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(4) Technological Determinism and Social Choice

Aims and objectives

The aim of this section of the course is to explore in greater depth the controversy as to how far technology does, or does not, condition social change. A useful starting point for these discussions would be:

  1. Engagement with media: Shaping and Being Shaped
    Which outlines the various different views on exactly what constitutes technological determinism and argues that the media through which we view the world media give shape to our experience of it.
  2. Technological or Media Determinism
    Which develops the theme of the theme of the above paper in greater detail and provides a list of references and related reading as well as some web links.

For a discussion of the way in which computer based technology 'impacts' on an organization, you might also like to look at the following papers:

  1. Computer Based Information Systems and Managers' Work
    Which provides some examples of how both technology and the decisions made by managers can be seen as shaping the way that computer based technology is used in an organization.
  2. The Concept of Appropriation
    Which discusses the difference between French and British perspectives on the ways in which the relationship between technology, people and organizations is viewed in both countries.

Finally, there are some web links below that you may find useful.


Early works assumed technology to be an objective, external force that had deterministic impacts on organizational properties such as structure. Later studies focused upon the human aspect of technology and focused on strategic choice models and social action. Despite years of investigative effort, definition and measurement, there is little or no compelling evidence for the role of technology in organizational affairs.

Two dimensions of technology are discussed in this lecture: scope and role.


The lectures will discuss two views that reflect claims to generalisability.

  1. The first conceptualizes technology as hardware, i.e. the equipment, machines and instruments humans use in productive (either physical or informational) processes. These have lead to either context dependent definitions of the scope of technology, as the range of hardware across industries and organizations differ, or broad definitions that have little informational value.
  2. These problems lead some researchers to develop a second view of technology as "social technologies". Tasks, technique and knowledge are bound together in a single construct, e.g. "tecnik". This attempt to broaden the definition of technologies to include "social technologies" however has lead to boundary and measurement ambiguity. It also tends to ignore or undervalue the possibility of interaction between different elements and the effects of human mediation in the ways in which a technology can be used.


The lectures will then discuss three theoretical frameworks that reflect philosophical viewpoints.

The first (technological imperative model) views technology as an objective, external force that had deterministic impacts on organizational properties. The second (strategic choice model) focused on the human action aspect of technology and saw technology as a product of shared interpretations or interventions. The third (Technology as a trigger for structural change model) puts forward a soft deterministic viewpoint that argues that technology is a relatively objective, external force but that the impacts on organizational properties are moderated by human actions and the contingencies of organizational context.

  1. The technological imperative model. The technological imperative model examines the impact of a technology upon organizational dimensions such as structure, size, performance, degree of centralization as well as more individualistic dimensions such as job satisfaction, task complexity, skill levels, productivity, etc. It posits that technology exerts an independent, uni-directional and causal influence over humans and organizations similar in nature to the laws of physical sciences. A "softer" version of the technological determinist model allows for the influence of the technology to be mediated by contextual variables.
  2. The strategic choice model. The strategic choice model does not view technology as an external object but as an intentional product of human actions, design and appropriation. Three research foci are discernible.
  3. Technology as a trigger for structural change. This perspective portrays technology as an intervention into the relationship between human agency and organizational structure. Technology can trigger a structural change by altering institutionalized roles and patterns of interaction. Technology does exert an influence on organizational structure but the precise outcome depends on the specific historical processes in which it is embedded. Thus technology is viewed as a social object whose meaning, defined by the context of its use, may change although its physical form remains fixed over time.

Building on the material in previous topic the following areas will also be covered in the lectures:

  1. Models and frameworks
  2. Technological determinist models
  3. Four Social Choice models
  4. Web models
  5. Structuration Theory

Using material from the lectures, your reading and the web sites your objectives should be to identify:

You should attempt to develop an understanding of the differing perspectives covered in the lecture and your reading and how they might be applied.



  1. IT(1) - Information Technology: Social Issues - A Reader, Ed. Finnegan. R, Salaman. G and Thompson. K., The Open University/Hodder and Stoughton., 1994.
  2. IT(2) - Information Technology and Society: A Reader, Ed Heap. N., Thomas. R., Einon. G. and MacKay. H., The Open University/Sage, 1994.
  3. SIT - Chaps 6 to 10 in Social Issues in Technology, Alcorn. P. Prentice Hall, 1997. pp 111 - 185.

Some Additional Reading (in library)

  1. Bijker. N.E., Hughes. T.P. and Pinch. T.J. (Eds), The social construction of Technological Systems, MIT Press, 1987.
  2. Hirschheim. R. and Klein. H. Four paradigms of information system development, Communications of the ACM. Vol. 32, no 10 (1989) pp 1199 - 1216.
  3. Kling. R and Iacono. S., Computing as an Occasion for Social Control. Journal of Social Issues, 40, 3 (1984), pp 77-96.
  4. Buchanan D and Boddy D, "Organizations in the Computer Age: Technological Imperatives and Strategic Choice", 1983, Gower.
  5. Child, J. (1972), Organizational Structure, Environment and Performance: The Role of Strategic Choice, Sociology Vol 6, No 1, pp 1-22.
  6. De Greene KB, Long wave cycles of Sociotechnical change and innovation: A macropsychological perspective, Journal of Occupational Psychology, 1988, vol 61, pp. 7-23.
  7. Orlikowski. W.J, The Duality of Technology: rethinking the concept of technology in organizations. Organization Science. 3(3), 1992. pp. 398 - 427.
  8. Kling R. and Scacchi. W. The web of computing: Computer Technology as Social Organization. Advances in Computers, Vol 21, 1982. pp 2 - 89 .

Web Links

Brief definitions of technological and social determinism

Articles and papers

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