Methods Vignettes: Technography

Large old telephone switchboard with connecting wires



Technography can be quickly summed up as ‘the ethnography of technology-in-use’.  The analogy is useful because technography draws on the ethnographer’s extensive toolkit of research methods, including participant observation, key informant interviews, transect walks, journal writing, photography, video recording and others.  However, technography may involve a diverse mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods, selected for particular purposes.

Like ethnography, technography pays attention to both social and material interactions.  In a technographic perspective, technology is conceived as a socially and culturally embedded, skillful practice, which is performed at a particular moment in time and situated in a specific biophysical context.  Technology is purposeful action (making), embodying an integration of knowledge, practice and communication, whereby which individuals and groups (‘task groups’) use tools and instruments to achieve their goals.

Technography is a conceptual framework and methodology based on the French, Durkheimian sociology of Marcel Mauss, in particular.  The concept of technography is inspired by Mauss’s various writings on technology, notably ‘Techniques of the Body’ (1935), ‘Techniques and Technology’ (1948), and other pieces.  As a French speaker, Mauss had the advantage of familiarity with a language in which technology does not refer principally to machinery, gadgets and devices, as it typically does in English.  In French, the word ‘technologie’ means the study of technique, that is, technology is to technique as sociology is to society, or musicology is to music – in other words, a body of theories, concepts, and knowledge relating to the topic in question, but not the ‘thing itself’.  The word ‘technography’ represents an attempt to translate this meaning of technologie into the English language, where the word technology has acquired a deeply entrenched meaning that associates it with ‘things’.

What’s Involved?

Technography has been defined as an eclectic, pluralistic and realist research methodology, which may employ a range of natural and social scientific approaches and research methods, tailored to the research question in view.  Data for a technographic study may include biophysical as well as social phenomena.  According to one guideline, a technographic investigation should be divided into three components:  a study of ‘the process of making’ (the use of skills, knowledge and techniques to transform materials); a study of distributed cognition (the organisation and coordination of collective action within a task group or network of actors); and a study of how rules, protocols, routines and rituals emerge from the performance of tasks and the division of functions involved in the achievement of a task or the making (of a product or other outcome).

Data relating to these three components may be collected by various means, with an emphasis on observational techniques that should be as objective as possible, avoiding prior assumptions about higher level questions, such as what the technical practices are supposed to mean symbolically or politically.  The goal is to construct a ‘thin description’ of how tasks are carried out and by whom, and through what kinds of organisation, communication and coordination.  These research techniques should be allied with methods such as interviews and focus group discussions, which enable the researcher to learn about the motives, purposes and rationales underlying the participants’ activities.  Subsequently, the technographic thin description may be related to (or used to test) broader social or political economy theory.

Broadening Out and Opening Up

Technography helps to broaden out appraisal because of the priority it gives to empirical observations of how technical tasks are actually performed, by whom, at what times, and how they are organised and coordinated.  Rather than assuming a priori that either a social, a natural (material) or a technological cause or process must explain the ordering and functioning of technological systems, a technographic approach assumes that the outcomes in a given situation will be emergent properties, co-determined by the specific, temporally, institutionally and spatially situated interactions among the three dimensions.

This means that narrative claims about what a technology is for, or how it should be configured, are set aside.  Instead, the researcher pays attention equally to all the people and organisations involved in the activity, since all of them have a ‘voice’ and some (indeterminate) degree of influence over how the technological system works.  For example, an agricultural technician might assert that seeds of a modern crop variety should be sown at a certain density, but their view may not prevail in farmers’ fields, or over the farm labourers’ practices.  In short, technography strives for a dispassionate, disinterested observation of the self-organising properties of technology, rather than a normative perspective on how things should be done.

Roles, Fit, and Limits

Technography is a flexible methodological approach, which may contribute particularly to the scoping and focusing functions of enquiry, and any of the four stages of the STEPS pathways methodology.  Technography is principally a methodology for studying technical practices and systems, which is based on social theories of technology but does not itself constitute theory.  Thus, technography may be used to gather data about how socio-eco-technical systems are constituted and configured, and the data may be used to answer a range of research questions or to contribute to appraisal of various social problems or options.

References and further resources


Material for this vignette was contributed by Dominic Glover and Saurabh Arora.