Methods Vignettes: Sociotechnical imaginaries



The idea of sociotechnical imaginaries is a theoretical concept. In this vignette, we’ll introduce you to some of the commonly used methods that will help you to generate empirical research around sociotechnical imaginaries.

But first, a little bit on what an imaginary is. An imaginary describes the visions, symbols and associated feelings that people have about something. In this instance, the imagination does not just live in an individual’s mind, but in society more widely. Helping to produce systems of meaning and shared senses of belonging, it guides how we collectively see and order the world (Jasanoff and Kim 2009) – in its histories as much as its futures.

Imaginaries are also interesting to researchers, because they have material outcomes – they influence behaviour, feelings of individual and collective identity, and the development of narratives, policy and institutions.  As summarised by Jasanoff and Kim (2009), “in short, imagination, viewed as ‘an organized field of social practices’, serves as a key ingredient in making social order (Appadurai 1996; Taylor 2004)” (2009, p.122). In STEPS terms, they are implicated in how pathways are imagined, framed, related and unfold.

Sociotechnical imaginaries are often explored because they inform visions of futures in which sociotechnical assemblages play large parts. Examples might include visions of what global systems might look like, for provision of energy or mobility. Scientists and technologists are “constantly trying to understand the present by borrowing from a cautiously imagined emergent future, filled with volatility, and uncertainty, but in which faith in practices of technoscience become even more complexly and interestingly constructed” (Marcus 1995, p.4).

For example, technoscientific imaginaries coming from the scientific establishment and relating to nanotechnology, include: nanotechnology leading to the next industrial revolution; as allowing a move towards complete control over the structure of matter; as facilitating the coming together of biotechnology, IT and cognitive science; as enabling radical changes in information storage, drug delivery and material science; and as a means of generating national and corporate wealth (Kearnes et al 2006).

These perspectives then inform and (crucially) are held to justify the views and actions of individuals working in these areas, shaping new scientific fields in the process.

Policy makers also draw on imaginaries to inform and justify their actions. “‘Sociotechnical imaginaries’ have proved particularly useful for policymakers in late modern societies. Imagined futures help justify new investments in science and technology; in turn, advances in science and technology reaffirm the state’s capacity to act as responsible stewards of the public good. Sociotechnical imaginaries serve in this respect both as the ends of policy and as instruments of legitimation” (Harvard STS research platform, 2015).

What’s involved?

The crucial role that imaginaries play in shaping scientific or development outcomes means they should always be open for considered reflection, accountable attention and critical debate (Macnaghten et al 2005).

This clearly carries with it practical challenges – how do you open up imaginaries and their role in shaping action to scrutiny – both by researchers and the public?

The Harvard STS research platform on sociotechnical imaginaries sees sociotechnical imaginaries as straddling structure and agency. It links the ‘subjective and psychological dimensions of agency with the relative hardness of technological systems, policy styles, organisational behaviours and political culture’. So we now turn to the methods that can help unpack the structure-agency relationship (and to unravel this structure-agency dynamic, multiple methods and triangulation will be needed).

Methodological approaches for the investigation of socio-technical imaginaries will be specific to the project at hand.

Approaches include different kinds of ethnography – in the workplace, during design processes, or as technologies are used. Discourse analysis is also key, both of spoken and written words and in formal (e.g. speeches, policy documents, media, meeting minutes, instruction manuals) as well as informal (prompted or informal conversations, blogs) contexts. In either case, there is a particular emphasis on the interpretation of symbols, the use of linguistic tools, and on vision creation. Analysis of representational images is also important, such as those on packaging, marketing materials, in policy documents, or those used in protest movements and literature. Analysis is also important for wider visual media like film or theatre.

To help build up an idea of the logics and framings implicit in different imaginaries, it is necessary to compare widely and systematically across all these and other forms, asking questions such as who and what is in and out of these imaginaries, where boundaries are drawn, how these are maintained, and how things are related within an imaginary.

Just as important as the how, may be the when and where of engagements with imaginaries. Generating a strong sense of the imaginary is perhaps easiest when juxtaposition is possible – in times of flux, examining changes over time, or watching the every-day activities and interactions of people as they repeatedly work through tasks. Observation across and between different groups of people (e.g. from different countries, or working on different parts of a larger project) can also help to illuminate similarities and difference.

Triangulation across multiple methods is key to build up a sense of themes, consistencies and inconsistencies, presences and absences.

Broadening Out and Opening Up? 

By exploring divergent forms of relevant socio-technical imaginary, we can help to broaden our engagement with a wider context for social appraisal of alternative pathways – in ways that extend beyond tangible material factors to include aspects that may seem nebulous, but are in fact no less important.

Study of sociotechnical imaginaries can also uncover underlying structures in collective imagination, that are highly influential in the shaping of less obvious drivers of conservatism and change. It is by making these divergent imaginations and their implications more visible for greater deliberate attention and accountable debate, that social appraisal can help open up greater political space.

Fits and Limits:

Important questions can be asked about the differing ‘accessibility’ of imaginaries held by relatively more or less powerful groups – are imaginaries equally accessible? If not, how do we deal with this this in the conduct of research?

To effectively engage in imaginaries is a long-term and resource intensive research process, because you have to effectively triangulate and pay attention to the ‘not-theres’ as well as what is there.

References and other useful sources of information:

Kearnes, M.B., R. Grove-White, et al. (2006). “From bio to nano: learning lessons from the UK agriculture biotechnology controversy” Science as Culture 15(4): 291-307

Jasanoff, S. and S.-H. Kim (2009). “Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea.” Minerva 47: 119-146.

Macnaghten, P. and Guivant, J.S. (2010) “Converging citizens? Nanotechnology and the political imaginary of public engagement in Brazil and the United Kingdom”. Public Understanding of Science 20(2):207-220

Marcus, G.E. (Ed)(1995) Techno-scientific Imaginaries, Conversations, Profiles and Memoirs. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.


Material for this vignette was contributed by Dr Becky White.