Collingridge’s dilemma and technoscience

An attempt to provide a clarification from the perspective of the philosophy of science


Collingridge’s dilemma is one of the most well-established paradigms presenting a challenge to Technology Assessment (TA). This paper aims to reconstruct the dilemma from an analytic perspective and explicates three assumptions underlying the dilemma: the temporal, knowledge and power/actor assumptions. In the light of the recent transformation of the science, technology and innovation system—in the age of “technoscience”—these underlying assumptions are called into question. The same result is obtained from a normative angle by Collingridge himself; he criticises the dilemma and advances concepts on how to keep a technology controllable. This paper stresses the relevance of the dilemma and of Collingridge’s own ideas on how to deal with the dilemma. Today, a positive interpretation of technoscience for effective TA is possible.


Ausgangspunkt ist das so genannte Collingridge Dilemma, das TA vielfach herausgefordert hat und noch immer herausfordert. Das Dilemma wird analytisch rekonstruiert. Wir führen drei zugrunde liegende Annahmen aus: eine zeitliche, eine wissensbezogene und eine akteurs- und einfluss-orientierte. Wird der derzeitige Wandel des Wissenschafts-, Technik- und Innovationssystems—im Zeitalter von Technoscience—mit betrachtet, dann zeigt sich, dass die zugrunde liegenden Annahmen nicht mehr gut begründbar sind. Das vorliegende Papier zeigt, dass dennoch die Überlegungen Collingridges, wie mit dem Dilemma umgegangen werden kann, für heutige TA-Debatten relevant bleiben und dass eine positive Interpretation von Technoscience für die Möglichkeit von effektiver TA gegeben ist.


Le dilemme de Collingridge porte sur l’un des paradigmes les plus établis et qui pose de réels défis à l’évaluation des choix technologiques (TA). Ce document vise à reconstruire le dilemme de manière analytique et à expliquer trois suppositions sous-jacentes: une temporelle, une basée sur la connaissance et enfin une basée sur l’acteur et le pouvoir. A la lumière des récentes transformations du système de la science, de la technologie et de l’innovation—à l’âge de la technoscience—ces suppositions sous-jacentes sont remises en question. Collingridge lui-même est arrivé à ce résultat sous un angle normatif; il a critiqué le dilemme et propose des concepts sur la manière de garder la technologie contrôlable. Ce document souligne l’importance du dilemme et des propres idées de Collingridge sur la manière de traiter ce dilemme. Une interprétation positive de la technoscience pour une TA efficace est possible aujourd’hui.

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  1. 1.

    Collingridge conducted his case studies in the 1970s and earlier. Today, we have to consider that the science, technology and innovation system seems to be in a process of transformation.

  2. 2.

    Embracing this opportunity, however, implies facing TA with several requirements. Our argument is that intentions, purposes and goals dominate even the domain of (former!) fundamental science and basic research (cf. Liebert and Schmidt ‘Towards a prospective Technology Assessment’ in this volume, referred to hereafter as Liebert and Schmidt, Paper B, this volume). There is a new (and, to some extent, fairly old Baconian) instrumentalist view of science, namely as technoscience. Insofar as technoscience is a purpose-driven mode of science, TA is in a much better position to enter into a normative discourse about the purposes and potentials in the early phases of agenda setting in R&D programs.

  3. 3.

    The dilemma of control may imply control pessimism, where the development of a technology cannot be intentionally shaped by societal actors; this pessimism might support the position of technological determinism.

  4. 4.

    A central example that Collingridge provides is “entrenchment”. After technologies have been developed and diffused, different types of technologies can depend on each other and, thus, constitute a complex nexus of various dependencies. When a technology has entered the situation of entrenchment, it stays and evolves on the path like a train on a track—this is a kind of technological determinism.

  5. 5.

    However, he is not very specific about the meaning of “early” and “late”.

  6. 6.

    There are, of course, much earlier precursors, such as Schumpeter, Taylor and Marx.

  7. 7.

    Many present-day researchers still refer to this form, although they modify this linear chain model.

  8. 8.

    It is interesting to note that Collingridge presupposes that the science side can be controlled much more easily that the market side.

  9. 9.

    The linear chain model does not consider non-causal random interactions, non-linear butterfly effects and complex feedback loops; actors and agents—individuals, groups and institutions—are not taken into account, and the cultural and political sphere is not regarded explicitly. In order to overcome these obvious deficits, new approaches have been proposed since the 1970s (evolutionary models, actor-network theory, closure-concept).

  10. 10.

    Collingridge himself mentions ‘ethics’ only in passing (Collingridge 1980: 162).

  11. 11.

    In his critique, Collingridge later provides arguments against a one-sided understanding of knowledge, e.g., knowledge reduced to factual-quantitative knowledge.

  12. 12.

    Other types of knowledge are not considered (as knowledge).

  13. 13.

    Collingridge states, “The future development of the technology cannot be foreseen in any detail. This depends upon a whole bundle of unknown factors” (Collingridge 1980: 17).

  14. 14.

    Sometimes he switches to the passive voice.

  15. 15.

    Later on in his book, Collingridge also presents arguments against both decisionistic and expertocratic–technocratic approaches (cf. Collingridge 1980:183 et sqq).

  16. 16.

    The external perspective of the control approach (with strong centralised power to approve and implement new laws and directives) would be contrasted with a shaping approach that also considers the internal perspective (with decentralised power to enable changes in certain research and development trajectories).

  17. 17.

    One can raise concerns as to whether the theoretical concepts—and the related assumptions—are evident and justifiable. (a) Is the linear innovation theory justified? Below, we will argue, from the perspective of a network approach, that the linear-causal presupposition is not justifiable. This will be in line with the technoscience thesis. (b) What can be said about classic philosophy of science and utilitarian ethics? We believe that the science system is changing and that not only can the consequences for tomorrow be assessed but also today’s intentions and (technoscientific) potentials. This view/opinion is supported by the technoscience thesis. (c) What is an appropriate understanding of “action”? It does not seem adequate just to consider external actors, such as politicians. We will argue that governance theories, including the researchers as participants and other kinds of sub-political actors on various levels, are more appropriate (cf. Liebert and Schmidt, Paper B, this volume).

  18. 18.

    An engineer may describe a machine tool in a similar manner: we look at a mechanism from an outer perspective, e.g., we look at the dynamics (temporal dimension) from the exterior, we obtain knowledge by analysing and predicting (knowledge dimension) from the exterior, and we change and control the machinery (control dimension) from the exterior. Thus, in this mechanistic way of thinking, we are not considered to be participants in the complex socio-technological development. The mechanistic view was prevalent in most classic concepts of TA.

  19. 19.

    Among them Ortega y Gasset, J. Ellul, M. Heidegger, G. Anders, H. Schelsky and others.

  20. 20.

    One can recognize here aspects of a traditional TA approach, with a bias on the pressure for decision-making and a—more or less—end-of-the-pipe approach to control technologies.

  21. 21.

    He confesses to “the normative nature of our inquiry” (Collingridge 1980: 23).

  22. 22.

    These criteria are, of course, highly relevant to TA in general. In the 1980s, there was an intense debate in Germany, for example, about the “reversibility” of technological development (regarding genetically modified food and nuclear energy).

  23. 23.

    In the same vein, Christoph Hubig (2006) argues in favour of keeping “option values” in order to preserve the ability to act in the future: The option to act is to be regarded as the core value of our “provisional morality” (e.g., Descartes) in the tradition of the European Enlightenment.

  24. 24.

    This is a strong claim advocated by Collingridge. If we take his criteria seriously, the outcome could be that new technologies will no longer be developed. Contrary to Collingridge, we will attempt to deal with the dilemma without believing that it could be eliminated completely (cf. Liebert and Schmidt, Paper B, this volume).

  25. 25.

    This articulation, the specific terminology and related conceptual works are well established today.

  26. 26.

    Experts often talk at cross-purposes, mainly because they do not reflect on their presupposed values and underlying norms. Together with his co-author C. Reeve, Collingridge presents a strong analysis of the role of experts in policy-making (Collingridge and Reeve 1986).

  27. 27.

    See also the systematic analysis of three different models of policy-making and the challenge of how to bring laypeople and experts together and initiate good deliberative processes (Collingridge and Douglas 1984). Jürgen Habermas has raised objections to both the decisionistic and the technocratic models for describing the science–technology–society–policy interface; he proposed a pragmatist model of various interactions on different levels.

  28. 28.

    Comparing Collingridge’s “Model 1” with the “Mode 1” put forward by Gibbons et al. is a task worthy of further study.

  29. 29.

    For an excellent introduction to consultancy problems regarding science and technology (policy), see Gethmann (2006) and Grunwald (2008).

  30. 30.

    They perceive a breakdown of well-established dichotomies, and a strong entanglement beyond traditional boundaries is diagnosed. Philosophical and cultural terms, notions and understanding lose their descriptive adequacy.

  31. 31.

    The finalisation model addresses questions of why and how societal norms, objectives and interests can dominate the research process during certain phases (the pre- and post-paradigmatic phases, not the paradigmatic phase).

  32. 32.

    These boundaries are no longer taken for granted. The way of dealing with the dissolution of boundaries and the implosion of dichotomies has become a matter of political dispute (Beck and Lau 2004).

  33. 33.

    Central issues in the ongoing debate are (a) the ontology of new objects (e.g., the genetically modified mouse), (b) the kind of knowledge, (c) the technical methods, (d) the goals, aims and objectives of knowledge, (e) scientific practice and technological actions and (f) the organisation and administration of the science and research system.

  34. 34.

    In other words, science, as a form of knowledge and as a form of action, is no longer the distinguishing feature for basic research but the major driver for innovation on various levels.

  35. 35.

    Theoretical aspects of science—traditionally considered the summit of science—lose their importance as the research goal. The whole process of research and development is regarded as a technological endeavour; the traditional boundary between fundamental science and applied sciences has become blurred.

  36. 36.

    For example, usingin Bacon’s terminology: light-bearing knowledge (fundamental and theoretical knowledge) in order to foster and facilitate fruit-bearing knowledge (knowledge in broader contexts of application).

  37. 37.

    In other words, purpose-driven, technology-oriented science (as action) instead of value-free, pure, fact-oriented basic research (science as a “theory form”, according to J. Mittelstraß). To some philosophers and social scientists, however, purpose-orientation is not a novel point. Scholars (of the school) of Methodological Constructivism have always stressed that science is based on certain kinds of norms that are implemented in the various methods. Purposes play an indispensable role.

  38. 38.

    It was disputable whether the STS scholars would find the black box empty or not.

  39. 39.

    STS scholars, in line with some Critical Theorists, underscore that facts and artifacts are political (“artifacts have politics”, L. Winner) and that there is not an essentialist difference between politics and epistemology. According to this view, epistemology is part of the power discourse; in a classic formulation of STS: “Truth speaks to power”.

  40. 40.

    The analytic efforts and working towards purification do not seem to have been as successful as the advocates of modernity maintained.

  41. 41.

    A radical collapse of distance takes place. The term “collapse of distance” was coined and advocated by Alfred Nordmann in various talks on technoscience.

  42. 42.

    We find a paradigm shift in framing and understanding the intersection of science–technology–society. Whereas Collingridge’s dilemma is based on an outer externalist perspective of the concepts laid out in The Social Control of Technology, it is much more common today to consider (descriptively) the prerequisites and the process described in Social Construction of Technological Systems (Bijker et al. 1987) or (descriptively as well as normatively) The Social Shaping of Technology (MacKenzie and Wajcman 1985).


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Correspondence to Jan C. Schmidt.

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Liebert, W., Schmidt, J.C. Collingridge’s dilemma and technoscience. Poiesis Prax 7, 55–71 (2010).

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  • Innovation System
  • Temporal Dimension
  • Technology Assessment
  • Innovation Theory
  • Power Dimension