From Determinism to Synergy: Technologies and Institutions in the 20th-Century United States

AHA Session 327
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Governor's Square 15 (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
The Audience

Session Abstract

Whether through the lens of social construction, systems analysis, actor-network theory, or other analytical frameworks, historians of technology have shown that the development, use, and spread of technologies occurs within a broader socio-cultural context.[i] This context consists of a system of interconnecting and overlapping institutions—defined by Avner Grief as “system(s) of rules, beliefs, norms and organizations that together generate a regularity of behavior,”— that human beings create to alleviate uncertainty, establish guidelines for personal interactions, and understand the world around them.[ii] Economic historian Douglass North argued that institutions provide the incentive structure for innovation and thus “determine economic and political performance,” but the relationship between institutions and technologies goes far beyond a linear, deterministic connection.[iii] While technologies may arise out of pressures generated by formal and informal institutions, they also engender changes in existing institutions as well as the creation of new institutions to mitigate potential negatives and delineate their proper use within society.

The four papers in this panel go beyond the genius inventor paradigm and linear determinisms to analyze how institutions shaped and were shaped by technological developments. Whether focusing on the first federal regulation of civil aviation in the 1920s, the development and application of the F-15 and F-16, the role of women’s organizations in the creation and diffusion of traffic safety standards during the 1950s, or the post-World War II regulatory dialogue surrounding the computer, they analyze how the mutually formative relationship between technologies and political, economic, and cultural institutions at the local, state, national, and international levels contributed to and reflected broader changes within the twentieth-century United States.

[i] Examples include Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch, eds., The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1987); Ruth Swartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1983); Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983); Donald Mackenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990); and Steven W. Usselman, Regulating Railroad Innovation: Business, Technology, and Politics in America, 1840–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[ii] Avner Grief, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 30.

[iii] Douglass North, Understanding the Process of Economic Change (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 2.

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