Beyond the single-site study: the Biography of Artefacts and Practices
Location 130
Date and Start Time 01 September, 2016 at 16:00
Sessions 3


  • Robin Williams (The University of Edinburgh) email
  • Sampsa Hyysalo (Aalto University) email
  • Neil Pollock (University of Edinburgh) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

The track brings together researchers who, frustrated with the shortcomings of snap-shot studies of particular moments of innovation, seek richer analytical templates for guide longitudinal and multi-site research that engages with the complex interactions amongst suppliers, users & others involved

Long Abstract

The Biography of Artefacts and Practices (BoAP) perspective emerged amongst an informal community of scholars seeking to move away from the atomistic perspectives and 'snap shot' studies of particular moments of technology design or of use that followed the localist turn in STS and prevalent 'flat' ontologies. We therefore need to go beyond the single site case-study or actor-centred accounts that prevailed within recent STS research and develop more effective methodological templates based upon longitudinal and multi-site study,

Groundbreaking longitudinal studies within the BoAP perspective detailed the complexity of innovation processes, involving diverse arrays of players (engineers, users, managers) interacting over protracted periods and across many locales. Work conducted within this perspective has highlighted the various ways in which users contribute to the development of products and the role of various forms of innovation intermediary who may bridge contexts of technology supply and use. These include new kinds of player like industry analyst Gartner which, by making available community knowledge available on a commodified basis, overcome asymmetry of knowledge about complex software produces and allow IT markets to operate.

The track brings together researchers working within the BoAP perspectives and others on a similar intellectual journey (for example Actor Worlds). The aim will be both to take stock and look forward. It will present a range of contributions that offer new empirical applications of the framework as well as work focusing upon methodology (a dimension which has often been overlooked) and conceptual developments.


This track is closed to new paper proposals.


Biographies of artifacts and practices approach: overview and assessment

Authors: Robin Williams (The University of Edinburgh)  email
Sampsa Hyysalo (Aalto University)  email
Neil Pollock (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

Social studies of technology have produced an understanding of technological change that is, paradoxically, at odds with its dominant research templates. We propose a possible remedy, the biographies of artifacts and practices approach and discuss its rationale, principles and substantive results.

Long Abstract

The sophisticated understandings of technological change emerging from recent social studies of technology are, paradoxically, at odds with the dominant research designs and methodological guidelines. The key insight from social shaping of technology from 1980s to 2000s was that new technologies are shaped in multiple interlinked settings, by multiple actor groups and processes, characterized by high contingency and choice. Nonetheless, the dominant S&TS research designs continue to involve intensive ethnographic engagement with particular contexts or overall historical studies with less detailed depictions. At the background reside frameworks such as ANT stressing flat ontology or commitment to detailed local accounts as in ethnomethodology.

A longitudinal multi-site research approach called "biographies of artifacts and practices" (BOAP) has emerged for remedying this S&TS methodology paradox. From its onset in mid 2000s, BOAP has evolved to a point that over 20 long term research engagements have been conducted within it. In this paper we review the origins of BOAP within SST in the UK and Finland. We outline the basic rationale and principles of BOAP and discuss the key variations how it has been pursued. We recount the substantive results that have followed from BOAP studies, most of which have called into question a taken for granted assumption in innovation studies or research on sociotechnical change. These have been largely due to avoiding the strong framing effects produced by "snap-shot" and "single granularity" studies.

How Industry Analysts Shape the Digital Future

Authors: Neil Pollock (University of Edinburgh)  email
Robin Williams (The University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

We explore how Gartner Inc emerged as the leading provider of a new kind of expert: ‘industry analyst’ . Analysts attempt to spot new technological trends. We examine the circuit of promissory work through which their knowledge is accumulated, turned into outputs and validated and consumed.

Long Abstract

Industry analysts are in the business of shaping the technological and economic future. They attempt to 'predict' what will become the next big thing; to spot new emerging trends and paradigms; to decide which hi-tech products will win out over others and to figure out which technology vendors can deliver on their promises.

In just a few short years, they have developed a surprising degree of authority over technological innovation. Yet we know very little, if anything about them. This paper seeks to explain how this was achieved and on what this authority rests. Who are the experts who increasingly command the attention of vendor and user communities? What is the nature of this new form of technical and business knowledge?

We also enquire into why many social scientists have ignored the proliferation of these new forms of management and technical expertise. In some cases scholars have 'deflated' this kind of business acumen, portraying it as arbitrary knowledge whose methods and content do not deserve enquiry. The valuable exception here has been the path-breaking work on the 'performativity' of economic, financial or accounting knowledge. Drawing upon recent performativity arguments, the paper argues the case for a Sociology of Business Knowledge.

Entangled Biographies: An Ecology of AIDS Infrastructures

Author: David Ribes (University of Washington)  email

Short Abstract

Explores the 'entangled biographies' of several long-term scientific organizations that have been supporting HIV/AIDS investigations, with a focus the emergence of a shared 'ecology of infrastructures'. Themes include standardization, inclusion & exclusion, and historical epistemology and ontology.

Long Abstract

In taking a large-scale and long-term view of an infrastructure, we must also acknowledge that the endeavor will travel in tandem with other long-term infrastructures. This presentation tracks an ecology of infrastructures formed by several AIDS cohort studies, each focusing on a particular constituency: men, gay and bisexual men, women, intravenous drug users, and so on. Each is a distinct study, with its own objects of research, protocols, procedures and localized sites of investigation. But, over time, they have influenced each other in various ways e.g., sharing research objects and investigators, inspiring organizational structures, or shaping common standardization regimes. Together these form an ecology of entangled biographies, both discrete and interdependent, and collectively shaping what we can and cannot know in the domain of HIV disease.

Historiography Unbound: Paul Ricoeur and the Biographic Turn

Author: Vasilis Tsiatouras  email

Short Abstract

A biographic turn has recently taken place in the STS. Paul Ricoeur's phenomenology of historiography can be a unifying theoretical framework, in this respect, by tackling both stability and change in sociotechnical systems, and account for the plurality of narrative biases among researchers.

Long Abstract

There has been recently a turn in STS towards the biographies of artefacts and practices. It arose out of discontent with the excessively localized and overly situated studies of technologies and practices. Most of the current research in this area suffers from a rather fragmented overall research focus as well as from an eloquent absence of a unifying theoretical framework. The biographic turn attempts to bring to light the life cycles of artefacts and practices, hardly observed on a local and situated level of enquiry, by strategic ethnography, that is, by designing multi-site and longitudinal studies.

According to the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, historians are narrators, but unlike fiction writers they have to deal with objectivity and truth. Furthermore, historians invent ''quasi-characters'' with historical agency for their narratives, such as nations, peoples, or mentalities, and describe ''quasi-events'' ranging over graduated temporalities from a political assassination to the lifespan of an empire. Finally historians propose ''quasi-plots'' as causal explanations of the social-historical phenomena they study, such as a class struggle, or the protestant ethic.

In this respect, Paul Ricoeur's phenomenological approach to historiography can provide an enriched theoretical-biographical framework that can tackle both stability and change in sociotechnical systems and environments. Furthermore, Ricoeur's typology of a generic historiographical narrative can be incorporated into the research design of a strategic ethnography, solving, thus, the problems of multi-site observations and multiple interpretations and accounting for the plurality of narrative biases among various schools of sociological analysis.

Artefacts and the social learning of industry analysts

Author: Duncan Chapple (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

Semi-structured interviews, conducted with industry analysts around the world, enable a multi-site ethnography to explain the material artefacts used in the production of knowledge infrastructures. It uncovers how analysts in different firms store, share, consume and qualify information using shared objects.

Long Abstract

Social scientists still have a weak understanding of analyst firms such as Gartner and IDC. In contrast to the growing clarity around the knowledge infrastructures produced by these businesses, we lack a multi-site ethnography to explain the material artefacts used in their production.

Biography of artefacts (BoA) approaches give powerful insight into the codification of knowledge. Research has outlined the way that Gartner's market nomenclatures shift to organise differing, continually-evolving, technology solutions.

This paper finds that BoA can provide greater insight. Other firms, most notably IDC, organise differently. Furthermore, we show that work objects shared between analysts play a significant role in both analysts' research, and in developing native artefacts that describe the evolving world.

Our methodology is based on 24 semi-structured interviews conducted with analysts around the world. Avoiding the possible framing bias of one site, the interviews uncover how analysts in different firms store, share, consume and qualify information. Interviewees are invited to share photographs or other representations of the artefacts being shared.

The contributions are three-fold. First, the research offers the first detailed empirical insight into social learning in multiple analyst firms. Second, the interviews allowed us to dig deeper than the formal descriptions of the artefacts produced for consumption by analysts' clients: the study makes it possible to understand better how analysts do work. That allows us to see how far the social learning process is localist, the evolving roles of quasi-universalist repositories and the durable processes of classification work.

The New Production of Users: Changing involvement strategies and innovation collectives

Authors: Sampsa Hyysalo (Aalto University)  email
Nelly Oudshoorn (University of Twente)  email
Torben Elgaard Jensen (Aalborg University Copenhagen)  email

Short Abstract

User involvement has changed significantly since early 2000s when it rose to prominence in S&TS agenda. Based on a recent major volume, we elaborate the key changes in the emerging strategies and approaches to user involvement in business and citizen contexts.

Long Abstract

Behind the steady stream of new products, technologies, systems and services in our modern societies there is a prolonged and complicated battle around the role of users. How should designers get to know the users' interests and needs? Who should speak for the users? How may designers collaborate with users and in what ways may users take innovation into their own hands?

User involvement has changed significantly since early 2000s when it rose to prominence in S&TS agenda. The presentation discusses the emerging involvement strategies and innovation collectives that amount to "new production of users" in business and citizen contexts. Based on a recent major volume, it analyses the challenges in the practical collaborations between designers and users and investigates a number of cases, where groups of users collectively took charge of innovation. It further links these the history of designer-user relations from the era of mass production to the present days.

The key messages from recent S&TS scholarship to the study of users are fourfold. First it has become a 'fact of life' that users have significant productive capabilities, and these are exercised widely in society. Second, user involvement has become a key object of industrial strategizing: efforts to produce productive users. Third, active users, designers and managers all operate in a landscape where the methods and resources for user involvement are widely available. Fourth, empowerment through user involvement can still happen, but not by default.

Biographical approach to an ecology of innovation: analysis of a strategic information system in the auto-industry

Author: Valeri Wiegel (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

This study contributes to a more nuanced understanding of contextually-shaped, highly contingent processes of technological innovation. Applying a biographical perspective a longitudinal case study was conducted of the development and diffusion of an information system in a German car company.

Long Abstract

This case study provided an opportunity to refine and critically examine the applicability of an ecology metaphor to analyse systematically shifts in the composition of alliances between players over an extended timescale in the lifecycle of a technology. The study seeks to advance theorisation of technology as a configurational product of an evolutionary process in which contextual contingencies are built in at different episodes of implementation (Fleck, 1988). It extends and tests the applicability of the 'Biography of Artefacts and Practices' perspective (Pollock and Williams 2009; Hyysalo, 2010) to a different form of innovation (a project within a firm) to understand the detailed dynamics and the influence of configurational politics (Sahay et al., 2009). The framework developed underscores theories of technology that originate from the mid-range (Hine, 2007) and questions the applicability of theories that emphasise agency over structure. It develops a conceptual framework, tentatively titled Ecological Shaping of Technology, drawing upon the Social Shaping of Technology and Social Learning perspectives, that encompasses both detailed understanding of micro-level developments and longer-term dynamics in an extended biographical study. It thus provides a further starting point for advancing an ecological understanding of technological change.

The Biography of Hospital Electronic Prescribing and Medicine Administration (HEPMA) Systems in England

Author: Hajar Mozaffar (The University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

In this study we use a biographical approach to examine the market of HEPMA systems in England. This approach allows us to evaluate our findings in light of the history of Enterprise Solutions, and draw on the lessons for the commercial supply of increasingly complex solutions for the health sector.

Long Abstract

This paper uses a biographical approach to explore the evolution of 'packaged' HEPMA systems in NHS England. We used a longitudinal multi-case study, which examined the views of diverse arrays of players. This perspective showed that the standard HEPMA systems, built around generic models of the user organisation, may be far removed from the structure and processes of particular adopting organisations, necessitating a considerable effort for customization to meet the needs of adopting organizations.

In NHS England, centralised procurement of health systems encountered numerous problems, resulting in a shift to 'locally chosen and implemented systems' Public policies promoting adoption of HEPMA have led to swarming entrance of immature systems into the UK market. Low levels of experience and knowledge both on supply and use sides have led to problematic implementations.

The biographical approach allowed us to see similarities between the history of HEPMA and Enterprise Solutions, in which the UK government's attempts to promote Computer Aided Production Management prompted a similar entrance of immature 'unfinished' products into the market leading to failed implementations. Only later Enterprise Resource Planning systems did enter the market with generic features that could bridge to the range of operating procedures found in particular sectors.

Our findings suggests that public policies for technology promotion need to be considered in relation to the maturity of the technology market, and also health technology markets and 'technological fields' emerge and mature over time through complex contributions of 'communities' of vendors and users (Pollock and Williams, 2009).

Behind the Social Media Scenes: Changing User Involvement Strategy

Author: Mikael Johnson (Aalto University)  email

Short Abstract

This study investigates the user involvement strategy at a company that operated one of the world's largest social game and online communities for teenagers, Habbo Hotel. The key findings demonstrate how collaboration and feedback loops between developers and users change over ten years.

Long Abstract

Social media services feature significant change -- in scale, site, features, actors and communities -- as they start from small projects and transform into taken for granted infrastructure, find a market niche, or decline. This change forms a methodological challenge for social media researchers and a practical challenge to user involvement strategy. However, much design literature assume 'one-off projects', which limits its applicability to ongoing service design.

This study investigates user involvement strategies and practices in the construction of a social media service following the biographies of artefacts and practices approach. It examines (1) how users' actions in and around social media shape its design after market launch, (2) how social media developers' user involvement practices evolve over time, and (3) how user categorisation changes with social media. This study adopted an exploratory case study approach and the data was collected during 2003-2010.

The site of investigation was one of the world's largest social game and online communities for teenagers, Habbo Hotel, operated by Sulake Corporation. The data was gathered from developers and users through a multi-method approach, using traditional qualitative and quantitative methods as well as online data sources.

The key findings demonstrate how collaboration and feedback loops between developers and users change over time. In particular, this study highlights the effects of changes in the target group, the broad variety of applied user involvement methods, rhythms in development, and users' contributions after market launch.

Tracking multiple perspectives on the Copyright Hub's innovation biography

Authors: Hung The Nguyen (University of Edinburgh)  email
Gian Marco Campagnolo  email
Robin Williams (The University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

This paper shows how the Biography of Artefacts & Practices approach can guide empirical analysis of an emerging infrastructure for managing Intellectual Property: the Copyright Hub. Triangulating between different stakeholder viewpoints and moments it tracks the dynamics and development trajectory.

Long Abstract

The Copyright Hub is a UK-based initiative for streamlining copyright licensing. Originating as a side recommendation in Hargreaves Review (2011) of the UK's Intellectual Property framework, the Hub has soon turned from a vague idea of a centrally-controlled Digital Copyright Exchange into a full-fledged sociotechnical project, which attracts the attention of policy makers, copyright practitioners and creative industries far beyond the UK. The development of the Copyright Hub, consequently, is neither confined to a single locale/ moment of innovation nor one actor, but instead being conducted by various actors across multiple sites in an extended timeframe. Conventional approaches in STS, such as snap-shot studies and actor-centred accounts of technology development, are therefore inadequate for capturing, let alone analysing and portraying, the richness of this case study.

To tackle this challenge, we adopt the Biography of Artefacts and Practices (BoAP) perspective, which provides us with an analytical framework for conducting longitudinal, multi-sited studies. Our fieldwork consists of twenty-month study of the Copyright Hub in the UK and a number of shorter studies conducted in South East Asia. Based on archival materials, oral histories and semi-structured interviews, we find that the Copyright Hub continuously evolves through a series of interactions, alignment and misalignment of interests between various stakeholders involved in different stages of the project. The paper not only demonstrates the strengths of BoAP perspective in studying innovation, but also gives insights into the practicality of applying it to research under limited resources, as in the case of doctoral study.

Infrastructure Risk and Biography of Artefacts: Multiple Dynamics and Temporalities

Author: Antti Silvast (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

My paper studies the management of risk and security in electricity infrastructures in Finland. Going further than a single-site focus (e.g. design, policy, or end users), it uses the biography of artefacts perspective to move between three sites: national security, control rooms, and households.

Long Abstract

Energy risk and security have become topical issues in Western national and global policy discussions, ranging from international climate change mitigation through to investing in energy infrastructures to support economic growth and more sustainable energy provisions.

My paper takes current energy issues to its focal point and studies how security and risk are seen as problematic and produced as issues to be solved in the liberalized electricity infrastructure in Finland. In-depth STS and social science works have already covered several aspects of these issues: including infrastructure security policy, high reliability organizations, privatization of infrastructures, and energy system transitions and innovations on multiple societal levels. However, among the main challenges in this discussion, especially in STS which is my main frame of reference, has been reliance on a single kind of actor, field site, viewpoint, or setting as the main source of information, such as end users, energy policy, or technology design.  

To address this tendency to centre analyses on particular actors, the presentation draws from the biography of artefacts perspective to analyse three sites in the Finnish electricity infrastructure: history of national infrastructure security, actions in electricity control rooms, and electricity blackouts in households. Data from these sites cover long-term priorities and short-term dynamics of electricity risk, and include design, maintenance, as well as end use perspectives. The presentation pays specific attention to how the field studies were designed, using existing theoretical and empirical understanding about them, and uncovers how interconnections among these sites can be traced.

The Biographies of Wandering Engineers

Author: James Stewart (University of Edinburgh, )  email

Short Abstract

‘Biographies of artefacts’ are the outcomes of multiple overlapping biographies of things, visions, alliances etc, and the people who try to carry forward innovation We explore issues & advantages of following the wandering careers of these individuals as they facilitate long haul innovation.

Long Abstract

When we study the biographies of artefacts through unfolding innovation and appropriation we are in fact studying multiple overlapping biographies - of things, of programmes, visions, models and representations, and importantly, the people, engineers especially, who carry forward research, development, networks, use cases and memory of success and failures. As significant new innovations develop, we find these people moving from failed project to new opportunity, one generation of system to the next, from supply side to user side, sometimes for decades. This paper explores some of the methodological issues and advantages of following the careers of these individuals and the role their play in facilitating long-haul innovation.

Biography of living lab collaboration

Author: Louna Hakkarainen (Aalto University ARTS)  email

Short Abstract

This longitudinal case study of a floor-monitoring system for elderly care investigates maturing relationship between technology developers and users during and after a four-year living lab project. The study focuses on multi-stakeholder learning, conflict management, and innovation intermediaries.

Long Abstract

Living lab environments are often promoted as a way to engage private companies, citizens, researchers, and public organisations in mutually beneficial learning. They are open-ended, real-life, and sustained co-design arrangements.

This longitudinal case study follows the biography of a floor monitoring system for elderly care - the smart floor - and maturing of user-developer collaboration during and after living lab project. The data consists of documents and interviews.

The focus is on learning between different stakeholders and challenges that rise in a setting where different professional identities, organisational cultures, values, and goals are at play. The project faced power games between the stakeholders and end-users were reluctant to participate in the technology development, but nevertheless project workers managed to prevent the network from falling apart.

The study suggests that multi-stakeholder learning in a living lab cannot be presumed or taken for granted, but learning for interaction is needed before learning in interaction is possible. In the smart floor case intermediary actors played pivotal role in conflict resolution and facilitation of learning.

The current living lab literature recognises the importance and multifacetedness of intermediary actors, but does not shed light on the work they do at a more practical level. With the longitudinal perspective the study seeks to capture the maturing of everyday challenges of the co-design project and work tasks of the innovation intermediaries, who seek to tackle these challenges.

The role of intermediary objects in reframing an evolving product concept across engineering worlds

Authors: Christian Clausen (Aalborg University)  email
Liv Gish  email

Short Abstract

This paper offers an in-depth case study of the biography of an industrial product concept covering a time span of 25 years. The focus is on the role of intermediary objects in the evolving framings and re-framings of the product concept from a ‘cost efficient’ to a ‘carbon reducing' pump.

Long Abstract

The work with new product ideas at the socalled 'Front End of Innovation' in manufacturing companies has caught attention as a space where concerns for sustainable transitions may translate into strategies for radical innovation.

In this paper we contribute a case study of sustainable transition as it unfolds over a couple of decades around the development of a pump concept in a Danish pump manufacturing company. We will especially pay close attention to how ambitious visions, societal demands for energy saving products and sustainable manufacturing, technology offerings, have been translated into engineering decisions and new constructions of users and markets.

The biography of this material artefact includes disputes and controversies across several different locations and perspectives within engineering, strategy and marketing worlds of what is seen as a viable product concept. Perceptions of what constitute a relevant product idea seems to transform several times before stabilized in a viable and marketable product. How can this transformation be characterized and understood? What is the stabilizing or transformative role of particular intermediary objects in this process and how do they interact with, defend themselves from or enact institutionalized frames and dominant understandings in established organizational practices?

Biographies of Innovation: Networks and Products in Scottish Space Sector

Author: Matjaz Vidmar (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

This paper is presenting a novel approach to combine Biographies of Artefacts and Practices (BoAP) with Social Network Analysis (SNA) to study the link between Innovation (Eco)System and New Product Development (NPD) in high-tech industry, based on a case study of the Scottish Space Sector.

Long Abstract

This project is attempting to bridge a theoretical and methodological gap (Venturini and Verbano, 2014), between the (eco)systemic macro level (Malerba, 2002; 2005) and processual micro level (Pavitt, 2004) of understanding high-tech innovation (in the Space Industry), and illuminate the role public institutions (can) play in supporting new venture creation and growth (Dosi et. al., 2006; Smits and Kuhlmann, 2004; Chesbrough, 2013). The offered solution is an enquiry into Business and Knowledge Networks and the direct effect they have on New Product Development (NPD) in firms, particularly SMEs.

Central to this work is the assumption that the gap can be bridged by studying network facilitated interaction between macro and micro level realities (or social worlds). In order to understand them better, a bi-partite approach was devised of, on one hand, biographical (Williams and Pollock, 2008) study of the NPD process as a series of "innovation moments" (developed from Edwards, 2000), and, on the other, using Social Network Analysis (SNA) (Scott, 1988; Giuliani 2007a; 2007b) to map the Business and Knowledge Network(s) inputting into this process.

So far, the deployment of this model in the Scottish Space Sector, our case study, is showing that a crucial insight in the system is indeed possible when studying direct effects networks have on the creation of new products (Vidmar, 2015). This (two-way) interaction is a starting point for future work, however, illuminating this link further and characterising its effects is not trivial - after all, who said it was not rocket science?

This track is closed to new paper proposals.