Advanced technology is one of the major scientific inventions that characterize the current world. Various disciplines have different approaches to the way technology is made use of to handle human and ecological problems. This paper compares and contrasts the approaches taken by social science and engineering.
Key words: technology, social science, and engineering
Social Science and Engineering Approaches to Technology
The use of highly advanced technological tools in all disciplines has expanded rapidly in the recent few years. Different programs have been developed to handle human and ecological problems (Whitley, 2000). Indeed the benefits of technology have been highly welcomed by virtually everybody in the world. The reason behind this acceptance is that the available technological tools will enhance researches in different fields greatly and thus, necessitate new forms of global interaction. Even though, technology has been welcomed warmly, different disciplines hold various opinions on its impact. For instance, there are several ways on how social science and engineering have approached technology in an attempt to address human and ecological problems. Despite the varying approaches applied in different disciplines, at the end of the day, all these approaches appreciate technology development and the benefits it brings (Woolgar & Coopmans, 2006).
At this point, it is important to understand that technology is a very wide topic. Woolgar and Coopmans (2006) define technology as modifying the way we use knowledge of machines, tools, crafts, techniques, methods of organizing, and systems with an aim of solving a problem, achieve goals, improve the current solution, and handle a given input or output challenge to achieve specific targets (Vann & Bowker, 2006). Therefore, to give a better explanation on the contrasting features on how social science and engineering has approached technology, the researcher will use electronic science (e-science) and electronic infrastructure (e-infrastructure) as representatives of technology. In this study, e-science will be used to include both social and natural science (Cummings & Kiesler, 2005). E-science refers to the way technological efforts have been used to encourage scientific researches through highly sophisticated computing tools with relatively high network bandwidths. From a social science perspective, e-science programs have been funded to produce “cyber infrastructure” in America and “e-infrastructure” in European countries. E-infrastructure is defined as basic resources or infrastructures used by information and communication technology. Generally, the infrastructures are heterogeneous sources that are combined to constitute a large storage and computing power, thus giving room for resources and services to be offered for system creation, where business operations and communication are immediate (Vann & Bowker, 2006).
Social Science and Engineering Approaches to Technology
The use of sophisticated computing tools in social sciences has risen in the past few years. Several computing programs have been put in place in the field of e-science with many projects and high funding (Cummings & Kiesler, 2005). Note that social science has made use of e-science to shape both national and global research. In essence, social science has made use of many approaches, including usability approach, attempted neutrality approach, reflexive approach, and steering and aligning approach to shape up both e-science and e-infrastructure (Schroeder, 2012).
Usability approach has been used to determine how the uptake of e-science and e-infrastructure can be encouraged through user representations, understanding the process, and making use of human computer interface by social science. Research departments that are developing e-science programs have acknowledged that usability issues are key hindrances to the absorption and use of advanced computing technology (Vann & Bowker, 2006). This explains why many countries, including the USA, have heavily funded mechanisms that encourage usability approach. A good example to this approach is the e-Diamond, a UK e-science flagship project (Schroeder, 2012). The target of this project was creating a central database for mammograms. It aimed at enabling breast cancer x-rays to be stored digitally instead of storing those in a film. In addition, the digitization would give room for images, which were initially stored to be shared in networks in individual screening units. Lastly, the system would allow accessing the remote expert machines from a central server and thus, enable a proper handling of challenges. In this project, many usability issues were discovered by means of quasi-naturalistic and ethnographic evaluations. Trust was one of the most important issues between both, radiologists and the new technology (Vann & Bowker, 2006).
Secondly, Vann and Bowker (2006) explain that there are several social science debates on whether attempted neutrality and value free approach should exist or not. At the same time, many social science researchers prefer using attempted neutrality research, even though they understand that it has several limitations. One common area of e-science study where this approach has been widely used is the collaboration and communication (Schroeder, 2012). Other areas that have used this approach include identifying new modes of communication patterns through methods such as network analysis, co-authorship, co-citation practices, and hyperlink networks. This approach is policy related and usually involves comparing or analyzing of many cases,when ascertaining scientific incentives or productivity among scientists, for instance. A good example of this approach is the study conducted by Cummings and Kiesler (2005) on the collaborative USA scientific projects. The researchers critically analyzed 62 collaborative projects, which were funded by the National Science Foundation and other partners within the country. The researchers found out that collaborative research across departments in different institutions is more challenging than discipline collaborative research in terms of project outcome and project coordination. In addition, they found out that communication across distributed projects usually drops off over time. Even though, the research findings did not originate directly from e-science, they are closely related to it (Vann & Bowker, 2006).
On the other hand, reflexive approach concentrates on the social effects of e-science. It tends to address the discrepancy between practice and visions. Its focus is on high-level e-science discourse analysis, such as future visions and policy documents. Generally, its discussion concentrates on the expectations and values related to technologies, besides the changing meaning of terminology, boundaries and definitions. Even though, this approach might appear impressive, researchers who prefer it have to make good use of ethnographic studies. For instance, Vann and Bowker (2006) conducted a research on prospective texts on e-science. They argue that for social scientists to understand the effects of e-science on good knowledge-producing approaches, they need to consider choices made in terms of skills, performance, commitment and scientists’ product demand. This implies that researchers’ visions are locked in given trajectories of the way the research is conducted (Schroeder, 2012). This implies that this approach concentrates on concrete instantiations of scientific practices, that is, how the different forms of research “labor” are discussed. Other researchers critically analyzed the relationship that exists between species digitization and visions for worldwide online cataloguing. In the process, researchers have come to a mutual agreement that digital solution is an inevitable perspective (Cummings & Kiesler, 2005).
It is crucial to note that steering and advocacy approach cover general issues that affect e-science, instead of using specific research agendas or projects. It advocates for coming up with structures that necessitate collaboration and communication across institutional, disciplinary and geographical frontiers. For instance, in the evaluation of economic and legal dynamics of academic publishing, Whitley (2000) tries to get a socio-technical approach to existing quality control approaches that are perceived as threats to open science. He proposes that these are not technological changes but better management procedures that are needed, as well as legal and economic knowledge on the social environment and technology (Vann & Bowker, 2006).
On the other hand, engineering takes a very different approach to both e-science and e-infrastructure. This approach deals with how the human beings interact with technology and social institutions, making sure that the emerging properties of the existing system may be accommodated, and unifying the right parts of the system to come up with a fully functioning whole that is much greater than the individual components (Marcel & Spina, 2013). It is important to note that the social components of the systems created should not be associated with old philosophies of engineering, such as giving consumers what they demand. In engineering, technology can be useful only when it is used to achieve a given task (Schroeder, 2012). Therefore, human presence in any technological issue is paramount; besides, people make technology become diverse, multi-generational, multi-cultural, and multi-skilled (Cummings & Kiesler, 2005).
Marcel & Spina (2013) state that in addressing human ecological problems, engineering has come up with several technological approaches. Sot system approach is a way of managing fuzzy and complex technological problems (Vann & Bowker, 2006). The target of this approach is assisting people and social institutions. It uses system theory concept where the System Engineering method focuses on solving consumers’ problems and satisfying all their needs. Engineering, therefore, prefers a holistic approach that follows steps that satisfy functional systems, which respect the dimensions in existing social institutions (Schroeder, 2012).
The more the world advances in technology, the more complex technical challenges arise. Some problems are very difficult to understand and in most cases a complex technical intervention is necessary to solve these. Some engineers, when faced with this type of problems prefer changing the domain of the problem with hope that the problem will eventually disappear. However, this is more of evading problems rather than finding sustainable solutions. Human nature dictates that we find solutions to problems (Schroeder, 2012). After a scientific revolution, a common trend to solve a complex problem followed, which implies dividing the problem into small parts and addressing those that are of priority first. In the current technological world, this approach is prone to failure mostly when the multiple parts of the problem can be tackled at once (Marcel & Spina, 2013). When an issue is prioritized, two outcomes might arise. Either one might not understand existing emergent priorities or the nature of the problem can change and thus, emerge with a different format. None of the two scenarios gives room to identify an existing complexity in the primary problem. Therefore, it is advised for system engineers to deal with the whole complex problem, especially if it is related to human beings (Woolgar & Coopmans, 2006).
Marcel & Spina (2013) explain that the operation of a given technological system, for example e-infrastructure, fully relates to human beings, their social institutions, and the technology used to develop the system. In other words, the operation fully depends on social and technological infrastructure. A combination of technology, people, and their social institutions comes up with a socio-cultural system that has both technological infrastructure and social infrastructure (Vann & Bowker, 2006). Making use of reductionist approach with traditional engineering method, we can successfully address human factors and traditional components. Although these methods have limitations when it comes to handling e-infrastructure systems of social infrastructure, these can only be viewed as a part of the context that can or cannot belong to the system.
Engineering, or more precisely technological engineering, has come up with different ways of solving human and ecological problems. In other words, there are many system engineering methods than can be used to address technological problems. In addition, several studies have argued that approaches that use soft system method encourage investigating the problem or challenge to be treated, finding practical interactions and experiences with the challenging situation, developing an understanding about the type and nature of the challenge symptoms and suggesting possible solutions (Marcel & Spina, 2013). Soft System approach, therefore, gives an engineer an opportunity to understand the domain of the problem and, in addition, helps the engineer to familiarize with the social and human concerns involved in the problem. To give a sustainable solution, the approach needs to go past human factors and handle other human dimensions. Therefore, this approach is concerned with the interaction between thought and reality on one hand and the interaction between challenge and solution, on the other hand (Woolgar & Coopmans, 2006).
Under the Soft System approach, engineering has come up with consensual method to get the best solution out of problems. The proponents of this method have used several steps that should be taken in order to handle human and ecological problems. First, one should use a reality dimension to understand the problem properly in order to ascertain the possibility of constructing a good problem solving system (Marcel & Spina, 2013). At this step, one should not do a careless job, but a thorough one, because it will either make or destroy the whole process. Understanding the problem at hand will necessitate a proper understanding of the challenge and thus, will reduce user dissatisfaction with the solution offered. Consensual method does not involve getting a consensus about the challenge to be handled alone, but requires a new system to be created. Therefore, this method adjusts human activities to requirements and social dimensions, and reduces the differences between the expected system and the one that will be actually developed (Vann & Bowker, 2006).
To enhance a proper understanding of the problem, engineers have come up with several detailed sub-processes (Vann & Bowker, 2006). These include brain storming a sample of population, which is encouraged to suggest ideas that will give a good response to the problem, and Nominal group Technique (NGT). NGT is where a moderator gets another sample of population, introduces the challenge and asks for ideas. Idea writing is where the responses obtained from TNG undergo further discussion and Interpretive Structural Modeling (ISM) enables problem solvers to map complex challenges and create relationships among different elements. There is also the Soft System Method (SSM) that encourages interaction between human beings and the problematic situation to enhance a proper understanding of the problem, and, lastly, Rigorous Soft Method (RSM). Further steps include selecting the best method and making use of it to get the best solution to the problem at hand (Marcel & Spina, 2013).
In my discussion, I have given different approaches that social science and engineering can use to address human and ecological problems. Even though the researcher has used few examples to explain the differences between the approaches, these may be applicabilied in multiple real life situations (Vann & Bowker, 2006). It is important to note that, in some cases, two or more approaches need to be used to solve the problem. For instance, in social science, a challenge that covers sustainability of e-science can feasibly make use of usability approach to complement the neutrality approach. However, the different social sciences and engineering approaches will at the end of the day shape both e-science and e-infrastructure. The approaches discussed have had different impacts on human and ecological problems (Woolgar & Coopmans, 2006).
Cummings & Kiesler (2005) explain that the stance of reflexive or critical approach towards e-science or technology as a whole is likely to cause an indirect impact, and thus shift the debates about its general aims. It opens up a room for more debates about the role of social sciences in the society, which usually calls for more than just researches. In addition, advocacy might contribute to steering technology in a direct way, but this will call for scientific advice, policy formulation, and academic conferences (Marcel & Spina, 2013). The examples given on approaches used in social sciences give a good illustration that the lines between legal, social, technical, and economic disciplines are becoming blurred. In usability approach, it is very difficult to explain the difference between social and technical improvement. Take the example of the e-Diamond case described in the above section. Several researchers with a good social science background were engaged in the project. From a neutral approach perspective, social scientists can learn a lot about how science operates in cases that include huge technological systems (Woolgar & Coopmans, 2006).
Despite the efforts I have made to provide clear differences between the four social science approaches, they normally overlap to a large extent (Schroeder, 2012). This does not only apply to neutral and critical approaches, but also to the usability approach. For instance, the usability concerns that were discussed in e-Diamond made the researchers conclude that they intended to redefine the original project “visions”. However, it should be noted that the redefinition of visions was done in order to make the researchers' accomplishment more attainable in the long run (Vann & Bowker, 2006).
This work has discussed the differences between approaches taken to address technological challenges by social science and engineering. It should be noted that whereas social science has several approaches, engineering has quite few. One clear contrast is that social science approaches consider the social impacts of technology on human beings and ecology, while engineering ones do not take this into consideration. On the other hand, engineering approach undertakes to understand the problem and finds possible technological solutions that will solve it. Additionally, while looking for a solution, social science works with the whole society, but engineering approach works with a sample of population. On the other hand, engineering approach encourages a step by step approach understanding human problems and solving these, but social science approaches do not use precise steps (Vann & Bowker, 2006).
The approaches used by both social science and engineering have advantages and disadvantages. Some common advantages are that they provide solutions to many challenges that human beings and ecology face and emergent issues in the society can be amicably solved using either approach. Additionally, the human factor is taken into consideration while finding a solution to human and ecological problems, and approaches are not rigid, but flexible and thus, can handle emerging issues in the society (Vann & Bowker, 2006). On the other hand, there are also disadvantages. Some approaches used in social science, such as neutrality approach, have several major limitations, but researchers still use it and thus, prone to errors. Approaches in engineering are sometimes too detailed and time consuming, thus, finding an immediate solution might be challenging (Marcel & Spina, 2013).
There are several approaches that can be used to solve human and ecological problems in social science and engineering. It should be noted that the society differs in terms of composition, norms, and culture. Therefore, the applicability of any of the approaches is a subject to the composition of the society and its ecology. On the other hand, even though engineering approach differs from social science approach, it is wise to combine both approaches, so that a sustainable solution to human and ecological problems was found.