Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 6. Nr. September 1998

Cultural Studies of Science, Complexitiy, and the Internet

Moses A. Boudourides (Patras)


Social Constructivist and Cultural Studies of Science
Chaos and Complexity: Local or Global?
Internet: Integration or Balkanization?


This text focuses on a bunch of totalizing concepts such as cultural studies of science, chaos, complexity and the Internet. Seemingly unrelated, what all these concepts have in common refers to the ways knowledge (mostly scientific but experiential as well) is constructed, articulated, and communicated through social and cultural mediation. In particular, all these constructions manifest a dichotomous disposition: science and society in cultural studies of science, order/simplicity and randomness/complexity in chaos/complexity, virtual communities (communicational diffusion) and social seclusion (informational barriers) on the Internet. An interesting similarity in all of them is that a totalizing claim of a self-organized global uniformity (allegedly settling the strain between the poles of the corresponding dichotomies) is challenged by opposing evidence of a resisting locality or an emerging differentiation. Our aim is to review some of the current debates on these concepts with respect to the problematic of various tensions rooted in them. In fact, it is just this problematic of controversies what puts together our treatment of these concepts, which is ineluctably incoherent and fragmentary.


Social Constructivist and Cultural Studies of Science

Significant transformations in the nature of modern societies are being brought about by the recent developments in science and technology, in particular in the fields of communication, information, and biological technologies. To understand the complex relation between science and society is the primal task of the so-called science and technology studies (STS), which dramatically diverge from the conventional approaches of the instrumental and value-neutral character of science and technology (as in technological determinism).

The perspectives of the various projects of science and technology studies give a different understanding of the articulations among science, technology, and society. In general, these are diverse programs with aims of analyzing the socioeconomic and political factors shaping scientific and technological enterprises, as they become dominant forms of knowledge and practice in modern culture. At the heart of these approaches is the methodology of ‘social constructivism,’ holding that the traces of science and technology on society can only be gauged through human interpretation. In this sense, social constructivism being at odds with traditional positivist and realist epistemology holds that the context of science and technology is essentially social (“external”) and conceives it as a construction rather a reflection of its intrinsic (“internal”) properties. The roots of this methodology lie in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) (e.g., Bloor, 1976; Collins, 1985; Woolgar, 1988) but, as the methods of social constructivism, starting from science studies, were applied to technology studies, they were diverted in a variety of rather disparate purview.

Before discussing some later developments marking the movement beyond social constructivism by putting the emphasis on the cultural context of scientific and technological practices, we will present a brief taxonomy of the social constructivist streams.

A first social constructivist approach in technology studies is what is called strong social constructivism, an approach strictly derived from the sociology of scientific knowledge and arguing for the socially constructed character of scientific knowledge. It includes the theory of the so-called social construction of technology (SCOT) (e.g., Bijker et al., 1987) together with the work of H.M. Collins and Steve Woolgar and, in particular, with what Grint and Woolgar (1997) call ‘anti-essentialism.’ According to the strong social constructivist approach, technological change is a genuine social construction to be explained solely by social practices, which have produced its stabilization, as through processes of interpretation, negotiation, and closure, by different social actors.

Under the label of mild social constructivism some more moderate approaches are characterized, as the approach of the ‘social shaping of technology’ (e.g., MacKenzie and Wajcman, 1985; MacKenzie, 1991). Although these approaches still accept that social factors shape technology, some elements of relative autonomy are recognized to technology. They accept the action of nonsocial factors in technological change and attribute inherent properties and effects to technology, albeit these properties and effects are usually defined in a particular social context and are due to social or political biases embodied by technology.

A third influential approach is that of the ‘actor-network theory’ (ANT) (e.g., Callon, 1986; Latour, 1987). It tries to explain the development and stabilization of scientific and technological objects as they result from the construction of heterogeneous networks, which are concrete alignments between human actors, natural phenomena, and social or technical aspects. In the processes of stabilization of technology, all actors (or ‘actants’) in the network, either human/natural or social/technical, are analyzed through the same impartial prism and the same terms and methods are symmetrically applied to different entities. However, special preference is given to the explanatory role of social elements, such as social groups and interpretation processes.

Although the various social constructivist approaches vary in their perspectives, they possess certain common features. Contrary to the views of technological determinism, social constructivism incorporates contingency and flexibility in the processes of technological change, conceived to take place in a network of heterogeneous factors pertinent to both technology and society under the presence of certain structural natural constraints. In this sense, technological change cannot be analyzed independently of human interpretation; neither it can be attributed to an imagined intrinsic logic of technology. Rather, technological change is shaped in a general common framework involving different acting individuals, social groups, and other relevant technosocial aspects, as they engage in strategies to overcome the existing controversies and oppositions.

Moreover, social constructivism typically maintains the validity of a principle of methodological symmetry or relativism (Pinch and Bijker, 1987). This principle proclaims a sort of ‘agnosticism’ in the analysis of scientific and technological development, as it remains impartial in front of the various technical controversies and it is reluctant to evaluate any of the knowledge claims made by different social groups about the essence of science and technology. It was in the sociology of knowledge (Bloor, 1976), where this principle was first formulated, motivated by the idea that in a sociological analysis of knowledge both true and false statements can be equally well explained by reference to sociological factors.

A final common element in all social constructivist approaches is the idea that science and technology systems are regulated according to flexible technosocial arrangements by processes of stabilization around concrete developments. In fact, as the stabilization of a technology inscribes the way technology functions in society, the stabilization of an artifact results from processes of settling controversies and negotiations among different social groups, which thus arrive at a similar interpretation. In this way, science and technology are claimed to possess interpretive flexibility, as far as they are void of any objective, fixed properties, but allow for different interpretations by relevant social groups. The outcome of a stabilization process through negotiation and social action sometimes is described as the closure of the scientific and technological development around certain social arrangements.

Despite the significance of social constructivism and its hot debates with the proponents of internalist history and philosophy of science, an important part of the subsequent work in science and technology studies has moved to what is known as the field of cultural studies of scientific knowledge. This is a rather heterogeneous body of scholarship in history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, feminist theory, and literary criticism being unified by a common persistence to consider scientific knowledge as a cultural formation. Joseph Rouse uses the term of cultural studies of science “broadly to include various investigations of the practices through which scientific knowledge is articulated and maintained in specific cultural contexts, and translated and extended into new contexts” (Rouse, 1992).

Moreover, Rouse quotes a list of contemporary practitioners of cultural studies of science including “such diverse historians as Donna Haraway, Robert Marc Friedman, Simon Schaffer, Evelyn Fox Keller, Robert Proctor, and V.B. Smocovitis; sociologists and anthropologists such as Sharon Traweek, Bruno Latour, Paula Treichler, Leigh Star, Michael Lynch, and Karin Knorr-Cetina; philosophers like Ian Hacking, Helen Longino, Arthur Fine, Sandra Harding, and himself [Joseph Rouse]; and literary theorists such as Gillian Beer and Lundmilla Jordanova” (Rouse, 1992). In particular, Rouse distinguishes six common themes in the various approaches of cultural studies of science establishing their distinctive specificity: (1) scientific anti-essentialism, (2) non-explanatory stance, (3) emphasis upon the materiality of science, (4) cultural openness of scientific practices, (5) subversion of scientific realism, and (6) commitment to epistemic and political criticism (Rouse, 1992).

Closing this section, we should mention that both social constructivist and cultural studies of science have been vigorously contested by a storm of criticisms raised in the middle of the so-called science wars, a rather popular event in which is the so-called Sokal affair (Gross & Levitt, 1994; Gross et al., 1996; Koertge, 1998; Sokal &. Bricmont, 1997).


Chaos and Complexity: Local or Global?

In general, chaos theory is considered to refer to the economy between order and chance, determinism and unpredictability, clarity and aporia and, in a similar way, its successor, complexity theory, refers to the interplay between simple and complicated behavior. However, from an epistemological and a critical point of view, it might be interesting to assess the local and global perspectives rooted into the interdisciplinary body of chaos and complexity. Such an assessment is meaningful not only in order to understand the various claims about the validity of chaos/complexity in different scientific fields, but also in order to clarify their cultural and political context.

The common direct way to distinguish between “local” and “global” character of knowledge (either scientific or experiential) sets the stage to the range of applicability and the domain of methodology involved in the discourse into which this knowledge is embodied. Of course, such an approach is not only sensitive but also pertinent to the adopted organization and articulation of the examined body of knowledge; for example, the opposing presuppositions of social constructivism and positivist realism might imply different characterizations of local/global. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of an external observer, the local or global attribute hinges upon the degree of “visibility” of the way different pieces of knowledge are related to each other. Apparently, this is a question of identifying differences and coarse graining similarities, which necessitates the construction of a virtual space of all possible and contingent configurations of knowledge. Although analogies, shifts, and other transfers between separate theories quite often occur (usually at the initial level of the intuitive theoretical formation), they can generically smoothly be appropriated into the internal structure of a knowledge. At least, this is what happens at the regime of a normal science, i.e., far from the uprising conditions of scientific revolutions, when the interior coherence of a theory is maintained by her epistemological autonomy (Kuhn, 1962).

External strains between theories can develop as a result of a variety of reasons. Some of them may reflect an intrinsic tendency towards a theoretical expansion, in some cases due to the high generality or abstract potentiality of the assumed means of analysis. Others may simply have socio-political or cultural connotations, and correspond to existing tensions at the social level. In this respect, as a rule, the social controversies are the ones to be induced onto the scientific ground: questions of power are often at the heart of certain theoretical disputes. Even if this fails to be true some times, more often it can be seen on the way and the conditions under which the theoretical debates and antagonisms are usually committed.

Under the action of such a multiplicity of internal and external determinations, the resulting local or global characterizations are quite intricate. Although it is not one of the most crucial epistemological questions, subsuming a theory to the label of either locality or globality sometimes turns out to be something more than a conforming convenience; it becomes a matter of belief, which is a rather political and questionably scientific attitude. This culpable ambiguity may penetrate even at the level of methodology. In this way, one may wonder whether scientific reductionism might be considered as a local interpretation disguising a global disposition, and whether scientific holism might be considered as a global settlement assembling a local inducement.

The fact is that chaos and complexity are undoubtedly establishing a mainstream paradigm to many scientific fields. What remains to be seen, and it is still at stake, is whether this is a paradigm shift. On the one side, chaos and complexity are providing a source of methodological intuition for those working in a variety of disciplines. On the other side, the interdisciplinary institutions do possess the tools to articulate a novel arrangement over an existing body of a scientific field. However, these events are often misunderstood; the way to conceive the resulting rearrangement is not by employing a simplistic appendage of a predefined condition of knowing in order to organize the body of some knowledge. In other words, chaos and complexity being a paradigm neither means that they are just an instrument of knowledge nor that a paradigm is just an interchangeable or scalable passive theoretical formation. In this sense, those globalizing claims for chaos and complexity need to be reconsidered.

In fact, James Gleick’s popular book, Chaos (1987), has fueled an abundant pool of statements claiming the globalizing value of chaos theory. For example, Gleick says: “Chaos breaks across the lines that separate scientific disciplines. Because it is a science of the global nature of systems, it has brought together thinkers from fields that had been widely separated. ... It makes strong claims about the universal behavior of complexity. ... They (chaos theorists) believe that they are looking for the whole” (Gleick, 1987, p. 5).

Contrary to these rather absolute claims and though there are a lot of opposite arguments carrying the case for locality, the local/global constitution of chaos theory raises many delicate questions. Both in practice and in theory, for example, the occurrence of a chaotic behavior results from the nonlinear interactions between different parts of the system. Therefore, it is a local coordination subordinating the global flows of the dynamics in a strange way, i.e., extremely sensitive to fluctuations and thus completely unpredictable. However, one has to suspect this argument, when one realizes that a lot of chaotic systems reveal a universal character of transition in their processes. Taking into account the previously discussed precaution to respect the relative autonomy of scientific disciplines, this almost ubiquitously emerging globalization in chaos should not pass unexplored.

In any case, the problematic relation between local and global in chaos and complexity is part of a wide-ranging debate about local and global in contemporary thought. Katherine Hayles in the Chaos Bound (1990) remarks some astonishing similarities between the sciences of chaos and critical theory. According to her, “In the new scientific paradigms, the global subsumes the local, but at the price of reconceptualizing the global as constituted by locality. Within critical theory, the claims of the local are expanded until the local itself becomes a new kind of globalizing imperative. These two impulses mirror each other, for in the sciences of chaos the global is localized, and in critical theory the local is globalized” (Hayles, 1990, p. 213-4).

Actually, Hayles’ concern (in the last chapter of her book, the Chaos Bound) was to confront critically and refute the assumptions that local knowledge is progressive, politically libertarian, while global theory is oppressive, politically totalitarian. Such a political connotation of the local/global scheme has been quite popular among some critical theorists. For example, particularly important are Michel Foucault’s (1970) archaeological analyses of the totalizing theories of the Enlightenment, from grammar to biology, and to penology, and their association with totalitarian political practices. Now, by considering an intermingle between local and global, Hayles argues that “it is wrong to assume that global theory is always politically more coercive than local knowledge” (Hayles, 1990, p. 214). But she realizes that such a balance between local and global is extremely paradoxical, “for to answer it one must put forward generalizations, yet generalizations are precisely what are at issue” (Hayles, 1990, p. 214).

Sometimes the valorization of local knowledge appears in extreme tones. Such might be considered the criticisms of Lyotard, who, according to Alexander Argyros (1991), even proceeds that far as to “define the urge towards globalization as terrorism” (Argyros, 1991, p. 213). In the concluding chapter of his Postmodern Condition (1984), Jean-François Lyotard foresees that the coming of the information societies will strengthen the power of the ruling elites having access to the information resources. He thinks that this totalitarian danger can be confronted by the emergence and development within natural and mathematical sciences of such theories as fractal geometry, quantum mechanics, catastrophe theory, and Gödel’s theorem. Grouping them under the label “paralogy,” Lyotard suggests that they will let us “wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name” (Lyotard, 1984, p. 82).

Although Lyotard’s arguments express a contemporary popular allergy toward globalization, his paralogies are rather biased and hardly convincing. Their problem, as Hayles (1990) has remarked, is that they are confusing scientific theories with social problems (a kind of a social Darwinism) and that they all, despite of their local endorsement, encompass a redefined global quality. However, one might agree with Argyros’ conclusion that at least one of Lyotard’s themes merits special attention; this is, according to Argyros, “the question of whether the meaningfulness and pragmatic usefulness of language games, by which Lyotard means semiotic exchanges in general, are best described as local or global phenomena” (Argyros, 1991, p. 234).


Internet: Integration or Balkanization?

In this section we are going to examine the global dynamics activated by modern information and communication technologies, a concrete realization of which is the (virtual) reality in the cyberspace of global computer networks, as on the Internet. Our scope is to speculate on the interplay between two of the main tendencies drifting the corresponding technosocial constructions and cultural practices into two opposite directions: At the one end stand the processes of globalization and integration through the unhindered traffic of information in global channels of communication flows. At the other end emerge the social differentiated patterns of segregated zones picturing a cyberspatial landscape of informational seclusion and communicational fragmentation.

For some thinkers advances in information and communication technologies can contribute to globalization processes and extend the most basic trends in social integration more often than they have countered them (Calhoun, 1992). There are plenty of metaphors describing the modern informational globalization. Marshall McLuhan’s (1964) “global village” refers to the technological reshaping of social space implied by the shrinkage of distance in the “new Galaxy” of communication. Harold Innis’ (1952) “time- and space-binding” is raising the importance the “new time” regime in this period. Similar is Paul Virilio’s (1984) “lost dimension” extending the spatial disappearance to the accidental collapse of time and investigating their urban consequences. The analysis of time plays a central role in the work of Anthony Giddens (1985) too, whose “time-space distanciation” dramatically overcomes the time-space constraints in the information and communication era. David Harvey’s (1989) “postmodern condition” of “time-space compression” is claimed to result an economic and geographical global reshaping of capitalism by revolutionizing “the objective qualities of space and time that we are forced to alter, sometimes in quite radical ways, how we represent the world to ourselves” (Harvey, 1989, p. 240).

A common denominator in all the above approaches to grasp and explain social change in the age of modernity is the fact that a massive expansion of indirect social relationships has been facilitated by the advances in information and communication technologies. In a sense, the prevalence of indirect, mediated relations over direct, face-to-face relations, which are typical of traditional and early modern societies, signifies a constitutive characteristic of modern societies (Boudourides, 1997).

However, although it is clear that information and communication technologies multiply the range of indirect social relationships, it is not that obvious that they contribute to the accomplishment of social integration. In fact, the apprehension that new technologies supplant human labor is obscuring this matter, because it is merely restricted to quantitative aspects of production. On the other hand, computerization and other communication technologies not only enable the automation of production processes but also they reorganize the information flow through these processes. This qualitative feature of information technology is well presented in Beniger’s (1986) “control revolution,” i.e., the rapid technological innovation in the infrastructure of transportation and telecommunications at the end of the 19th century that restored the economic and political control lost during the Industrial Revolution. According to Calhoun, the transformative power of new information technologies aims “to organize more of social life through indirect relationships, to extend the power of various corporate actors, to coordinate social action on a larger scale, or to intensify control within specific relationships” (Calhoun, 1992, p. 221).

What next is interesting to explore is whether the indirect social relationships in the information and communication era do produce a particular type of communities, the so-called “virtual communities,” claimed to support new types of social interaction within cyberspace. Licklider and Taylor, as early as in 1968, were anticipating virtual communities as “on-line interactive communities [which] in most fields will consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest. … [They will] support extensive general-purpose information processing and storage facilities … [and] life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity” (Licklider & Taylor, 1968, pp. 30-31).

The expansion and the disembodiment of indirect relationships in virtual communities, many argue, provoke a strengthening of the civic and public modes of interaction and participation by providing open public fora for debate and mobilization. Some proceed further to laud the Internet as “a model for a truly anarchic society where information is freely exchanged, control and regulation are impossible to exercise where there is no hierarchy” (E. Bell, 1994). Theodore Roszak notes “its spontaneously democratic and libertarian spirit” and suggests that “the coffee houses of eighteenth-century London, the cafes of nineteenth-century Paris were rather like this: a gathering for every taste and topic” (Roszak, 1994, p. 185). In fact, there is a major struggle going on between the business and government interests pushing for the commercialization and regulation of the Internet and those libertarians wanting to protect its open, free, and unregulated character (Ogden, 1994).

Not a few discover in virtual communities a sense of convivial urbanism that has been lost in the physical and social transformations towards postmodern urbanism. Geoff Mulgan, for example, argues that “given that the architecture and geography of large cities and suburbs has dissolved older ties of community, electronic networks may indeed become tools of conviviality within cities as well” (Mulgan, 1991, p. 69). Howard Rheingold (1994) interprets the turn to virtual communities as a search by people who are alienated by the repressive and instrumental character of daily urban life.

However, independently of the ultimate reasons making people use computer mediated modes of communication, the question is whether such computerized communication does build a community or it is an evidence of Beniger’s (1987) “pseudo-community.” For Beniger, a pseudo-community is “a hybrid of interpersonal and mass communication,” part of “the reversal of a centuries-old trend from organic community – based on interpersonal relationships – to impersonal association integrated by mass means” (Beniger 1987, p. 369). In other words, as face-to-face communication has been always associated with community, a technology-mediated (or simulated) “face-to-interface” communication is associated with “pseudo-community” (Jones, 1994, p. 27). Beniger’s criticisms of pseudo-community focus on the insincerity (or inauthenticity) of simulated personalized communication and on the lack of genuine community about which Howard Rheingold is wondering: “Is telecommunication culture capable of becoming something more than … a ‘pseudo-community,’ where people lack the genuine personal commitments to one another that form the bedrock of genuine community? Or is our notion of ‘genuine’ changing in an age where more people every day live their lives in increasingly artificial environments?” (Rheingold, 1993, pp. 60-61). To answer these questions, Jones accepts that “one of the measures of genuine community ought to be its relationship to action (political or otherwise)” (Jones, 1994, p. 25). Apparently such a view, offering a political legitimization of communal authenticity, may be used to determine the relation between community and power, through which it may even assess the very constitution of a virtual community. Unfortunately the conclusions that could be drawn from this point of view are not so encouraging for virtual communities. According to Jones (1994), “the situation in which we find computer-mediated communities at present is that their very definition as communities is perceived as a ‘good thing,’ creating a solipsistic and self-fulfilling community that plays little attention to political action outside of that which secures its own maintenance” (Jones 1994, p. 25).

Beyond the self-referential solipsism of virtual communities, severe doubts have been raised about the extent to which the public and urban places of social life could be reconstructed inside the electronic regime. Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin (1996) are very skeptical of the strong claims of virtual communities as they argue that “public interaction on streets and in public spaces offers much more than can ever be telemediated” and that it is very hard to substitute “real face-to-face interaction, the chance encounter, the full exposure to the flux and clamour of urban life – in short, the richness of the human experience of place” (Graham & Marvin, 1996, p. 231).

Moreover, the information which is available on-line is often of questionable usefulness, obsolete, and often an overload of low quality (Roszak, 1994, p. 165). Virtual communities are overwhelmingly dominated by a white, male technological élite, while “the poor, the excluded and the disenfranchised who have tended to suffer most from the polarisation and privatisation processes in contemporary cities tend to be overwhelmingly excluded from virtual urban communities because they do not have the skills and finance necessary to participate” (Graham & Marvin, 1996, p. 232). In addition, the fragmented seclusion of virtual communities implies risks that “ethnic groups [will] collect in their own electronic communities, libertarians speak only to libertarians … inevitably, the effect will be to shatter local geographic communities and ultimately weaken the national community” (Brown, 1994). The eventual risk could be that “telematically linked communities could fragment our larger society, enabling each of us to pursue isolation from everything different, or unfamiliar, or threatening, and removing the occasions for contacts across lines of class, race and culture” (Calhoun, 1986). In other words, to quote Mike Davis (1993), “urban cyberspace – as the simulation of the city’s information order – will be experienced as even more segregated, and devoid of true public space, than the traditional built city.”

Therefore, although the transformative power of the information and communication technologies aims to the extension of social relationships in new forms of human sociality, as in the emergence of “virtual communities,” it is not that obvious that social integration is attained through them. From our previous discussion, it might be the case that increased connectivity is possibly accompanied with a high degree of fragmentation of social interaction and with the emergence of disconnected patterns of isolated groups being focused on narrower contacts. In particular, a conceivable outcome might be towards what is usually referred as “balkanization,” i.e., the process of dividing people into special interest groups according to preferences, including social, cultural and economic affiliations. Basically, the mechanism of electronic balkanization can be traced back to the fact that a preference for contacts more focused than contacts available locally leads to narrower interaction. This is also certified in a theoretical model of the informational balkanization elaborated by van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson (1995, 1996), in which the effect of bounded rationality is taken into account too. As Internet access is widened and information infrastructure is developing at an increasingly faster rate, understanding of the self-(dis)organized emergent patterns of fragmented coalescence is of great importance for policy makers in the information society.


This paper reports on part of M.A. Boudourides’ research done under his participation at the EU TSER project “The Self-Organization of the European Information Society.”

© Moses A. Boudourides (Patras)

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