During the last several decades, the fields of history of technology and science, technology, and society studies have served as critical venues for deepening scholarly discussions on historical explanation. This literature argues that in the modern era technology—as knowledge, practice, and material resource—has been a key site for constituting the human experience and thus for our understanding of the making and transformation of societies and cultures, on a local or transnational scale. In recent years, scholars outside these fields have taken up this insight to enrich broader historical narratives and highlight the methodological stakes in refining analytic accounts of technology’s agency.
Technology in these histories and methodological explorations is not cast as linear in effect—as determinism, momentum, or trajectory—but as a robust presence that can be used by human actors as instrument and that can itself order action, perception, and cultural relations within given contexts (a position most often associated with Bruno Latour and which has a long history in anthropological argument). In this later methodological stance, technology is theorized as embedded and a participant in those numerous, multivalent negotiations that shape cultural change—that speak fundamentally to the constitution of and relations among objects, spaces, and bodies.
This panel will look at these analytic issues through a classic lens: the intersection among urban development, modernity, and technology. Via three cases studies, this proposed session has two objectives: To explore theoretical and methodological concerns and to facilitate discussion on these concerns across historical fields. The case studies cover a broad chronological range and material and culture engagements: The formative role of lighting and associated regimes of visual and political organization in nineteenth century London (Chris Otter); an exploration of cars and the car industry in the material and cultural shaping of two German cities, Wolfsburg and Rüsselsheim (Martina Hessler and Clemens Zimmermann); and an analysis of the complex status and agency of the Berlin Wall in the life of East and West Berlin (Janet Ward).