Technologies/Black-Boxing and Institutions/Taken-for-granted – A question of levels?

This post started as a comment to Nicholas´ post on the museum but became so long that I decided to make it a new post. The debate on black-boxing and “taken-for-grantedness” (or STS & New-Institutional Theory) takles some very important points. They remind me of T.Pinch´s (2008) paper on Technologies and Institutions. Pinch´s focus is on the problem of “skill” and he argues that (new) institutional theory  – for example in its micro form as in the works of Fligstein – is basically only focussing on a very small aspect of ways to make an institution materially stable. Technology, he argues, adds at least a second way because it is black-boxed, not just taken for granted.

The reason why I think this is only partially true is that proposing such an argument is only possible by conflating levels of “taken-for-grantedness”: Sociology knows a whole spectrum of ways to make social order become taken for granted: from the taken-for-granted stream of everyday routines and interactions that make up Schütz´ life world to Mauss/Bourdieu´s techniques of the body that constitute the habitus, from B&L´s (or also Gehlen´s) processes of institutionalization to Foucault´s epistemé, Polanyi´s tacit knowledge and Ryles “knowing how”.Technology, if we follow this route, could be added to the book of tactics to make practice become taken-for-granted – through a very distinct process that has been described as “black-boxing” in which some aspects are packaged and sealed away, others delegated to specialists (for example for maintenance and repair). It is distinct from at least two other tactics exactly because of the form of this process. Embodying habits and skills for example is a process of becoming taken for granted by routine and repetition. Discursive closure is a matter of rhetoric, persuasion and concealment. 

Institutions and Infrastructures I suppose are strategies of “taken-for-grantedness” on a different level: they are hardy stabilized by just one of the discursive, habitual or technologcial tactics just described. Neither can an institution be based just on skills, nor on legitimizing and reglulating discourse, nor on technology. Hey, we know from a long time of STS research that not even technology alone can rely on technology alone. Institutions and infrastructures are complex installations – hybrids or monsters if you will. They both rely on a fragile architecture of “taken-for-grantedness” – plug-ins. What is the difference, then?

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

One thought on “Technologies/Black-Boxing and Institutions/Taken-for-granted – A question of levels?

  1. Denis: I like your point and it is something I have been trying to argue for as well, although my entry point is implementation. As someone who studies ERP implementations, it is safe to say that the people I speak with and shadow consider "implementation" to be ever emergent. In fact, although they often use the terms installation and implementation interchangeably, they are careful to stay, basically, "implementation only starts" (with the implication being that it never really ends). I think I’ll look through a few of my old interviews and see if there is something substantive enough to warrant a paper on the topic or if I can extend the insights from your already good paper. Thanks for posting.


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