I.A.N.S.: IANS Are a Network of Sociologists


Cyborg Sociology and High-tech Discourse

by Ben Collier (Contributor)

As the consumer releases of Google Glass and Oculus Rift loom in 2015, so too do the inevitable waves of media alarmism, decrying a generation absorbed in smartphones, Facebook and virtual reality. The past decade has witnessed the integration of technology into social life in more and more personal ways. However, rather than the militaristic, weaponised “cyborgs” of classic science fiction, the modern cyborg subject is far more a creature of networks, communication and convenience - we seem to have neither lost our humanity nor transcended it. As a framework for developing a “hybrid” or “cyborg” sociology, Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Theory” develops a way of tackling technology and society which moves past the sterile tracing of relational networks of many techno-social theories and allows for a radical approach to discourse and hybridity in social theory and ethnographic research.

Donna Haraway’s cyborgs present an alternative view of human-technological relations, a view which shares much common DNA with network theorists such as Bruno Latour and Manuel Castells. Haraway’s seminal paper ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’ argues for the “cyborg”, as a means of breaking down “universal, totalising theory”, which could – in turn - offer a “way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves”.[1] Haraway’s “cyborgs” hold a similar position to the “hybridity” of much recent social theory, dissolving the dualisms of subject and object, social and technological in favour of a framework whose agencies and subjectivities are confused and multiple. Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ rejects social universals, focusing on lived, multiple and individual constructions of selfhood and arguing that “there is no fundamental, ontological separation in our formal knowledge of machine and organism, of technical and organic”.[2] As with other techno-social theories, Cyborg Theory seeks to break down the presupposed distinction between the technological and the social in favour of a descriptive analysis of the networks which are formed by people and technology. Where Cyborg Theory advances this “hybrid” approach is in recognising that social relations are rarely easily traced, clear-cut or singularly meaningful. For sociological research, this “cyborg” hybridity provides a way towards a critical, imaginative study of technology and society. It generates “imaginative mappings of possibilities”[3] rather than mere sterile descriptions of associations - room is left for discourse, multiple viewpoints, diverse interpretations and uncertainty.  As attested in Laura Cherniak’s paper ‘Transnationalism, technoscience and difference’[4], Haraway’s cyborg theory “brings in questions about race, gender and sexuality which Latour neglects”, allowing social forces, personal identities and theoretical concepts to shape and be shaped by the networks of technologies and people which she describes.

Haraway’s work explicitly addresses the power of discourse, framing the “material-semiotic” as a relation rather than a binary distinction. This presents discourse (and social concepts) as “material-semiotic practices through which the objects of attention and knowing subjects are both constituted”,[5] allowing the analysis of late twentieth-century humanity which she undertakes in her ‘cyborg manifesto’ to critically mobilise social forces, language and discourse as both shaping and shaped by the relationships between social and technological subjects. Attesting that “gender might not be global identity after all, even if it has profound historical breadth and depth”,[6] Haraway’s framework decries essentialism, however it stops short of a full social relativism, recognising social concepts as rooted in real relationships and associations (however hybrid and multiple their meanings may be).

Cyborg research as an anthropological and ethnographic tool “invests in alternative worldmaking”[7] and “participate(s) in continued critical translations of ‘objectivity’ and ‘community”,[8] allowing for critical, political accounts which challenge and subvert hegemony and oppression.[9] This allows for sociological study which recognises the discursive power of social forces (e.g. gender, class, race) but treats them as networked, contingent and to be individually mapped rather than universally applied. In this way, Haraway’s material-semiotic cyborg theory retains the dissolution of subject and object of more formal, empirical techno-social frameworks, while adding a further realm - the effects and presence in the network of the metaphors, thoughts, descriptions and discourse of the objects of study.

Cyborg Theory has shown a good deal of utility as a theoretical framework for research in high-technology environments. Traditional techno-social accounts tend to focus on tracing networks of technology and are often useful for shedding light on the hidden or ignored roles which technologies play in everyday life. In his ethnography of broadband users, Petersen mobilises Haraway’s Cyborg Theory to add a discursive dimension to this type of study, tracing the material network of technologies mediating internet access and mapping the “everyday life” of his “mundane cyborg” subjects.[10] Acknowledging the contribution of social constructionist literature in critiquing the way in which the ‘online’ environment reproduces “the same hegemonic structures”[11] as the ‘offline environment’, Petersen sets out an approach which treats humans and nonhumans symmetrically and the internet as not separate from the physical, but an “intrinsic part of everyday life”,[12] with the human “always in contact with the nonhuman”.[13] Describing his “mundane cyborg”[14] participants, he draws on the material-semiotic interrelation proposed by Haraway to describe the internet as “much more than a representational machine”[15]  - it is a network of different technologies given meaning by the specific ways in which they mediate the spatiality of everyday life. Haraway’s framework allows technological and social networks to be enmeshed, hybrid spaces in which gender, race, class and other social forces play an important role as patterns and expressions of the networks themselves. The study goes on to describe how technology’s presence in the homes of broadband users is both a material and semiotic one, describing the relationship between the positions of routers and computers in the home and the routines of the household and revealing the deeply material and meaningful ways in which ICT embeds itself as a part of everyday actions such as “brushing their teeth” or preparing food.[16]  

For sociological study, a cyborg sensibility could make for ethnographic research which both resisted the ‘black-boxing’ of complex, techno-social spaces found in late modern societies and enabled a critical, reflexive and cyborg approach to discourse and social forces. The more ubiquitous and pervasive that high-technology becomes in social life, the more naturalised it appears to us - less alien and more hybrid. Haraway’s framework is a persuasive one precisely because it captures the intimacy of hybrid relations. While techno-social approaches seem more and more vital in capturing the complex ways in which technology and society intertwine, so does it become yet clearer that the spaces of the internet and communications technology are as gendered and subject to hegemonic structures as the ‘physical world’. Cyborg theory provides a uniquely apt framework for studying these structures and networks.

[1] Haraway, D., “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s”, in Feminism/Postmodernism, 1990, Routledge

[2] Haraway, D., 1990

[3] Gough, N., “RhizomANTically Becoming Cyborg: Performing Posthuman Pedagogies”,  Educational Philosophy and Theory, 2004, 36:3, pp. 253-265

[4] Cherniak, L.,“Transnationalism, technoscience and difference” in Virtual Geographies: Bodies, Spaces and Relations, 1999, Routledge

[5] Haraway, D., 1990

[6] Ibid.

[7] Downey, G., Dumit, J. and Williams, S., “Cyborg Anthropology”, in The Cyborg Handbook, 1995, Routledge

[8] Downey, G., Dumit, J. and Williams, S., 1995

[9] Haraway, D., 1990

[10] Petersen, S., “Mundane Cyborg Practice: Material Aspects of Broadband Internet Use”, Convergence, 2007, 13, pp. 79-91

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Petersen, S., 2007