Historical narrative and the representation of the complexity of interactions that link institutions, professions, organizations, knowledge, artifacts, and actors: Atsushi Akera on history and sociology of science and technology

David Hounshell characterizes Akera’s book Calculating a Natural World well when he says, as quoted on the book’s cover, that it “takes many of the familiar developments in the early history of digital electronic computing and recasts them so as to reveal the ‘ecologies of knowledge’ that gave rise to them, were transformed by them, and, in turn, further shaped these artifacts and practices… Akera thoughtfully relies on—and contributes to—constructivist and post-constructivist social theory, all the while basing his narrative on detailed historical research.”  The strength of the book—and of the articles that precede it—lies in the dialogue between the shaping of historical narrative and the representation of the complexity of interactions that link institutions, occupations/professions, organizations, knowledge, artifacts, and actors.  This dialogue presses at the limits on (or limitations of) both narrative and theoretical representation, especially with respect to: avoiding the determination of any layer of (or slice through) the complexity; capturing the interpretative openness (as against hermeneutic closure) for actors; and conveying the contingency and indeterminate quality of changes and of failed initiatives.

Consistent with this framing, Akera proposes that “the immense productivity of research during the Cold War era resulted from the productive tensions between institutions” (CANW, p. 4).   In contrast to the “relatively smooth process” by which the co-production of technology and social context has often been portrayed, Akera is interested in the “often-friction-ridden interplay of institutions, ideas, artifacts, and practices” (p.7).  His cases studies of Cold War research show that “[t]ensions and differences often produced redundant, over-ambitious, and incoherent research programs” (p. 10).  History of technology, he contends, needs to value the study of failure and to “make the notion of failure relative if one’s goal is to document the less linear paths of innovation” (p. 338).  In the spirit of symbolic interactionist sociology, Akera draws “attention to the contingent and indeterminate nature of institutional change” (p. 339), thus counterbalancing the functionalist emphasis he sees in some broader-brush historical sociology of technology.  Formation of new professions and forms of organizing technology “often occurred at the intersection of multiple institutions and disciplines,” and involved “recombining prior knowledge and preexisting institutional forms,” and various actors “letting go” of some commitments in order to forge new associations (p. 343).

Such theoretical themes are evident from the earliest of Akera’s essays.  “Engineers or Managers” (2000) describes post- World War II engineers venturing into marketing, operations research, and project management, re-engineering computers to “meet the needs of administrators as opposed to scientists” (p.191-2).  The National Bureau of Standards was involved in a variety of initiatives along these lines, but was never able to take a commanding position.  The detailed historical narrative in this essay allows Akera to build up to theoretically informed discussion in which he notes how, on one hand, the flexibility of this history resonates with a symbolic interactionist (or social worlds) emphasis on “specific sites of interaction where social reproduction and transformation occur” (p. 212), while, on the other hand, the persistence of some ideas and distinctions in the narrative provides an opportunity to reintegrate the social structure that is un(der)theorized in symbolic interactionism.  The Technology and Culture article (2001) similarly narrates a non-deterministic development of professions and organizational change.  The 1950s IBM user group, Share, originated as an attempt to reduce programming costs, but contributed to the development of occupational identities among the recruits, who had been drawn from a variety of established occupations.  Moreover, Share required corporate collaboration in contrast to the conventional expectation of competition for resources.  The Business History Review article (2002) shows how the research specialists who made up IBM’s Applied Science department developed as “agents of their customers rather than agents of IBM” (p. 795) and, while their initiatives were not always being successful, the result was that “a firm situated outside the traditional defense industries forged new institutional alliances between business and government and between science and industry” (p. 767).

The Social Studies of Science article (2007) on ecologies of knowledge builds wonderfully on the historical-theoretical work of the book and earlier essays.  It gives a stronger analytic purchase to the idea of ecology of knowledge (EoK) and lays the basis for a practical methodology.  Often EoK has been used to refer in general terms to the heterogeneous complexity of factors, resources, and relationships implicated in the production of knowledge.  This paper gets more specific.  It explores a layered representation for an EoK in which layers correspond to different representational scales, e.g., actors,… occupations,… institutions,… historical events.  This approach focuses on the whole-part relationship (metonymy) and facilitates the study of the dynamic relationships among the layers as they develop over time.  The more encompassing entities can be seen as metonymically instantiated through local practices, a move that avoids imputation of causality “to entities that reside on one side or the other of the sociotechnical divide” (p. 417).  This is not an abstract schematization but is well illustrated through diagrammatic and textual reconstructions of historical case studies, such as Vannevar Bush’s research program centered around the differential analyzer and the emergence of systems programming as an occupation after World War II.

Akera advances four main uses of this multi-layered representation of EoK: 1) visualizations (or diagrammatic depictions) of EoK can help in elaborating on the relationships described in historical and sociological narratives and in pointing to relationships that were not evident or explicitly stated; 2) questions posed within any one layer can be illuminated, e.g., concerning the development of technical professions; 3) more precise understandings of concepts in STS can be produced, e.g., “technoscience”; and 4) through mapping the different methodologies employed in the various areas of STS—especially as they relate to the broader scope of social analyses—more reflexive understanding of the use of these methodologies can emerge.

Akera claims that this representation of EoK is a phenomenological not epistemological project (p. 415), but I believe he is overly cautious or modest here.  After all, he is asking us not simply to note the existence of heterogeneous, scale-spanning complexity, with its associated contingency and indeterminacy, but to struggle with its analysis and visualization.  Philosophy of science and theory in SSS does not yet have a strong handle on this. As Akera notes, each of his suggested uses of the EoK representation brings “historical evidence into sociology [not] by pitting the particularism of history against the generalizations of social theory, but by encouraging the use of the empirical wealth of history, as mediated by the representation, to support a more grounded appraoch to social theory” (p. 435).  This essay is careful, thoughtful, and thought-provoking and I look forward to future rereadings—as well as to re-viewings of the innovative flash animations of his case studies from his publications.  I believe other readers who have followed the STS scholarship on heterogeneous complexity, actor-network theory, ecologies of knowledge will be greatly stimulated by this contribution. Akera refers to this project as a parallel line of inquiry to research on his book projects, but I expect (or hope) it will not move onto the backburner as he and others, including myself use it to stimulate the thinking and inquiry of our graduate students and colleagues.

written August 2007


Atsushi Akera.

2000. Engineers or Managers? The Systems Analysis of Electronic Data Processing in the Federal Bureaucracy, ” in Systems, Experts and Computers, ed. Agatha Hughes and Thomas Hughes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

2001. Voluntarism and the Fruits of Collaboration: The IBM User Group, Share.  Technology and Culture – 42(4): 710-736

2002. IBM’s Early Adaptation to Cold War Markets: Cuthbert Hurd and His Applied Science Field Men, Business History Review 76: 767-802.

2007. Calculating a natural world:
scientists, engineers, and computers during the rise of U.S. cold war research.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

2007. Constructing a Representation for an Ecology of Knowledge: Methodological Advances in the Integration of Knowledge and its Various Contexts, Social Studies of Science, 37(3): 413-441


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