technological determinism 4959

the ascription of agency to a thing and of the
marginalizing of human intervention.
Nowadays, technological determinism is con
sidered a discredited thesis about the nature of
society. Few social scientists today would
describe themselves as technological determi
nists without qualifying the description consid
erably. A lingering technological determinism
can sometimes be discerned in approaches that
seek to depict technology as both cause and
effect (e.g., Hughes 1994).
Technological determinism was particularly
influential in sociological studies of work and
organizations. In the 1950s and 1960s, studies
of work contexts like the automobile assembly
line frequently construed the largely negative
work attitudes of workers as directly produced
by the technology with which they worked.
The most sophisticated version of this approach
can be discerned in Blauner (1964), where four
different production technologies in US indus
try (craft, machine tending, assembly line, and
process) were examined. Blauner showed that
levels of work alienation varied systematically
by the prevailing technology in the industries
concerned. Another prominent study was Wood
wards (1965) British investigation of tech
nology in relation to organization structure.
Woodward showed that structures varied by
the prevailing technology of the organization
in terms of characteristics like the flatness of
the hierarchy. The suggestion that it was neces
sary to achieve a good fit between technology
and organization structure was perceived as a
corrective to the view that there could be uni
versal laws of administration that could be
applied without regard to an organizations spe
cial circumstances.
A number of problems with technological
determinism have been identified. First, it is
pointed out that a technology is designed with
specific purposes and applications in mind, so
that the effects that technological determi
nists claim to identify are in fact natural out
comes of how designers envisioned its purpose.
Secondly, it is often observed that a technology
can be implemented in several different ways,
so that the supposed outcomes of its application
are in fact the result of the ways in which it is
introduced and executed (e.g., Buchanan &
Boddy 1983). Third, technologies are interpre
tively flexible and as such can be construed in
different ways by those responsible for making
them operational and by users (Grint & Wool
gar 1997). Fourth, in the context of work situa
tions, it is often pointed out that people bring
to the workplace a variety of orientations that
will also play a significant role in conditioning
their work attitudes and behavior (e.g., Gold
thorpe et al. 1968).
While technological determinism is fre
quently seen as outdated, it should not be
replaced with the equally extreme view that
technologies have no implications for human
affairs, since technologies are responsible for
constraining responses to them, as several wri
ters have observed (e.g., Law 1992; Orlikowski

SEE ALSO: Actor Network Theory; Organi
zation Theory; Organizational Contingencies;
Scientific Knowledge, Sociology of; Technol
ogy, Science, and Culture; Work, Sociology of


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Buchanan, D. A. & Boddy, D. (1983) Organizations
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Goldthorpe, J. H., Lockwood, D., Bechhofer, F., &
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Grint, K. & Woolgar, S. (1997) The Machine at
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Woodward, J. (1965) Industrial Organization: Theory
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