22 Jul 2022 Review of Wiebe E. Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change
Bijker, the author of the book Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change was, according to his own statement in the book, drawn to the science-technology-society (STS) movement already back in the 1970s. The book itself was published in 1995 by the MIT Press. While Bikers was drawn to the STS movement because of its goal to “enrich the curricula of both universities and secondary schools by offering new ways to explore issues such as the risks of nuclear energy, the proliferation of nuclear arms, and environmental degradations”, I was drawn to STS and actor-network approach in particular for my doctoral Environmental Protection interdisciplinary study and research.
As one of the reviewers of this book on Goodreads, Juliana Torres, already mentioned, this book is a good introduction to STS. I would add that it’s a very good introduction indeed, particularly because of the very understandable style of Bijkers’ writing, as opposed for example to Bruno Latours’ style of writing, which is sometimes difficult to apprehend. I regret not reading this book sooner, or at least before the bulk of the work of the mentioned Latour. Bijker is very methodical, and he explains at the beginning of the book that “within the constructivist research program we can distinguish between three lines of work:
- the systems approach,
- the actor-network approach, and
- the social construction of technology (SCOT) approach.”
Bijker developed and wrote this book mainly from the SCOT studies perspective but is convinced that its arguments are of “general relevance to the whole spectrum of modern constructivist studies.” To me, that was certainly the case, although I intend to develop my doctoral thesis mainly by the actor-network approach.
There is one more parallel, why this book is relevant to me and possible to other scholars, students, and movements of various kinds. Simultaneously, a year before I enrolled for my doctoral study in 2018, I started a movement, or I rather call it an initiative, to re-construct and re-open the cross-border railway lines in Slovenia that were either abandoned or dismantled or both after the second world war, in the times of the cold war. I didn’t anticipate at the start of my doctoral study that I could somehow connect my activist work and my thesis research. But that is what I intended to do when I came upon the actor-network approach as a possible method in my research. Bijkers’ central argument for this book is that “STS can retain its edge even in the academy, that what started as a detour can be turned into a main route without necessarily losing its societal relevance.”
The core of this book consists of three, at the first glance unconnected, case studies:
- the bicycle, or safety bicycle as Bikers is calling it;
- Bakelite; and
- the fluorescent lamp.
With this book Bijker focuses on the “elementary innovations” and the object of his book evolves from elementary technical artifacts to “sociotechnical ensembles.” Bijker rather convincingly argues that he selected these three cases as some sort of the master plan, although I rather doubt that that was really the case. Anyway, these three cases “span most of the period after the second industrial revolution:
- the bicycle covers 1860–1890;
- Bakelite, 1880–1920; and
- the fluorescent lamp, 1930-1945.”
The cases also vary in their engineering background, from mechanical engineering (the bicycle), to chemical engineering (Bakelite), and to electrical engineering (fluorescent lamp). Bicycle case is part of the consumer market, Bakelite is part of the industrial market and the lamp market is a hybrid market, covering both consumer and industrial markets. Bicycle and fluorescent lamp cases are both product inventions, whereas Bakelite is mostly a process invention.
This book is actually four books in one and this is one of its greatest strengths. Case studies could each fit into a separate book and they focus primarily on “design, biography, and economics, respectively.” The greatest strength of this book is its fourth chapter which presents “a comparative analysis of changes in technology and society.”
The first case of the safety bicycle is rather descriptive. Bijker used the descriptive model that goes from relevant social groups to interpretative flexibility to lastly closure and stabilization.
The second case was completely new to me, as I had no idea what Bakelite is and what does it mean. But in the past, Bakelite was supposed to be a very known trade name, for example, Biker is citing one research that claims that in the 1920s to 1930s the word Bakelite was known to 70 percent of the adult population in Germany. So for all us others, the inventor of Bakelite was Leo Baekeland, who, in Bijkers’ words, not only “successfully constructed a new plastic but also a specific historical account of that invention.”
In this case, Biker developed further his technological frame and claims that a “technological frame offers both the central problems and the related strategies for solving them.” The technological frame is supposed to provide “the vocabulary for social interaction, the forming of social groups, and the constitution of a world.” Ambitious goals, especially the last one. Viewed from the semiotic perspective a technological frame is supposed to mirror technological development, provide the vocabulary for forming artifacts, and constitute another type of the world.
Biker, rather convincingly, claims that the development of Bakelite is not to be contributed to the “grand duke, wizard, and bohemian” of Leo Baekeland, but rather that “his status as an inventing genius is the result of the social construction of Bakelite, not the cause.”
The third case is again a completely specific one, that is why I remain doubtful of the choice to consider these three cases as part of the Bijkers’ plan from the beginning. Bijker says that he choose this case because he wanted to show that the social constructivist form of analysis is not limited to cases only where “technology is actually under construction.” The actual designers of the fluorescent lamp were namely “not engineers at their drawing boards but managers at a business meeting.”
Out of all these three cases, Bijker has argued further for the use of his technological frame. He does acknowledge that the technological frame is “one of the many children” of Thomas Samuel Kuhn’s most cited book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and his disciplinary matrix. At the same time, the technological frame is also similar to Edward Constant II book The Origins of Turbojet Revolution and its tradition of practice.
Bijker has differentiated his technological frame in two important aspects from the others. The technological frame is supposed to be “more heterogeneous than disciplinary matrices and related concepts.” And in Bijkers’ opinion even more important, “the concept of technological frame is meant to apply to all the relevant social groups, not only to engineers.” Bijker admits his own linguistic clumsiness by proposing a possibly better phrase for the “technological frame”, namely “frame with respect to technology.”
To me, it was fascinating to realize that Bijker combined three rather different and unconnected cases by his technological frame. This was the part that I was very much convinced of. Bijker has definitely contributed to the STS remaining its edge in the academy. What I remained unconvinced of is its societal relevance. In the concluding chapter, Bijker mentioned that “if you buy a car, … you become included in the semiotic structure of automobiling: cars-roads-rules-traffic-jams-gas prices-taxes. … If you choose not to own a car, jams and oil prices simply do not matter.” While I couldn’t agree more, I think this should be somehow more elaborated and connected with the cases presented. I do try to acknowledge that the book was published back in 1995, though. Possibly this is the point where we, other STS researchers should proceed.