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SOC8051 : The Sociology of Technology: Materialities and Agency

  • Offered for Year: 2021/22
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Gethin Rees
  • Owning School: Geography, Politics & Sociology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 1 Credit Value: 10
ECTS Credits: 5.0


Contemporary social life is highly mediated by technologies (you are likely reading this MOF on a computer or piece of paper that was produced from a printer after initially having been downloaded from a computer), but sociologists have often downplayed or outright ignored the role of objects and artefacts in social life, instead focusing upon the ways that 'knowing social agents' (humans) interact and communicate with one another (I have produced a MOF for you to read - the vehicle of dissemination is irrelevant). This module aims to address this balance by highlighting the ways material culture exists in relationships/networks with human actors, and it is the interaction between the two that enables contemporary social life, be that the role of digital communication, science and medicine, etc. The module aims to address the question of not only what role tools play in enabling contemporary social life, but also to what extent these technologies have an impact upon the users and to what extent the make-up of the object constrains or enables practices. An example here would be useful - we are all aware that we become disciplined by our computers, our fingers become used to stretching for certain keys when typing without thinking about where they are or we could find the email shortcut on our desktops without looking. In such ways, we can be seen to have become disciplined by the computer - we are working with it and have ourselves been changed by it. It is here that materiality fits in as it is through negotiating and interacting with the structure and design of the software, the physicality of it as it were (although not all tools are necessarily physical as evidenced by the email example), that we are able to collectively achieve activities and it is in this way that some scholars would say that objects have agency.

In order to understand this way of thinking about the relationship between human and non-human actors, we will focus on a school of sociological thought known as Actor-Network Theory (ANT). Scholars such as Bruno Latour, John Law, Michelle Callon, and others originating within Science and Technology Studies were unsatisfied with what they considered overly socially-deterministic explanations about the development of technologies which they saw as ignoring the properties of the technology, and the ways that humans interacted with the tool in order to make it work and improve it. For instance, Latour (2005) criticised explanations of the development of the steam engine which only focused on the pressures of English capitalism (social explanation) rather than the fact that the engine was a more efficient tool (materiality). What they considered their more 'symmetrical' understanding of the relationships between humans and objects has since expanded out of STS and into broader sociology so that this way of knowing humans and non-humans is now part of broader social theory and employed in many facets of sociological explanation.

As with all social theory, it is open to critique, and we will explore the debate between ANT and adherents of Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) (for example Barry Barnes and David Bloor) who do not see anything new in ANT, but simply semantic differences, and continue to focus on socially deterministic explanations for the relationship between humans and technologies. We will also explore criticisms of ANT from a feminist perspective (for example Wajcman) who argue that the focus on symmetry with technologies has served to ignore important questions of inequalities amongst humans.

To this end, the module aims to explore the extent to which artefacts have politics and agency, and to what extent technologies are actors equally involved in the performance and construction of social categories and kinds. Particular attention will be paid to the role of technologies in healthcare and social media communication.

Outline Of Syllabus

The module combines the use of theoretical understandings and empirical case studies of technologies in practice. Key themes and questions addressed throughout the module are as follows:

Do artefacts have politics?

• In this session, we will focus on Langdon Winner's article 'Do artefacts have politics?' to introduce the idea that, rather than technologies simply acting as value-neutral tools in interaction with humans, they can achieve certain political ends.

Do artefacts have agency?

• Following the introduction, we will then spend four sessions engaging with the key ideas of ANT and the criticisms directed at it by both those from the SSK tradition and from feminism.

Domestication of technology in healthcare and information communication technologies

• The module will end with the exploration of a detailed case study in order for students to empirically investigate the complex theoretical arguments engaged with in the preceding weeks. The case study concerns the ways technologies are incorporated into healthcare and the negotiations (between user and technology) that occur in order to make the technologies work.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Structured Guided LearningLecture materials61:006:00Pre-recorded lecture material (non-synchronous online)
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching101:0010:00PiP seminar (synchronous timetabled)
Structured Guided LearningStructured research and reading activities41:004:00Student project work/presentations (synchronous timetabled)
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study180:0080:00N/A
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

Students have the opportunity to explore one topic in some depth, to read around the topic and to marshal sources to advance an argument.

Teaching sessions are flexibly designed to incorporate a wide range of methods including lecture input, seminar discussions, workshops, student presentations and film screenings, as appropriate to the material and in response to the needs of the student group. Teaching groups are small enough to enable discussion which can include significant amounts of formative feedback.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Essay1M1002500 word essay
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

An essay is most suited to MA students wanting to choose a topic and develop their own line of argument, and choose appropriate and interesting case studies, as well as aid in the development of organisational, reading and writing skills.

Reading Lists