoughlin (1996), with some references to parallels in Soft Systems Methodology and elsewhere. This compressed overview covers:

  • Chapter 5 Inside the black box: Social constructivism and technology
  • Chapter 6 Transforming the organisation? Technology as ‘text’
  • Chapter 7 Outside the black box: The socio-economic shaping of technology

Social constructivism

Social constructivism (Chapter 5) starts from a critique of technological determinism, instead attempting to show how technology has been socially shaped, viewing it as a cultural product. It is thus necessary to get inside the actors as they ‘make’ technology. It starts from the assumption (from early 1980’s Sociology of Scientific Knowledge) that scientific and technological knowledge is no different in nature from other knowledge systems, so is susceptible to ethnographical and anthropological study. Technology can be regarded as ‘congealed social relations’ (Latour 1991), and it is useful to have tools that allow the study of process by which technology is stabilised.

Bijker (1995): Social Construction of Technology (SCOT)

Technology is stabilised by a consensus forming between ‘relevant social groups’ operating from different technological frames, which constrain action by defining what is an acceptable solution. Groups are identified by following the actors, supplemented by empirical study, eg of historical documents. Emphasis is on consensus building between groups.

Latour (1987) etc: Actor-Network Theory (ANT)

We cannot draw a line between ‘technological’ and ‘social’: ANT instead requires technology to be assumed to be capable intentional action. Innovation is the process of changing networks of relations to form a new stabilised set of relationships – the building of a ‘machine’ which holds the human and non-human elements together. Emphasises changing of meanings through rhetorical devices and Machiavellian politics

ICTs, in particular the internet, are already blurring the distinction between social and technical – the ‘social web’. There is ambiguity in terms such as ‘telework’ – is the technology or the social movement? ANT is argued to allow a better analysis: what the technology ‘is’, is still subject to social negotiation: Brigham and Corbett 1997’s study of the introduction of email into an organisation is cited.

Note that both these approaches still treat the underlying technological artifact as a ‘given’ and that periods of change only happen when a new technology is introduced: there is still an inherent element of technological determinism .

The next three approaches (Chapter 6) treat technology as text, attempting to break out from the last restraints of technological determinism. These seem to be a response to ICT, where it is indeed difficult to define what the technology is capable of: organisational and political factors determine much of how ICT is used.

Starting with ‘residual essentialists’:

Hill: The Tragedy of Technology (1991)

Considers the level of transparency – distinguishes how to use machines from how to make them work as an example of different levels of opacity, with implications for supplying technology to the third world, for instance. “A machine-system only makes sense as a machine when it is located in a physical and cultural context …” [Hill 1988:43] – eg knowledge of the road transport system is needed when using a car.

Zuboff: In the age of the Smart Machine (1988)

Computer mediation of work is seen as an extension of advanced industrial societies’ culture of the written word (objective and autonomous texts) thought informating (as opposed to automating). The effect is to thin out action-centred and oral cultures, but also to create a source of instruction and empowerment, providing the basis for a creative transformation of the nature of work. However Nohria and Eccles (1992) point out the distinction between electronic networks (removing many personal non-verbal cues) and networked organisations (where personal interaction is crucial): automating human interaction is fundamentally mistaken (cf Scacchi (2002) report on the automation of the acquisition process for DoD).

There is a parallel to the insight in Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) – Checkland & Scholes (199:A10) that it might be possible to model a hard system, but higher level, softer systems have multiple interpretations, and the task is to negotiate between them. An obvious difference is that SSM practitioners want to make a difference: “analysis is not enough”.

Grint and Woolgar (1991-1994)

Woolgar and Grint are post-essentialists. They argue that both Hill and Zuboff still assume that there is an objective view of what a technology is capable of. Instead, technology is really subject to continual negotiation and redefinition – within a limited number of readings determined by the ‘organisation of the text’. I see similarities to the concept of ‘affordances’ Normans (1998).
Turning to system development, even the socio-technical approach advocated by most modern design methodologies is not enough.

Users cannot say what they want because there is no fixed and immutable account available… as to what the technology is and what it can do 113

The design process can be seen as ‘configuring the user’: that is, ensuring that users interact with the system in a predictable and desired manner. In my experience, users change by interaction with a new system, leading to an interactive process of learning and re-engineering – it is not clear to me whether this the same as W&G are talking about.

Constructivism then allows a view of history as contingent and multidirectional rather than linear. Technology does not only have “a determining capability, but also a determinant character” especially in the context of the indeterminacy of the character of ICTs, and the text metaphor allows a new understanding [116]

The actor-network and text metaphors have been criticised as too weak (Black 1993), leading to an inability to intervene in public debates with meaningful insights and arguably losing sight of real facts (Dawkins 1994 – he’d rather fly in a jumbo jet than a magic carpet no matter how similar the surrounding discourse, or the debate on the relative effectiveness of in guns and roses in killing people). Also, the (social, economic) context behind the ‘text’ are ignored (Williams and Russell 1987) – there is no ability to explain why one narrative wins over another, in terms of social and gender power balances for example.

Social Shaping Perspective

The next logic step (described in Chapter 7) is to study the social and economic factors which shape technological evolution [Edge 1995], recognising that much technological change is gradually evolutionary, driven by responses to deficiencies in the operation of existing technology. Rationality of decisions is context-dependent, for instance the calculation of economic costs and benefit is subject to the perspective of the person preparing or criticising the business case.

The social shaping perspective introduces the concept of ‘full feedback’ between all the 5 stages in the classic model of a progression from idea, design and use through to effects.

It … makes more sense to view the relationship between technology and social variables… as one of mutual shaping [127]

This allows an explanation of how technology remains malleable during all the phases, and social/power structures can direct innovation. (There is an extensive discussion of gender issues, omitted because not relevant to my study programme)

ICT is particularly susceptible to this: it is configurational rather than generic (like a bicycle). Innovation occurs during implementation; this process is named innofusion (Fleck 1987) [p132] – requiring dynamic, ongoing collaboration between the supplier as the repository of generic knowledge and the user organisation with its tacit business knowledge, plus politics, working together to define how the system should be implemented. [p135]. This leads back to the realm of SSM and ICT consultancy methodologies generally.

In this view, stops making sense to treat ICTs as an external variable: “…implementation problems… reflect lack of fit between the social relations [where the application was developed] and the actual circumstances of the user” [Williams 1997a: 176]

The socio-technical approach of the 1950-60s focussed on changes to the organisation to maximise use of the technology. In the world of innofusion, the situation is reversed: the technology is now flexible enough to be re-modelled to match the organisation’s needs, which requires a greater understanding of the soft systems that surround the formal (‘hard’) systems: the ‘socio-technical production system’.[p138]

The power of the strong socio-technical approach, with primacy given to structural factors such as the process of management/labour relations, gives little scope for the actors’ role in shaping technology or the meanings assigned to associated artifacts and systems [p140]. However other analyses to allow for a different balance – Law (1987) sees inequalities as a result of ‘the outcome of socio-technological struggles’. Grint & Woolgar (1995) criticise even this as viewing technology as determining or neutral [p142].

There has been little impact on the real world though, as much of the debate has been epistemological in nature; the socio-technical variant is more willing to be engaged.


Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
Philip K Dick

The changing models of technology reflect the changes in the technology that academics find interesting.

Can OSS be seen as a ‘technology’ in social constructivist terms. If so, the EC can be seen as a social group/actor trying to impose its view on a number of other groups

If done carefully, the open source development methodology can embody the innofusion process through the use of on-line tools such as forums, change request systems and the other e-community paraphernalia.

A puzzle for me is how the socio-economic chapter can ignore work by SSM practitioners like Checkland & Scholes.

Referred books

Not including the sources referred to by McLoughlin but not seen by me:

  1. Checkland, P & J Scholes Soft Systems Methodology in Action 2nd Edition, Wiley, 1999
  2. Norman, D The Design of Everyday Things. MIT 1998

About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and a member of the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information systems, learning, politics, society, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and, together with my lovely wife, bringing up a cat and a couple of kids.
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