Sociotechnical Imaginaries from Jasanoff

This article is part of my Master’s Thesis - Future Imaginaries. Previous Chapter: 2.3.2 Fictional Expectations from Beckert

In Cook’s “alternative imaginary,” positive future imaginaries referred to the expectations of and possibilities offered by technology (cf. chapter 2.3.1). Technological progress is often a driving force for Future Imaginaries.

However, the influence of technology (and science) on the development of modernity did not play a role in any of the theorists considered in chapter 2.2. The researchers Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim from the field of ‘Science, Technology, and Society Studies’ (STS) criticize this, from their point of view, deliberate neglect in the social sciences and define – parallel to Beckert with his Fictional Expectations for capitalism – their term for imaginaries in the context of STS: “Sociotechnical Imaginaries.”1

Initially, Jasanoff and Kim focused Sociotechnical Imaginaries on the collective imaginaries of the future of nations. In their chapter ‘Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity’ in the anthology ‘Dreamscapes of Modernity,’2 Jasanoff expands the frame of reference to include other, smaller social groups such as corporations or social movements, following the general development in the understanding of imaginaries as described in chapter 2.

A year before Beckert, and thus essentially the first in the context of Imaginaries, she provides a precise definition of her understanding:

“… we redefine sociotechnical imaginaries […] as collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology.”3

The core component of Jasanoff’s Sociotechnical Imaginaries are visions of desirable futures, which she privileges because she sees the effort to develop new technological futures as anchored in “positive visions of social progress.”3 Although fears and anxieties are associated with such futures, according to Jasanoff, they begin with a desire for a better future.

Jasanoff emphasizes the performativity in Sociotechnical Imaginaries to highlight the importance of technology and science for society. In her view, the understanding of science and the possibilities of technology, for example, in communication, have made modernity possible in the first place and are constituting elements for many societies.4

However, Jasanoff not only describes the concept of Sociotechnical Imaginaries but also deliberately distinguishes it from other concepts to raise its profile and clarify why she believes it is necessary.

“Unlike mere ideas and fashions, sociotechnical imaginaries are collective, durable, capable of being performed; yet they are also temporally situated and culturally particular.”5

As this quote shows, she predominantly does not separate what are essential characteristics of Imaginaries and which are specific to Sociotechnical Imaginaries. This blurring is also found in most of the other authors’ treatment of Imaginaries in this chapter.

It is interesting that Jasanoff exclusively uses other terms from political science for differentiation. Thus, she differentiates Sociotechnical Imaginaries from the master narrative, from discourse, from ideology, as well as from policy and the plan.6 Other concepts linked to societal expectations, are not considered (cf. chapter 3.3).

This focus on the interface between political science and STS is elemental to Jasanoff’s understanding of Sociotechnical Imaginaries. Her approach is strongly influenced by internal developments in STS. Jasanoff understands her approach as a reaction to the strong presence of actor-network theory in STS, which in her view “flattens” the role of power and agency.7

Sociotechnical imaginaries are not a general concept to describe the role of science and technology in society’s expectations for the future. Instead, they are a specific approach with which Jasanoff aims to shift the view in a specific context at a particular point in time. They provide an approach to imaginaries from the perspective of STS.

In addition, Jasanoff hints at how Sociotechnical Imaginaries can be identified and analyzed. She prefers the methods of “interpretative research and analysis that probe the nature of structure-agency relationships through inquiries into meaning making.”8 In doing so, she highlights the comparison as the most promising method to bring out the differences in Sociotechnical Imaginaries. This illustrates how strongly her thinking is anchored in considering national imaginaries. After all, it is much easier to define a comparison between the imaginaries of nations than between diverse social groups such as social movements, which are far more difficult to delineate. This is also evidenced by her recommendation to pay special attention to the development of laws, as these often provide information about the development of an imaginary.9

“Legal disputes are in their very nature moments of contestations between disparate understandings of the good […], requiring judges to issue rulings that often reproduce dominant sociotechnical imaginaries.”9

The same applies to political actors’ programs and documents, from parties to lobbying associations to citizens’ movements.

Ultimately, Jasanoff formulates a similar research question for the motivation to look at imaginaries as Fred Polak did many years earlier:

“More needs to be done […] to clarify why, at significant forks in the road, societies opt for particular directions of choice and change over others and why those choices gain stability or, at times, fail to do so.”10

Numerous STS scholars have built on the foundations of Jasanoff to identify and examine specific Sociotechnical Imaginaries.

Next Chapter: Imaginaries from Lockton and Candy

  1. cf. Jasanoff, S., & Kim, S.-H. (2009). Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea. Minerva, 47(2), 119– 146. 

  2. Jasanoff, S. (2015). Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity. In Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power. University of Chicago Press. 

  3. ibid., p. 4  2

  4. cf. ibid, S. 10 

  5. ibid., p. 19 

  6. cf. ibid., p. 20 

  7. cf. ibid., p. 16 

  8. ibid., p. 24 

  9. cf. ibid., p. 26  2

  10. ibid., p. 14 

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