The voyages of concepts: some critical thoughts on sociotechnical imaginaries and its application in education

I’ve always been a little bit uncertain about the concept of ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’. I’m reading Jasanoff’s Dreamscapes of Modernity in order to pin down that uncertainty and this post is an attempt to nail down two features which trouble me: the ambiguity of the singular character of a sociotechnical imaginary and the ambiguity of the possession of a sociotechnical imaginary. In doing so, I’m moving from plural to singular in a way that might seem to be contrary to the spirit of the concept but my suggestion would be this is what most, though not all, applications of it will tend to involve. In other words, what happens when we move from talking about sociotechnical imaginaries as a dimension of social life which I find very plausible to talking about putative instances of this dimension of social life.

This ambiguity has always seemed present in one of the philosophical sources which Jasanoff cites. Taylor’s concept of social imaginaries, which develops his earlier post-Heideggerian concept of the horizon, talks about the “ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations”. There’s a remarkable assembly of elements in one sentence here which fits with my sense of this as a dimension, relating to the role of implicit and explicit representations of social life (and the normative expectations associated with them) in shaping how that social life unfolds. I don’t think the constraints of this concept play out at Taylor’s level of analysing socio-cultural modernity but I suspect they’re more significant when we approach social life through a less macroscopic lens. Particularly with regards to the collective character of social imaginaries. There’s a similar multiplicity found in Jasanoff’s definition of sociotechnical imaginaries as “collectively held, institutionally stabilized and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology” (pg 4). There are lots of virtues to the concept which I accept. As Jasanoff documents from pg 322-324:

  • It cuts across disciplinary boundaries
  • It draws attention to the socio-cultural origins of technological innovations, including “the capacity of individuals and groups to see and think things differently from what was previously seen or thought” (pg 322)
  • It highlights the social embedding of ideas, emphasising the connections through which they come to be materially expressed and embodied
  • It raises the question of competing imaginaries and how their competition shapes social outcomes

However where I part ways is that overcoming dichotomies (structure/agency, descriptive/normative, material/mental) is necessary a positive thing. Instead I’d argue that dichotomies are things we need to link and convert into thinking tools rather obstacles to thought. Jasanoff talks about the “dynamic interplay between binaries that are often kept analytically distinct” (pg 323) but my hunch is that this often tips over into being what realists describe as a conflationary approach which struggles to recognise the variability within entities which binaries help us capture. I can certainly see how “advances in science and technology” stabilises this as a concept by giving a common point of orientation but each of the other elements: (a) collectively held (b) institutionally stabilized (c) publicly performed (d) animated by share understandings must surely vary independently in the degree to which these conditions are met. If we accept this point then to what extent are we talking about the same kind of thing when we compare sociotechnical imaginaries which are significantly different along these dimensions? The point I’m interested in exploring is the internal differentiation within sociotechnical imaginaries, how the concept relates to the possibility of this difference and what this means for how it circulates and is put to work within particular fields of inquiry. There’s much more I have to in order to substantiate this critique, particularly with regards to the sequencing of their development outlined in the conclusion (origins –> embedding –> resistance –> extension) but this is the first attempt at something I intend to come back to.

The initial formulation of sociotechnical imaginaries by Jasanoff and Kim described “collectively imagined forms of social life and social order reflected in the design and fulfilment of nation-specific scientific and/or technological projects” (cited pg 4 of Dreamscapes). The importance of this concept is clear here in that it reclaims the cultural imagination involved in the development and implementation of technological systems, as opposed to seeing them in terms of the inexorable unfolding of a technological logic. But it also highlights the limitations: who is the collective? The volume I’m reading is in part an attempt to answer this question and she offers refinements at the start of the book to explain how this is “not limited to nation-states” (which is good because I don’t see how a nation-state can imply a non-imagined collective substantial enough to underwrite the imagination invoke) but rather “can be articulated and propagated by other organised groups, such as corporations, social movements, and professional societies”. This can include “the visions of single individuals or small collectives” which can build coalitions to spread their visions but it only ‘rises’ “to the status of imaginary” when the originator’s vision is “communally adopted” (pg 4). Why? I find this distinction conceptually curious because it implies something akin to what analytical sociologists describe as aggregation dynamics. Individuals and networks have their own imaginations which coalesce into coalitions and circulate further as they find sponsors and win influence. However there comes a point where it is collective enough to be consecrated with the epithet imaginary.

There’s an underlying ambiguity to what makes something communal here. I think it has the same problems which a critic like Stephen Turner has so astutely analysed in relation to concepts like practice and normativity. What’s the difference between individual convergence (aggregated through networks as people influence each other) and communal adoption? It’s easy to make the case that ‘communal’ is merely an epithet invoked to underwrite an observed effect i.e. it’s not spread because it’s communal, instead we call it communal because it has spread. In practice this is an empirical matter but one the language of communal adoption (and sociotechnical imaginary more broadly) risks closing down rather than opening up. I can see why Jasanoff wants to embrace this because “ascribing a fixed ontological status to sociotechnical imaginaries might “become overwhelming and superficial, elevating any and every act of projection or prediction to the status of an imaginary” (pg 339) but I’d suggest the ‘communal status’ is an unhelpful way of doing this ontological gatekeeping. It’s also, as I suggest below, precisely the sort of conceptual qualification likely to drop out when the concept goes on a voyage.

In parallel to this is the ontology of collectives which gets glossed over if we see imagination as ascending to the status of imaginary at some more or less unspecified point of communal adoption. Consider the different collective agents which Jasanoff invokes: corporations, social movements and professional societies. Each of these will have different styles of imagination, varying mechanisms to generate them and different material interests which are expressed through them. In fact each in turn will be composed of different collectives which distinctive imaginaries. Within the Labour party there are distinct imaginaries about the parties future but within each of the subgroups we commonly think in terms of (e.g. ‘left’, ‘centre’, ‘right’) there are a whole panoply of groups with distinctive and competing visions of the future. I should stress that Jasanoff recognises competition between imaginaries but I can’t see that she recognises competition within imaginaries. Once they attain their communal status, they seem to regarded as singular, devoid of internal tensions and contradictions. If I’m right in this, please correct me if I’ve just not read enough of her work, I think it’s a serious analytical problem which is propped up and glossed over by the aforementioned issue of what constitutes the communal.

I certainly see its value as what Jasanoff calls a ‘voyaging concept’ i.e. “it facilitates theorizing across disciplinary boundaries by taking in ordinarily neglected dimensions of social thought and practice” (pg 221). Furthermore, it has has a great deal of utility for recurrent methodological and analytical challenges which STS confronts as she documents on pg 21-24. However if we take concept work seriously then we should judge concepts in part by the work they do on these voyages, particularly if this was an explicit intention in their formulation. It therefore follows that what I’m describing as the conceptual constraints of sociotechnical imaginaries aren’t merely a matter of ontological nitpicking but rather constitutive features that can have significant effects as the concept itself travels. If I’m going to pursue this line of thought, I want to investigate how the concept is put to use within particular studies as it travels. To what extent are these conceptual tools simply imported within a field like critical ed tech? How do these conceptual ambiguities manifest as the concept travels across disciplinary borders and is put to work in new domains? I’m not sure I’ll ever get round to actually doing this but I think it would be a fun (and useful) paper to write.

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