Social determinism


Social determinism

Social determinism is the concept that the social circumstances at a particular moment in time determine which technologies are adopted, and how. No technology is inevitable, new technologies can only emerge and then begin to be utilized. Lelia Green in her article "‘What Fuels Technology Change?’" argues that social reasons behind technological adoption must be considered when discussing new technologies. This is in contrast to technological determinist Marshall McLuhan’s most famous quote "“the medium is the message"”. (Federman: 2004)

In the field of media studies, social determinism lies in contrast with technological determinism. Social determinism argues society shapes the evolution of any technology whereas technological determinism argues that technology shapes the evolution of society. (Green: 2001) The concept of technological determinism is dependent upon the premise that social changes come about as a result of the capabilities that new technologies enable. Social determinism perceives technology as a result of the society in which it is developed. Proffessor Sherman Young of Macquarie University, Sydney Australia argues that technologies are "“produced and evolve within complex relationships between people, institutions and technical possibilities”" (Young: 2003).

"Sherman Young" uses the example of radio to explore social determinism. Originally, radio was created for two-way communication but gradually its main function became one-way mass communication. Therefore it can be seen that "“the ability to broadcast was constrained socially, not technically…. radio exemplified the fact that technologies do not exist entirely in some kind of scientific or engineering realm, but are shaped in a wider social reality”" (Young: 2003)

Ultimately, in the new and rapidly evolving media environment, technologies are seen to be socially contructed and therefore susceptible to change when the social environment changes. (Berland: 2000) Consider uses of the telephone, when it was developed it, the Western Union released a memo stating "“this telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us”" (1876). However since then, as technology has advanced, different social preassures have dramatically changed the role of the telephone in society.

Social determinists perceive that technological development is not only determined by the society in which it occurs, but that it is inevitably shaped by the power structures that exist in that society (for example government bodies, other organisations with power, laws). (Green: 2001)

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cite book
last = Berland
first = Jody
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Cultural Technologies and the Evolution of Technological Cultures in The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory
publisher = Routledge
date = 2001
location = New York
pages = 235-258
url =
doi =
id =
isbn =

cite book
last = Green
first = Leila
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Technoculture
publisher = Allen and Unwin
date = 2001
location = Crows Nest
pages = 1-20
url =
doi =
id =
isbn =

cite book
last = Federman
first =
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = What is the Meaning of the Medium is the Message? http://individual.utoronto.ca/markfederman/article_mediumisthemessage.html (accessed 28/08/08)
publisher =
date = 2004
location =
pages =
url =
doi =
id =
isbn =

cite book
last = Young
first = Sherman
authorlink =
coauthors =
title = Technology is a Contest of Ideas http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=335 (accessed 03/04/08)
publisher =
date = 2003
location =
pages =
url =
doi =
id =
isbn =

See also

* Determinism
* Environmental determinism
* Genetic determinism
* Linguistic determinism
* Nature versus nurture


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