Article ID: CBB797225432

Reconfiguration, Contestation, and Decline: Conceptualizing Mature Large Technical Systems (November 2018)


Large technical systems (LTS) are integral to modern lifestyles but arduous to analyze. In this paper, we advance a conceptualization of LTS using the notion of mature “phases,” drawing from insights into innovation studies, science and technology studies, political science, the sociology of infrastructure, history of technology, and governance. We begin by defining LTS as a unit of analysis and explaining its conceptual utility and novelty, situating it among other prominent sociotechnical theories. Next, we argue that after LTS have moved through the (overlapping) phases proposed by Thomas Hughes of invention, expansion, growth, momentum, and style, mature LTS undergo the additional (overlapping) phases of reconfiguration, contestation (subject to pressures such as drift and crisis), and eventually stagnation and decline. We illustrate these analytical phases with historical case studies and the conceptual literature, and close by suggesting future research to refine and develop the LTS framework, particularly related to more refined typologies, temporal dimensions, and a broadening of system users. We aim to contribute to theoretical debates about the coevolution of LTS as well as empirical discussions about system-related use, sociotechnical change, and policy-making.

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Authors & Contributors
Shana Lee Hirsch
Jerrold Long
Christiane Wilke
Engels, Jens Ivo
Yang, Chih-yuan
Szerszynski, Bronislaw
Science, Technology and Human Values
Social Studies of Science
IEEE Technology and Society Magazine
Technology and Culture
East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal
The Bridge: Journal of the National Academy of Engineering
Sociotechnical systems
Technoscience; science and technology studies
Technology and politics
Engineering, Large-scale
Rawls, John
Time Periods
21st century
20th century, late
19th century
United States
Columbia River
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT

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