History of Technology/Cultural Determinism

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Cultural determinism is a term used to describe the concept that culture determines economic and political arrangements. It is an idea which has recurred in many cultures over human history, from ancient civilisations through the present. Social construction of technology (also referred to as SCOT) is a form of Cultural Determinism, and a branch of the Science and Technology Studies. Topicly, it includes Social Shaping of Technology, Actor-network theory and Sociotechnical System Theory (developed by Thomas P. Hughes) among others) which is a branch of the sociology of science and technology. It draws on work done in the constructivist school of the sociology of scientific knowledge, as a response to technological determinism. Social constructivists argue that technology does not determine human action, but that human action shapes technology. Social structures are embedded in technologies which shape how users use them.

Leading writers in this field include Wiebe Bijker, Trevor Pinch and Bruno Latour.

In this Section[edit]

Brief discussion[edit]

In theories of social development, there are a number which believe that one element is the factor which determines all of the others. One of the most famous is Marx's theory of economic determinism, namely that an individual or class' role in the means of production determines outlook and cultural roles. The idea of cultural determinism is extremely common: numerous societies have believed that their habits, ideas and customs were what determined the shape of their political and economic arrangements, and were the source of their uniqueness above all else. This can be seen in adherence to national epics, particular religious customs, and focus on the importance of language as the determiner of national identity.

Cultural determinism is not limited to one part of the political spectrum or to any one of the Social sciences, but is instead a paradigm used by a variety of writers and thinkers.

Examples of Cultural determinism[edit]

There was a prevalent belief among ancient Greeks believed that only those who spoke their language could understand their thought and political arrangements, others were called barbaroi from which the English word barbarian is derived. This identification of culture and politics can be seen in the dual use of the word nomos, which meant both law, and customs or practices. The English words economics and astronomy have nomos as a root word, and reflect this dual meaning.

Niccolò Machiavelli, while he argued that political behavior was universal, also pointed out that elements of culture, particularly religion, could produce particular political arrangements which were advantageous to those that had them.

Sociologist Max Weber wrote about the relationship between Protestantism and Capitalism, arguing that the cultural aspects of religion, including the Protestant work ethic were crucial in the emergence of economic arrangements.

Romanticism had a large element of cultural determinism, drawn from writers such as Goethe, Fichte, and Schlegel. In the context of Romanticism, the geography molded individuals, and over time customs and culture related to that geography arose, and these, being in harmony with the place of the society, were better than arbitrarily imposed laws.

In Media theory many writers take the position that political arrangements are determined by the mass media images that people see, and that these, by displacing other forms of culture, determine the economic and political arrangements.

In modern Conservatism, individuals such as commentator Patrick Buchanan and economist Robert Barro argue that cultural norms determine the behavior of political arrangements.


In 1993, Langdon Winner published an influential critique of SCOT entitled "Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding it Empty: Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology." In it, he raises a few problems with social constructivism:

  1. It explains how technologies arise, but ignores the effects of the technology after the fact.
  2. It is a social construction of knowledge in itself, subject to the same limitations as it postulates ("Who says what are relevant social groups and social interests?")
  3. It disregards dynamics which are not due to its "preferred conceptual strawman: technological determinism."


  • Sismondo, Sergio. 1993. "Some Social Constructions", in Social Studies of Science, vol. 23, pp. 515-53.
  • Winner, Langdon. 1993. "Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding it Empty: Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology" in Science Technology & Human Values, vol 18, no 3 (summer), pp 362-378.