Friday, March 20, 2009

Technical practices

What is involved in providing a sociology of technical practices? (An earlier posting is also devoted to this question.) Here I am thinking primarily of technical material practices -- building a house or a boat, distilling spirits, weaving a basket, maintaining a biological research lab, or repairing a photocopy machine. There is a degree of continuity in the "tacit knowledge" and embodied skills and methods that are represented in the plans and actions of practitioners of these different human activities. These bodies of knowledge and skill define the activity in a fairly specific way. And there are indefinitely many other configurations of practices that might have accomplished the same task. So a practice is historically and socially specific; it is the result of prior experimentation and adaptation in the context of needs, materials, and a physical environment within specific communities and locations.

Here is a simple formulation of what I'm calling a technical practice:
A practice is an ensemble of techniques, skills, and stylized responses, embedded in a population at a time, accomplishing a specific range of domestic tasks, and sustained through social mechanisms of transmission.
There are a number of fundamental questions that this definition raises. How are practices embodied in individuals or groups? How do they proliferate, from one generation to the next and across social space? How does a given state of practical knowledge change over time, through transmission, mutation, and deliberate refinement? Do practices have a degree of stability over time, or do they morph so flexibly as to defy analysis? Are there "signatures" for given ensembles of practices -- e.g. a set of features of device design in boat building or a set of techniques of water management in farming -- on the basis of which we can observe the proliferation and change of a practice over time and space? Is there a self-referential element in practices—do practitioners deliberately or consciously modify their practices?

The example of traditional boat design and building is a good one to illustrate a technical practice (suggested in the images above). The boat-building traditions of medieval Scandinavia represent a body of skill and technique transmitted from master to apprentice, with variation over time and place. Farming practices in traditional agricultural societies provide another good example. In this case, the practice involves knowledge concerning crops, animals, seeds, irrigation, fertilizer, timing, and response to the unexpected. (This is the kind of local practical knowledge that James Scott describes in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.) It is embodied in local knowledge, folk beliefs, techniques and tools, and customs of a given population at a particular time. It is transmitted from practitioner to practitioner (perhaps parent to child) through training and imitation. Sometimes organizations play a causal role in transmission (e. g., a guild of boat designers and builders may deliberately control the transmission of relevant knowledge and skills from one individual to another). And it seems likely enough that historians can in fact observe the proliferation of technical practices such as these over centuries of time by observing the spatial distribution of artifacts associated with the practice. (Jon Elster discusses some aspects of the technical practices associated with traditional boat building in Explaining Technical Change: A Case Study in the Philosophy of Science.)

A particularly interesting question is the degree to which technical practices are “plastic” over time and space. How readily do they morph over time and space (akin to the way in which messages morph in the game of “telephone”)? Is there an analogy between a practice and a gene, in which the gene encodes instructions for the phenotype—producing a next-generation genotype? The stability of species through biological evolution depends on the fact that gene transcription is a highly accurate process, so the offspring is highly likely to encode the same bits of information as the parent. Is there the requisite stability within the domain of practices, or are we more likely to find significant differences in ostensibly similar practices across the villages of a region?

The stability question turns on the mechanisms of replication that social practices embody. Traditional social practices are not embodied in standard "handbooks" of best practice; instead, they are transmitted through networks of training and imitation. So changes are likely to occur during the replication of the practice at the local level. Innovation occurs as local illiterate but intelligent farmers or builders discover enhancements. These innovations are imitated and reproduced by neighbors and changes accumulate. Naturally, there is nothing inherently optimal or progressive about such a process. Good ideas and innovations die out; mediocre practices persist; and sometimes genuine advances occur.

Finally, the question about whether a technical practice has a specific signature -- a characteristic set of tools, patterns of land use, and products -- is crucial for our ability to track changes in practices historically. With a signature -- for example, a characteristic form of ceramic glazing -- it is possible to track the spread of a practice across time and space. It is then possible to track changes in practice over time and geography by tracking the dispersion of tools and products. For example, a new technique in ceramics can often be pinpointed in a place at a time; then through archeological research it is often possible to track the diffusion of the innovation over the next century to other places. And once we’ve done that, we can ask productive questions about what the mechanisms of the diffusion of practical knowledge were: migration of farmers and artisans, trade routes, the sale of books and pamphlets, …

It seems that technical practices in pre-modern societies are of particular interest for a couple of reasons. They give us a subject matter where it is possible to study local knowledge and skill in some detail. They represent a domain of human activity where it is possible to track change over time and to form some hypotheses about the social mechanisms that underlie the diffusion of techniques. And they are a fairly visible manifestation of some basic features of social life -- the harnessing of knowledge and skill to solving some of the practical problems of life, and the creation of innovations through which these basic material needs might be satisfied in a marginally better way. And it wouldn't be surprising to discover that the mechanisms that underlie the maintenance and diffusion of traditional techniques are also found in the practical knowledge communities of technicians in the modern world -- photocopy machine repair specialists, airline mechanics, or lab technicians.

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