Tag Archives: baboons

Technology and Culture, Part I

I started this blog with my definition of the word ‘technology’, and it’s now time for me to define what I mean by ‘culture’ and how I think the two interact. Someday I’ll get to ‘Christian spirituality’, but one step at a time!

Without a doubt, the concept of culture is complicated. It’s a bit like the concept of money–it surrounds us, we rely on it nearly every day, but when pressed to define it precisely or comprehensively, most of us would have a hard time doing so. Both money and culture are concepts that seem to point towards real, tangible things in the world, but when we press into them and start to examine them more closely, they begin to disappear, slipping through our analytical fingers like dissipating smoke.

Since a full theoretical exploration of culture and its relation to technology will take several posts, I want to start by reviewing an article that helped me think more clearly about all this. It’s entitled “Redefining the Social Link: From Baboons to Humans“, written by the French sociologist (and provocateur) Bruno Latour and the primate anthropologist Shirley Strum. It’s a fairly succinct article that introduces the reader to Latour’s very interesting way of thinking about technology and culture, which I have found to be particularly enlightening.

He begins by setting up a bit of a straw-man to represent the more traditional sociological approach, one that he refers to as the “ostensive model.” This model assumes that society is something that is “out there,” apart from the individual actors that participate within it. Sociologists can learn some information about the society from the participants, but these poor “dupes” can never see what the objective sociologist is able to see–the overall social structures that constrain and guide the actions of the participants.

(For those new to sociological language, ‘actor’ is a term used to describe any social participant. This allows one not only to speak about human and primate societies using the same language, but also to allow non-human actors—that is, machines—to have some degree of agency in the society. See actor-network theory, which I will describe in a later post.)

Latour then suggests a different approach, one he terms the “performative model.” This model comes from blending the sociological work of Garfinkel with that of Latour’s own anthropological study of scientific practice (see Science in Action). Instead of assuming that society exists somehow apart from actors, encompassing and controlling them, the performative model sees society as the product of the actors’ own attempts to define it. That is to say, society is constantly re-created every time one actor convinces another actor that society is the way that first actor says it is.

The authors illustrate this first by talking about baboon societies. Contrary to initial scientific opinions, baboons do construct somewhat complex social orders, and the establishment of dominance seems to be at the heart of them. But this still leaves an open question: how do the baboons know who is dominant and who is not? They seem to be constantly testing each other, as humans often do, to see who is allied to whom, who is the leader of whom, and what strategies are most effective for making others do what they want them to do.

The authors then make the following, rather startling conclusion: the primate researcher and the baboons are trying to answer the same question! They are both attempting to define the social order by participating, interacting, and observing the results. With each interaction, they are attempting to articulate some aspect of the social order, and if they are successful in convincing others of their claims, the social order (both for the baboons and for the scientists) is recreated as they say it is.

Baboon societies, however, are limited in scale and tend to be somewhat fragile and fleeting compared to human societies. This, the authors argue, is because baboons have few resources besides their bodies with which to convince others of their definitions of the social order. A male baboon might be able to assert dominance over his local area, but cannot extend that dominance to places he does not frequent. Baboons within a given society are also constantly testing one another, vying to establish a new dominance and thus a new social order.

So what does this have to do with human societies and technology? Well, as opposed to baboons, we humans have developed many types of symbolic and material resources with which we can extend a particular social order across both space and time. These resources are the ideologies, techniques, institutions, and material artifacts that we interact with most every day. They are not only the products of technological practice, but also the things we commonly lump together under the word ‘culture’.

This is not to say, however, that these technologies have a deterministic affect on those who choose to adopt them. A stereo set is a symbolic and material resource that the producers and marketers might use to assert a particular aspect of the social order, but the adopters of that artifact may in turn use it in a different way, ascribing to it a new meaning in order to assert a different kind of social order. Both groups are trying to convince others that the world is the way they say it is, using the various resources at their disposal to extend that definition over space and time.

In short, technology and culture are really two sides of the same coin. When we look at it one way, we see technological practitioners producing knowledge, techniques, artifacts, and systems that change the way we relate to one another. When we look at it the other way, we see social groups forming shared values, traditions, institutions, and material practices that define and reinforce the group. But we’re really talking about the same thing: attempts by actors to convince others that the world is as they say it is.