Technology as an occasion for structuring: Evidence from Observations of CT scanners and the social order of radiology departments
Citation: Stephen R. Barley (1986/03/01) Technology as an occasion for structuring: Evidence from Observations of CT scanners and the social order of radiology departments. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1 (RSS)
Barley offers new theory to explain how new technology and the social system in an organization interact.
He distinguishes himself from previous work by treating technology as a social, not physical object, and organization structure as a dynamic process, not a fixed entity. His data (gathered from two “demi ethnographies” of two hospitals with new CT scanners) indicate that changes in an organization’s structure are less a result of new technologies, but rather one of many potential outcomes of the interaction between technologies and social context.
This article opens with the description of a substantive theoretical puzzle: prior work on the relationships between technology and society have assigned primary determination to humans, or to technology, or to an interaction between them, but empirical work to test these theories have been found to support all of them, rather than settle the question of which is a better explanation. Barley takes up the strategy of calling these variable outcomes the observed consistency, and finds that similar technologies and similar environments can experience similar patterns of action with significantly different final results.
Barley takes the implementation of a new CT scanner in two hospitals as his setting, and finds that while both hospitals experienced social tension in the hierarchy between doctors and technicians, and struggled to learn the new technology, and tried different arrangements of labor, in one case the final organization structure had doctors and technicians working side-by-side, while in another they dissociated from one another and ended up working autonomously.
Theoretical and practical relevance:
Previous attempts to understand and predict the effects of the introduction of novel technologies into organizational environments generally presumed a static social environment, had an overly-materialistic view of the technology in question (as opposed to seeing it as a social artifact), and/or focused on decision making as the driver of technologically-induced organizational change.
On a theoretic level, this article advances our understanding of how it may come to pass that despite similar entities, technologies, and social forces, multiple narratives are possible and perhaps even likely. And, further, that these regularities and disparate outcomes can still be observed and explained with empirical and contextualized techniques. This article provides a clear and admirable example of discerning themes and interaction patterns which combine both qualitative and quantitative methods, offering both empirical findings and a durable theoretical contribution.