As signalled in the last entry (26 Oct 2022), today’s contribution addresses a concept that is attracting a good deal of attention in social and political theory – “sociotechnical imaginaries” (Rudek 2022).
To deal adequately with this wide-ranging topic of “sociotechnical imaginaries”, I introduce a novel format. In the first section of this entry I offer introductory comments on “sociotechnical imaginaries” and raise several questions about its possible usefulness as a concept in tandem with WPR. The subsequent section consists of contributions from three Symposium participants who found merit in bringing WPR and “sociotechnical imaginaries” into conversation (Svea Kiesewetter, Lina Rahm, Johanna Tangnäs). I hope that opening up an exchange of views on this topic proves useful to readers.
To begin I follow the convention of offering a definition of “sociotechnical imaginaries” from Sheila Jasanoff, who is commonly associated with the development of the concept. She describes “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.” (Jasanoff 2015: 6).
It is useful to note that this definition offers a reworking of an earlier definition that associated sociotechnical imaginaries with nation-states: “collectively imagined forms of social life and social order reflected in the design and fulfillment of nation-specific scientific and/or technological projects” (Jasanoff and Kim 2009: 120; emphasis added).
I raise this point because I want to flag my concern with tendencies for the concept (“sociotechnical imaginaries”) to homogenize belief systems. Both the earlier and later definitions refer to “sociotechnical imaginaries” as “collectively imagined”. An important question that arises, I believe, is just exactly what “collective” is at work in these “imaginings”.
In relation to this question Jasanoff (2015: 18; emphasis added) associates her identified imaginaries with “the distinctive political and constitutional cultures … of sovereign nations and their polities”. She and Kim (2013: 190; emphasis added) refer, for example, to “the American sociotechnical imagination”.
This invocation of “political culture” as a “source” of “sociotechnical imaginaries” requires further analysis, in my view. Elsewhere (Bacchi 1996: 35-37) I offer a genealogy of “political culture” in an attempt to disrupt this tendency to take “political cultures” for granted as ways of characterizing the belief systems of groups of people/citizens. To this end I trace references to a distinctive, univocal American political culture to the emergence of the concept “political culture” in the 1920s. The term gained appeal as a way to smooth over concerns about American’s instability in a time of strikes, riots and protests.
Tracing this genealogy of the emergence of the concept “political culture” shows us that “political culture” is not a thing; it is a political category and a concept that has effects – here conveying the impression of national homogeneity, which Fabian (1983: 156) labels a kind of “panculturalism” homogenizing dissent. Any suggestion that “sociotechnical imaginaries” find their origins in national political cultures, therefore, raises a question about the way in which the term may suppress recognition of contestation of the assumed norms in any selected imaginary.
In the elaboration of the later definition, Jasanoff (2015: 5) identifies groups other than nation-states that can produce “sociotechnical imaginaries” – corporations, social movements and professional societies. She spells out how an imaginary can also “originate in the visions of single individuals” but rises to the status of an imaginary “only when the originator’s vision comes to be communally adopted” (Jasanoff 2015: 5). Again, the tendency in this analysis to produce a homogenous body of beliefs needs some comment. Jasanoff acknowledges the possibility of multiple imaginaries coexisting within a society; however, tensions within any identified imaginary tend to be unexamined.
Here it is important to reflect on theoretical connections to Charles Taylor’s work on “social imaginaries”, which Jasanoff readily acknowledges. Prefiguring Jasanoff, Taylor notes that what begins as “just an idea in the minds of some influential thinkers”, later comes to “shape the social imaginary of large strata and then eventually whole societies” (Taylor 2004: 2 in Blattberg 2006: 2). Taylor’s goal is clear – to gain access to the self-expressions of a community. This hermeneutical focus sits uncomfortably with WPR where the views or self-expressions of “subjects” are not a target of analysis (see Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982).
Jasanoff (2015) positions “sociotechnical imaginaries” between two important literatures, the construction of imaginaries in political and cultural history (referring to Taylor) on one side and of sociotechnical systems in STS (thinking of Actor Network theory) on the other side. She turns to the latter to illustrate that “sociotechnical imaginaries” do not simply target “ideas” as fantasies, but that “sociotechnical imaginaries” have material effects.
It is in relation to this argument that a link is drawn to performativity theory. The widely used definition of “sociocultural imaginaries” (quoted above) includes, as a criterion for imaginaries, that they are publicly performed. In the last two entries in the Research Hub (29 Sept 2022, 26 Oct 2022) I have been exploring the various uses of “performativity” in contemporary social and political theory. Here I would suggest that the focus on public performance in Jasanoff and Kim marks quite a different form of intervention from the focus in WPR on “performatives” as constitutive (see Bacchi Keynote Address, 17 August 2022, https://kauplay.kau.se/media/t/0_mdcx7ijc).
At the same time, however, Jasanoff and Kim (2013: 190) describe “sociotechnical imaginaries” as “forces” that impel social change. They note: “Though never strictly determinative of policy outcomes, sociotechnical imaginaries are powerful cultural resources that help shape social responses to innovation”. While this dynamic could be described as “performative” I remain concerned about the tendency to produce “sociotechnical imaginaries” as “things” that make things happen. To achieve this effect, as noted earlier, tensions and divisions about the content of any particular social vision tend to be bypassed.
Please note that I am not saying that one version or meaning of performativity is correct, but that different meanings reflect different theoretical traditions. These traditions need to be mapped so that contrasts in perspective can be identified. This focus, I suggest, puts the onus on researchers to develop in some detail just what makes up a “sociotechnical imaginary” and where “it”/”they” come from.
The three Symposium papers (Kiesewetter, Rahm, Tangnäs ) on the topic offer different ways to make “sociotechnical imaginaries” a useful part of a WPR analysis. Other authors have developed other possible conjunctures of the two approaches (Høydal and Haldar 2022; Germundssen 2022). Hagbert et al. (2020) use WPR to interrogate “sociocultural imaginaries”, raising questions about deep-seated epistemological and ontological assumptions within “imaginaries” (i.e. asking Question 2 in WPR). In this way they illustrate a point I have made elsewhere (Bacchi 2018: 7) – that it is possible and useful to apply the WPR questions to concepts (here “sociotechnical imaginaries”) since they are (in effect) proposals about how we ought to proceed from here (Tanesini 1994: 207). In our Symposium paper, Anne Wilson and I illustrate the usefulness of applying WPR to concepts in our critical analysis of the concept of “underlying health conditions”, a phrase frequently invoked in considerations of the impact of COVID 19. Applying WPR to concepts in this way, I suggest, facilitates a much-needed critical interrogation of the concept “sociotechnical imaginaries”.
In summary I suggest that the points I raise in these brief comments ought to be addressed when considering theoretical linkages between “sociotechnical imaginaries” and WPR. Are “sociotechnical imaginaries” part of a hermeneutic philosophical tradition and, if so, how is this stance compatible with Foucault’s challenge to hermeneutics? Relatedly, how is the “subject” conceptualized in “sociotechnical imaginaries” and how does this view sit in relation to the anti-humanist stance in Foucault and WPR (Patton 1989)? Finally, is there a tendency in studies of “sociotechnical imaginaries” to homogenize belief systems in ways that may undercut resistance practices? If so, what has been done or what can be done about this potentially anti-political tendency? And finally, if we decide to employ the concept “sociotechnical imaginaries”, are there benefits to be gained through subjecting the term to a WPR analysis (see Hagbert et al 2020)?
[Should you wish a copy of my and Anne Wilson’s Symposium paper on “underlying health conditions”, please send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org]
Bacchi, C. 1996. The Politics of Affirmative Action: “Women”, Equality and Category Politics. London: Sage.
Bacchi, C. 2018. Drug Problematizations and Politics: Deploying a Poststructural Analytic Strategy. Contemporary Drug Problems, 45(1): 1-14.
Bacchi, C. 2022. Keynote address: The WPR approach: Key premises and new developments. See : https://kauplay.kau.se/media/t/0_mdcx7ijc
Blattberg, C. 2006. Reason or Art? Review of Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries. Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review, 45(1): 183-185.
Dreyfus, H. L. and Rabinow, P. 1982. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. NY: Routledge.
Fabian, J. 1983. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object. NY: Columbia University Press.
Germundsson, N. 2022. Promoting the digital future: the construction of digital automation in Swedish policy discourse on social assistance, Critical Policy Studies, DOI: 10.1080/19460171.2021.2022507
Hagbert, P., Wangel, J. and Broms, L. 2020. Exploring the Potential for Just Urban Transformations in Light of Eco-Modernist Imaginaries of Sustainability. Urban Planning, 5(4): 204-216.
Høydal, Ø. S. and Haldar, M. 2022. A tale of the digital future: Analyzing the digitalization of the Norwegian education system. Critical Policy Studies, 16(4).
Jasanoff, S. 2015. One. Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity”. In S. Jasanoff and S-H Kim (Eds) Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015: 1-33. https://doi.org/10.7208/9780226276663-001
Jasanoff, S. and Kim, S.-H. 2009. Containing the atom: Sociotechnical imaginaries and nuclear
regulation in the U.S. and South Korea. Minerva, 47(2): 119–146.
Jasanoff, S. & Kim, S-H 2013. Sociotechnical Imaginaries and National Energy Policies. Science as Culture, 22:2, 189-196, DOI: 10.1080/09505431.2013.786990
Patton, P. 1989. Taylor and Foucault on Power and Freedom. Political Studies, 37: 260-276.
Rudek, T. J. 2022. Capturing the invisible. Sociotechnical imaginaries of energy. The critical overview. Science and Public Policy, 49: 219-245. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/scipol/scab076
Tanesini, A. 1994. Whose language? In K. Lennon & M. Whitford (Eds), Knowing the difference: Feminist perspectives in epistemology. NY: Routledge.
Taylor, C. 2004. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
‘The imaginary’, as a theoretical concept, has gained a lot of attention, from a variety of disciplines, over the last decades (Anderson, 2006; Castoriadis, 1997; Flichy, 2007; Gaonkar & Povinelli, 2003; Levitas, 2013; Taylor, 2004). Perhaps not surprisingly then, its meaning has also differed (see, Strauss, 2006), from a fantasy (as for Lacan) to a cultural ethos (as for Castoriadis), to what Taylor describes as that which “enables, through making sense of, the practice of society” (2004, p. 2).
Sociotechnical imaginaries (STI) have become an important trajectory in Science and Technology Studies (STS), often crediting Jasanoff’s definition. This definition emphasizes collective visions of desirable and attainable futures, but it is important to acknowledge that the meaning of technology is also historically embedded and contingent on time-and-culture-specific paths of development. One could also say that sociotechnical imaginaries are an integral part of any development of technical systems (Flichy, 2007). Thinking with Flichy, sociotechnical imaginaries differ from Jasanoff’s definition slightly since sociotechnical imaginaries are not only supported and attainable via technological innovation, but constitute integral parts of the materiality of technology. As such, advances in science and technology do not happen in isolation, but are always already part of sociotechnical imaginaries. In this definition, sociotechnical imaginaries resemble Winner’s (1980) argument on how technology is political – through design affordances or by being compatible with a certain political system (and not others). This does not mean that subjective intentions necessarily shape sociotechnical imaginaries, but that the design process includes working towards ‘negotiated’ solutions.
In this post we say that regardless of which of these definitions of sociotechnical imaginaries you choose, these analytical perspectives can contribute to each other. For example, STI can shed light on dimensions of future-oriented and technical-material character in problem representations identified and analyzed within the WPR approach. Working with sociotechnical imaginaries can help the researching subject in two distinct ways: firstly, by illuminating aspects of the underlying assumptions in the problem representations that could otherwise be missed. These aspects are theoretical, concerning the function of collectively imagined futures in policy making, as well as empirical due to the focus on specific technical and material dimensions that the concept includes. In this way, sociotechnical imaginaries as an analytical tool can contribute to the exploration of latent aspects in a WPR study. Secondly, we would like to stress the potential usefulness of working the other way around: applying WPR questions to (a specific) sociotechnical imaginary, interrogating its constitution and rationalities. We believe that there are several gains to be made here, that these analytical constructs can be useful together. Having said this, we also identify challenges and acknowledge the tensions exemplified by Carol Bacchi in her text above. We will start by presenting some thoughts on how sociotechnical imaginaries could be useful for a WPR-analysis, as well as the other way around. Finally, we will try to respond to, or rather engage with, some of the questions posed by Carol Bacchi in the introduction to this post.
The second question in the WPR approach, about underlying assumptions and presuppositions in problem representations, can be challenging and difficult to grasp. Here social imaginaries (Castoriadis 1975; Taylor, 2004), as well as the concept sociotechnical, can contribute to the identification and function of these latent aspects. Tangnäs argues in her conference paper on regional policy on green industrial transition for the Karlstad Symposium on WPR (2022), that the promissory character of certain imaginaries can shape and re-produce what phenomena or practice gets perceived as thinkable, necessary or natural. Due to a strong tendency within regional development policy to favour technical and innovative solutions, the sociotechnical imaginary concept has a potential to be especially helpful in this case – for example, by pointing to the imperatives and aspirations connected to industry-driven technical innovations as desirable solutions for a continuous living planet. Another field that is growing increasingly technology-oriented all over the world is education policy, and Kiesewetter in her paper for the Karlstad Symposium (2022) analyses Swedish sociotechnical imaginaries (STI) in digital education policy. By approaching STIs through problem representations, the consensus surrounding digital data flows and their role in schooling is contested and unpacked. One of the main findings presented in the paper suggests a plurality of positions with regards to data flows in schooling, that are partially in tension, and influence how possibilities, capabilities, and impacts are imagined and realized.
Lina Rahm’s studies are in the same field, but she uses problematization and genealogy in order to explore the sociotechnical imaginaries of the digital citizen. In Educational imaginaries: governance at the intersection of technology and education (2021), Rahm highlights how educational imaginaries are always central to the general use and dissemination of technology. By starting in ‘thinginess’ (instead of in policy) and subjecting it to a WPR interrogation, she argues that we can unpack the materiality itself and see the power asymmetries that hide in technology as frozen policy. If one conceptualizes imaginaries as always already sociomaterial, we can use problematizations as a way to dismantle the social in the technical, imaginaries in materialities, and materialities in imaginaries.
Addressing Carol Bacchi’s concerns about unidentified tensions within sociotechnical imaginaries, the following will outline, expand and nuance the multiplicity of STIs and their political character. Multiple imaginaries can, and oftentimes do, coexist in a society, either in tension, or, as Jasanoff and Kim state, in a “productive dialectical relationship”. Tensions also arise during each of the four stages of “shaping” STIs (origins, embedding, resistance, and extension). In each phase, there is a certain tension between stability and change which possibly allows for a closer interrogation of these processes. Connecting back to the field of Science and Technology studies, where STIs are widely used, one central aspect is to explore how aspects come to be ordered in a particular way, how human and non-human actors are brought together in a particular arrangement of continuously changing relations. Due to this contingent nature, STS scholars (e.g., Woolgar & Lezaun, 2015) also highlight: if things could have been otherwise, they might still be otherwise. From this perspective, STS could be considered highly political and at the same time speculative and hopeful, as STS does not just describe how things have come to be the way they are, but also opens up possibilities for things being ordered in other ways, specifically the rearrangement of relations of power due to ever changing relations of human and non-human actors. Following this, STIs are not just ‘out there’, objectively existing, but performed and enacted, i.e. taken up, sustained, or transformed – and could be different.
Despite these opportunities and connections to STS, Jasanoff’s concept and application, as Carol Bacchi points out, have not been explored extensively. This criticism is in line with numerous STS researchers who have highlighted the narrow applications of sociotechnical imaginaries, which primarily focus on the perspectives of politicians, policymakers and other elites with little attention to the perspectives of local actors’ experience and situated practices (Smith & Tidwell, 2016; Levidow & Raman, 2020; Mager & Katzenbach, 2021). Overall, one could say that this use of STIs potentially privileges the process of the fourth step of STIs, the extension of STIs outwards, possibly because it is challenging to explore and pay fine-grained attention to ordinary people rather than the elites that influence STIs. From this perspective, a shift from the analysis of dominant STIs and elites towards more pluralized perspectives on contested meanings and power is requested. Therefore, re-orienting the concept STI through critical and ‘fresh’/ novel approaches, as done by Smith and Tidwell (2016) and Levidow and Raman (2020), can be a way forward. Applying WPR questions to STIs can broaden and at the same time resurrect what could be seen as a political base of STIs, which is a much needed and a timely spark for future directions.
In accordance with the concerns regarding tendencies for “sociotechnical imaginaries” being applied in ways that homogenise belief systems, Carol Bacchi is asking what “collective” is at work in these “imaginings”? As pointed out by Bacchi, Jasanoff (2015) writes from a more hermeneutic tradition, and is drawn to give pre-defined actors and concepts, such as “sociotechnical imaginaries”, agency. Therefore, even though coexisting imaginaries are acknowledged by Jasanoff as well as the STS researchers mentioned above, there are ontological differences between Bacchi’s WPR approach and Jasanoff’s development and usage of the “sociotechnical imaginaries” concept that become visible here. We agree that Taylor’s, and to a certain extent also Jasanoff´s, view of “the collective” resonates more with a hermeneutic view, while we also persevere in our stance that these analytical perspectives share enough resemblances in order to be able to contribute to each other in specific studies. Here STIs open up for different approaches and the researching subject can avoid giving “the imaginary” the status of a ‘thing’ with agency by treating “collectively imagined” rather as “often represented as”, but still keeping these representations as heavily future oriented and promissory. It could be fruitful to also turn to Brian Wynne (Wynne & Rommetveit 2017) in this matter as he offers a somewhat more open and less agency-oriented usage of the concept.
Another possible, but ontologically different, path forward can be to acknowledge the ‘thinginess’ about STIs as a starting point for WPR analysis, understood in Haraway’s (2016, p 104) sense as: “imploded entities, dense material semiotic “things”—articulated string figures of ontologically heterogeneous, historically situated, materially rich, virally proliferating relatings of particular sorts, not all the time everywhere, but here, there, and in between, with consequences”. The Internet, for example, is not (only) a ‘discourse’ or a ‘description’ or a ‘concept’; it is also a sociomaterial infrastructure that could be viewed as policy.
As mentioned previously, there is a growing ambition to take on the more sociotechnical aspects of imaginaries when also using problematizations. We think that the theorizing on how WPR and STIs can contribute to each other can be taken further. Should anyone be interested in pursuing this topic, please contact the authors or send an email to Carol. Many thanks. Should you wish to receive a copy of one of the contributors’ Symposium papers, please contact the author.
Svea Kiesewetter: email@example.com
Lina Rahm: firstname.lastname@example.org
Johanna Tangnäs: email@example.com
 “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.” (Jasanoff, 2015, p. 6)
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