SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

How to think about technological change

Researchers publish toolkit of theories or concepts most useful at explaining socio-technical diffusion and transitions

We live in a world where the design of technological systems increasingly affects our basic institutions such as education, the media, government, and business. Whether we are thinking about new information or biomedical technologies, rebuilding a region after a natural disaster, or averting climate change, how we think about technological change matters. 

Researchers at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom and Vanderbilt University in the United States have released a toolkit of theories or concepts most useful at explaining socio-technical diffusion and transitions. This involves a catalogue of 96 distinct theories and conceptual approaches spanning 22 disciplines.  Fourteen of these theories were mentioned with consistent frequency across the sample of experts interviewed for the study. These are:

  1. Sociotechnical Transitions / the Multi-Level Perspective
  2. Social Practice Theory / Theories of Practice
  3. Discourse Theory
  4. Domestication Theory
  5. Large Technical Systems
  6. Social Construction of Technology
  7. Sociotechnical Imaginaries
  8. Actor-Network Theory
  9. Social Justice Theory
  10. Sociology of Expectation
  11. Sustainable Development
  12. Values Beliefs Norms Theory
  13. Lifestyle Theory
  14. The Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology

The study – “Ordering theories: Typologies and conceptual frameworks for sociotechnical change” - places such diverse theories into five general categories of being centered on agency, structure, meaning, relations or norms. They can also be classified based on their assumptions and goals rooted in functionalism, interpretivism, humanism or conflict.

Professor Benjamin Sovacool, lead author of the study and Director of the Center on Innovation and Energy Demand, which examines energy innovation and transitions, said he found the results “surprising.”  As he notes:

“I never expected that surveying a mere 35 social science experts would result in almost 100 theories, 14 of them discussed with some frequency. It suggests that the conceptual power of the academy is diverse but also fragmented—analysts and researchers have an abundance of tools available to them, each with their own assumptions and history.” 

The results suggest that different theories accommodate (and may incentivize) different methods. For example, some theories are mostly examined through surveys or experiments on individuals and others through historical or case study accounts. Although researchers are wise to avoid over-commitment to theory to the point that it biases the interpretation of qualitative data, a variety of strategies can work. In ethnographic, qualitative work, a more flexible approach to theory may be warranted, whereas in quantitative work the goal is often to begin with theories and use data narrowly to test and elaborate theories.

“This project should be valuable to students and practitioners alike because it is the first study to chart the diversity of approaches to studies of technological change,”

said David J. Hess, co-author and Professor of Sociology and Associate Director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and Environment at Vanderbilt University.

“Rather than supporting any particular framework, this study provides a menu of options and set of questions that can help guide the choice of analytical frameworks.”

In addition, epistemological assumptions matter, and not all theories can be combined or are compatible. A meta-theoretical perspective does not necessarily require that all or many theories be integrated – merely that different representations are accounted for and that researchers think through the match between theoretical frameworks and research goals. This approach could be seen as akin to hypothesis testing, where different theories could be applied to a single research question or topic, and then analyzed for the best fit or strongest exploratory power. 

Lastly, the research community may want to rethink what is typically meant by ‘triangulation’, traditionally understood as using multiple methods (for example, a literature review plus survey or interviews) to cross-validate results. The study suggests that triangulation may be needed not only between data and theory but also across theory types.

Ultimately, the study implies that we need to remain cognizant that theoretical frameworks not only open minds but also close off researchers into particular networks – theories can discipline and socialize in ways that constrain, rather than expand, knowledge. Theorization and concepts about technology and society may be too important and too potentially useful to remain trapped within disciplines.

Notes

The full study – “Ordering theories: Typologies and conceptual frameworks for sociotechnical change” – is available in the October 2017 volume of Social Studies of Science.

Citation: Sovacool, B.K. and Hess, D.J., 2017, Ordering theories: Typologies and conceptual frameworks for sociotechnical change, Social Studies of Science, 47(5) (October, 2017), 703–750.