Through case studies of bicycles, Bakelite and florescent bulbs, Wiebe Bijker developed the concepts of technological frames, interpretive flexibility, and relevant social groups to explain the development of technology in the context of society.
A technological frame is a ontological device that links a technological problem and the players who have a common strategy for solving the problem. A group of amateur engineers trying to broadcast static-free radio signals over a long distance might be part of a technological frame, likewise a group of chemists working for a German dye company; these groups will identify the same problems, and having trained together, or one technician having trained many of the others, will tend to approach problems in the same way. A member of the group who works on the fringe of a self-identified and fairly closed group, with lower "inclusion" in the technological frame, may approach a problem in a different way: for example, a chemist or an engineer living in a different country, working on the same problem, but with different training, or different social pressure. Hence, Bell brought his experience with the deaf to the limits of telegraphy and worked on voice transmission rather than on duplexing signals over a line.
In addition, the way an item in question can be used -- Bakelite, or bicycles, or bulbs -- may gather various previously unlinked social groups together. The hunt for suitable substitutes for ivory brought dentists into the same group as the manufacturers of billiard balls. The energy surrounding the bicycle and its many forms must be attributed partly to the engaging kinetic simplicity of the problem of creating self-motivated wheeled transportation, but also to the groups who could, with modifications to the design, be included. Beyond the young men of nerves and athleticism were professional gamesters, young women, princes, postmasters, each of these responding to something different: a racing tire, a way to travel unescorted, a fashionable new status symbol, a package basket in the back. Stabilization and closure come about slowly -- the form becomes linked with one noun, one object by degrees, as the relevant social groups align themselves around a common agreement on functions and forms.
Bijker proceeds without Nature and that deliberately. Nature is not to be the cause of anything; whatever Nature is, is determined by the social groups. Explanations for social acceptance must be considered symmetrically, as if "working" or "not working" were the same outcome, since "working" has to be placed in the context of the group for which the artifact worked or didn't work. Or to put the point another way, for Bijker, the tree in the forest doesn't make a noise. More or less, this is a problem that cannot be resolved without the infamous "invitation to the balcony." Unfortunately, the invitation to jump is an invitation to experience the power of Nature singly, and arguments about sociology have to be solved in groups.
What about power outside of Nature, as it resides in groups? Florescent
lighting is Bijker's exploration of that question, and as I read the case-study,
florescent lighting grew up around a long-term collusion between the power
companies, fixture companies, and bulb producers (GE and utilities sharing
the 900 pound gorilla seat) who contrived to ensure that customers never
paid less for better lighting. Bijker identifies the power plays
at the heart of the story, but seems as restrained as possible in telling
it. This story is where the work seems oddly hollow, just as Langdon Winner
suggests in his earlier (1993) article "Upon Opening the Black Box and
Finding it Empty." In his concluding chapter Bijker references Winner,
and says "One consequence of this observation [about other actors who cannot
be controlled] is that we can no longer imagine that constructivist STS
studies will principally or primarily benefit any specific social group,
such as the less privileged or less powerful." (289) Bijker is giving
a warning to his fellow academic travelers: don't imagine moral action
arises from knowledge. But what the politically relevant action he
asks for is left unsaid. That criticism aside, the technological
frame, socially relevant groups, and interpretive flexibility seem like
useful ways to explore problems, and appeal because they might be usefully
applied to phenomena as diverse as motortricycles in China, instant potatoes
in the U.S., and dams in Holland.