Where did all the big questions go? Or…Why the sociology of technology isn’t and shouldn’t be a thing…

The ghost of “modern technology,” in the form of human-made artifacts and systems of all kinds, has haunted sociology since Weber. Wide-reaching critiques of the mass production technologies that enabled the reproduction of culture were leveled by the Frankfurt School in the 1930s-1940s. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the scathing critiques of Veblen, Ellul, and Marcuse, became influential across the U.S.; they warned of the rationalizing, flattening, and even de-humanizing effects of modern technologies of production, consumption and war. These theorists were all concerned with the effects of technology on culture, our idea of the human person, and the nature of our relationships to each other. Their work raised big, important questions about the human encounter with our own products, and the potentially disastrous consequences of ignoring these questions for too long. ¬†These theorists did not see themselves as sociologists of technology, but of culture, politics, and social institutions. They wrote on technology because of its important effects on the institutions they cared about, often remaining frustratingly vague about the technologies as objects or systems in and of themselves. However, after the denouement of the Vietnam war, and at the outset of the digital age, this kind of sociology about technology ceased, and a new flavor emerged. One that, in reaction to the previous school, was almost exclusively concerned with specificity around exactly what kind of technologies they were concerned with, how they were designed, and the very specific effects of these designs on the people who used them. But, the big questions disappeared, and have yet to reappear.

The people I find the most compelling are not the sociologists of technology, but the cultural sociologists who end up writing about technology because its impossible to ignore in explaining what it is they’re actually interested in (whether its changes in the family, in the workplace, etc.). But, isn’t this the case with all of our intellectual passions? One of the big reasons we idea-mongers get fired up about a particular topic is precisely because it raises what we feel are big, consequential questions in both our own lives and the lives of others.

But, our professionalization into our discipline often has the effect of dividing what should be united, and of specializing what ought to remain general. What if the sections of the ASA were structured around questions instead of “subfield” topics? Wouldn’t it be more fun to pay $20 and join an actual conversation (instead of those metaphorical “cocktail parties” our advisors tell us to imagine) with people all wondering the same thing as you?

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One thought on “Where did all the big questions go? Or…Why the sociology of technology isn’t and shouldn’t be a thing…

  1. Yes! It is so frustrating that the theory section is the catch all for big questions! Joining a conversation would be a great alternative to joining 3 or 4 sections in the hopes you find some one else who use those subfields as avenues to broader inquiry!

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