Few scholars find themselves involved in the birth of a new field. Trevor Pinch has helped advance three new areas of study: science and technology studies, the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) and sound studies.
Pinch, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Science & Technology Studies and professor of sociology, reflects on the origins of these fields and shares insights in a new book based on interviews with him, “Entanglements: Conversations on the Human Traces of Science, Technology, and Sound” by Simone Tosoni.
Pinch says he’s been “lucky” to move through different areas in his academic career, but his enthusiasm for new ideas and ability to think outside the box has clearly played a role. His seminal 1984 article, “The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other,” co-authored with Wiebe E. Bijker, led to SCOT, an entirely new approach to understanding technology.
“Most approaches in the sociology of technology at the time looked at the impact of technology on society,” Pinch said. “SCOT looks the other way: how can society impact technology? How do assumptions about society get embedded within technology?”
The article used the example of the high-wheeled “ordinary” bicycle, featured on the cover of “Entanglements.” The dangerously high vehicle was a “macho” bike, Pinch said.
“Other social groups couldn’t use it because it was so unsafe,” he said. “Also, Victorian norms of fashion prevented women from riding it. The bike’s speedy change into the ‘safety bicycle’ was an example of society shaping the way technology is.”
The article remains the most highly cited of Pinch’s papers. It led to an influential book, “The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology,” that sold more than any other edited volume from MIT Press.
“The story of the bike has become like a parable and is used a lot in teaching,” Pinch said. “We’re living in a scientific, technologically dense world, and people are looking to understand what’s going on and the perspective of the sociologist of technology really can add something.”
Pinch is a natural storyteller, and readers get to know important figures in the field of science and technology studies through the fond lens of his memories. An example is Pinch’s tales of Bruno Latour, now an A.D. White Professor-at-Large.
“He has become one of the most famous academics in the whole of social science, never mind STS,” Pinch said. “But he used to sleep on my couch in Bath [England].”
The cutting edge of a discipline continues to be where Pinch seems most comfortable. He’s spending his sabbatical this semester at Cornell Tech, where he’s found a home with the Connective Media hub. Founded by Mor Naaman, associate professor of Information Science at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, the research group focuses on social technologies and the role of new media.
In addition to working on his new book about sound, “The Sonic Imaginary,” Pinch is collaborating with Serge Belongie, a professor at Cornell Tech and in the Department of Computer Science, on “deep learning” research, trying to teach a computer to learn to recognize musical instruments. Pinch said, “it’s a hard project but it’s fun.” And just one more new frontier for Pinch.
This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.