Technology, Norms, And Social Change

A while back, I wrote the following and I still think it is a central premise.

In the opening chapter of American Society: How It Really WorksErik Olin Wright and Joel Rogers lay out the three major lines of sociological inquiries:

Description: what kind of society is this? How does it compare to other societies and their institutions? What are the similarities and differences? And that means getting the facts right through high-quality evidence and rational arguments

Explanation: opening the black boxes of different institutions and see how they work, and with what consequences. That is usually where theories come in. It is truly at this stage that it matters to think like a sociologist. And what does thinking like a sociologist mean? I find this definition almost perfect:

“The myriad of actions that we as conscious, choosing persons engage in are governed by rules. Howeever, unlike the rules of nature that govern the motions of the planets, these social rules are changed by the actions they regulate. Our activities are rule governed, but our activities also produce and transform the rules that govern those activities. Sometimes the changes in social rules are the result of deliberate actions by people – as when we change a law; sometimes rules change as the unintended consequence of actions. The central task of sociology is to understand how rules generate their effects, how people respond to the rules under which they live, and how the rules change over time.

This sociological approach to understanding and explaining society may seen trivial and obvious, but it is also quite profound. And it turns out to be a very complex matter indeed to figure out how these rules work and how, out of their interactions, the social facts we observe get produced.” (3)

Out of this, the authors delineate six aspects of social rules:

  • Rules are enforced through sanctions and consequences. To call something a social rule means that there is a system of sanctions sustaining it.
  • Rules take different forms.
  • Rules are not neutral. Social rules benefit some people and impose harm on others. As the authors note, the structural rules of basketball give an advantage to tall people over short ones. This is the same in many other social, political, and economic contexts. Ergo…
  • Rules and power interact. Rules are protected by power and those who benefit from social rules will use their power to keep them in place. “Social rules will tend to be stable when they confer power on the people they benefit.” (4).
  • Rules can be inconsistent.
  • Rules can change.

This is the most controversial aspect of sociology. Our behavior is consistently driven by rules that we may or may not be aware of.  And rules change, for instance, when new technology is made available to the general population.

Take this example, for instance:

This is not so much about learning how to use a new technological device as much as learning the new norms that should regulate one’s behavior when using the device. There is nothing really in the above that relates to the technology. It is all about rules of etiquette.

At the same time, these vignettes reflect the preexisting social norms of the day in terms of class, race and gender:

It is clear that these rules are scripts to restrain behavior in a class, gender and racially acceptable format that is most definitely middle-class, follows gender roles of the time and assumes white speakers: no slang, no non-standard English, etc.. It also assumes feminine telephone operators, as this was then one of acceptable jobs for young women (referred to as “girls” in other such ads).

The new technology is also firmly placed in the context of a business tool, within a set of preexisting norms of modern times based on productivity and efficiency so as not to disrupt other part of business or the business of the telephone company itself:

In this sense, one can see such vignettes as part of the disciplinary regime brought about by modernization and described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish:

It would certainly be an amusing exercise to try to delineate similar vignettes for current technologies such as cell phone usage, as well as social networking platforms as Facebook, Twitter or Reddit.