In “Technologies, Texts and Affordances”, Ian Hutchby proposes a middle ground between realism, “the view that worldly objects have inherent properties that act as constraints on observational accounts” and contructivism, “the view that the very ‘reality’ of objects is itself an outcome of discursive practices in relation to the object” (Hutchby 443). By introducing the concept of affordances, he attempts to stress the interplay between “essential properties” of technologies, which may constrain their uses, and socially determined uses of technology, which are wholly based on the interpretations of those who employ them.
For Hutchby, Grint and Woolgar’s anti-essentialist viewpoint that “technological artefacts have no inherent properties outside the interpretive work which humans (establish for them)” (442-3) is the opposite extreme of the determinist realist position which sees technology as possessing necessary objective characteristics independent of socially assigned functions or socially determined roles. Hutchby finds Grint’s and Woolgar’s interpretation of technologies as texts which are written by producers and read/interpreted by users a compelling metaphor due to its flexibility in understanding the part played by agency in the shaping of natural functions of technological devices; however, he believes that this interpretation of an open negotiated process cannot apply to all artefacts to the same degree, nor can it offer limitless interpretations of any one artefact .
In his view, not all artefacts are open to the same set or number of possible interpretations – “different technologies possess different affordances “which constrain the ways in which they can “possibly be written or read” (447). Although possibilities for use are integral to the technology, these affordances/possibilities are open to interpretation and negotiation and are, therefore, enabling. In other words, the possibilities for use are not infinite, yet they are socially mediated. Hutchby’s concept of affordances is linked to the work of James J. Gibson regarding the psychology of perception. “For Gibson, humans, along with animals, insects, birds, and fishes, orient to objects in their world…in terms of what he called their affordances: the possibilities that they offer for action” (447) and it is this central idea that Hutchby transposes to technology and sociology. Hutchby makes 4 main points regarding the nature of affordances: 1) That there are many different types of affordances that all may interact with eachother; 2) that affordances are “not just functional, but also relational aspects of an object’s material presence in the world”; 3) “when it comes to the world as experienced by humans, objects and their values can also be tied in with complex sets of concepts and conventional rules governing their use”; and 4) “affordances of artefacts do not necessary derive from natural features of the artefact’s materiality…Affordances can also be designed into the artefact” (449).
What makes Hutchby’s use of affordances so inclusive and interesting is that while it accepts the realist position that “there are features of artefacts that are not constructed through, or retrievable only by means of accounts,” it also does not “fall back into a form of reductionism or determinism” (450). Affordances allow interpretations and the study of technology in a way that views the human and technological relationship as cyclical and interconnected. While human intent may shape the design of technologies and place certain constraints on the possible use and perception of them, technology in turn has an effect on people’s perception and understanding of the world and of the artefact. Through interaction people often make use of technologies in ways that were wholly unintended and in doing so expand the associated meanings and functions of things beyond what was initially considered. The use of technology also has psychological and sociological impacts on the people who use them and therefore, also effect the potential future of both people and technologies directly. Ultimately, much of any objects meaning is socially constructed and open to a mass array of interpretations; however, this is ultimately limited by what certain real features and limitations of the object afford.
Hutchby, Ian. “Technology, Texts, and Affordances.” Sociology. May 2001 vol. 35 no. 2. 441-456. Print. (link to abstract).