Socio-materiality and modes of inquiry

Anders Buch

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How can we understand the relationship between on the one hand engineers, technicians, designers, users of technology and on the other hand technological devises, products, and artifacts? In the philosophy of technology this relationship has been discussed extensively. Historically, philosophers have opted for explanatory strategies that span the spectrum from technological determinism to voluntarism. Contemporary theorizing of the problem has tried to avoid the extremes of the spectrum, and opted for a middle ground that leaves room for human agency while still recognizing the impact of technology on human activity. In Science and Technology Studies (STS) the question has been discussed as the ‘social shaping of technology’ and various theoretical frameworks have been put forward that stress the interwoven character of the social and the material, e.g. Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), Actor-Network Theory (ANT), and Agential Realism. Whereas there is general agreement in STS that the social and the material is related there is no general agreement about how the socio-material relationship should be understood. Ontological, epistemological and methodological issues tend to be interwoven in complex ways as STS researches have construed the relationship in different ways. How we understand the relationship has implications for extant notions of materiality, technology, society, agency, morality, ethics, and our ability to come to know the world we live in. This paper discusses the character of the socio-material relationship. The discussion will be guided by John Dewey’s and Arthur F. Bentley’s reflections on Knowing and the Known (1989/1948), as they distinguish between different levels of describing inquiry into the world we inhabit. At some levels of inquiry, we tend to construe the relationship between subject and object, ego and alter, in substantialist terms that render the relationship as one derived from preexisting separate entities, whereas on another more profound level of inquiry, the relationship itself is seen as the producer of difference, individuation, and substantiation. Whereas some scholars have seen the approaches of substantialism and relationalism as contrasting on (post-epistemological) ontological grounds, this paper will argue with Dewey and Bentley that substantialism and relationism are modes of inquiry that aims for description and “…representation of the world itself as men report it.” (Dewey & Bentley 1989/1948, p. 101). Following Dewey’s pragmatist lead, it is important that we avoid dichotomies – also when we discuss modes of inquiry. Ontologizing the discussion about methods of inquiry might in fact prove to be unproductive as a traditional move towards ‘first things’. Instead the discussion should look V-D3 towards ‘last things’, i.e. the experiential consequences of the activities involved in the process of inquiry. The paper will argue that substantialism and relationalism are modes of inquiry that serve different purposes, and that choosing one mode of inquiry over another can only be justified relative to the problem of the inquiry. Understanding the relationship between the social and the material thus presuppose a specification of the problem that trigger the process of inquiry.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBOOK OF ABSTRACTS 2018 : Forum on Philosophy, Engineering and Technology
Number of pages2
Publication date1 Jun 2018
Commissioning bodyForum for Philosophy, Engineering, and Technology
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2018
EventForum on Philosophy, Engineering and Technology - University of Maryland, Maryland, United States
Duration: 30 May 20181 Jun 2018
Conference number: 2018


ConferenceForum on Philosophy, Engineering and Technology
LocationUniversity of Maryland
Country/TerritoryUnited States
Internet address

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