What Next after Determinism in the Ontology of Technology? Distributing Responsibility in the Biofuel Debate


This article builds upon previous discussion of social and technical determinisms as implicit positions in the biofuel debate. To ensure these debates are balanced, it has been suggested that they should be designed to contain a variety of deterministic positions. Whilst it is agreed that determinism does not feature strongly in contemporary academic literatures, it is found that they have generally been superseded by an absence of any substantive conceptualisation of how the social shaping of technology may be related to, or occur alongside, an objective or autonomous reality. The problem of determinism emerges at an ontological level and must be resolved in situ. A critical realist approach to technology is presented which may provide a more appropriate framework for debate. In dialogue with previous discussion, the distribution of responsibility is revisited with reference to the role of scientists and engineers.

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  1. 1.

    Supergen (Sustainable Power Generation) is an academic consortium consisting largely of engineers. It has strong industry links and its approach is well captured by its subheading of ‘Advancing UK Bioenergy’. This quote features on the front page of their newsletter, and is fully explored in their lead article (pp. 2–3) in the context of Blue-NG, an energy company. It should be noted that Supergen has a funding relationship with the author, see Acknowledgements.

  2. 2.

    Bijker’s (2010) agnosticism and other ‘pragmatic’ approaches are similarly limited in their capacity to provide a complete and consistent ontological framework.

  3. 3.

    ‘Social’ is used here to cover the original ‘societal and economic’, as each are most crucially social rather than technological determinants.

  4. 4.

    Multi-, cross-, trans-, post- and anti- disciplinary varieties also feature in many literatures within and without critical realism, each providing a different response to the generally parochial and imperialist expressions of traditional mono-disciplinarity (see Hartwig 2007b).

  5. 5.

    A wide understanding of praxis is necessary here. Put simply, it includes all practice and production, or can be taken to mean transformative agency (see Hartwig 2007c).

  6. 6.

    Here, contra Fleetwood’s advice, I conflate ideal and social reality. The crucial point is that both ‘contain not one iota of materiality’ (2005, p. 201). To strictly follow Fleetwood’s definition of artefactual reality, it is constituted by physical, social and ideal reality.

  7. 7.

    As previously mentioned, the IPCC’s discursive power may have reduced in recent years. This is an example of the transformation of social structure.


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I am gratefully indebted to Supergen (Sustainable Power Generation), which has provided financial support for this work, and all those at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Manchester, particularly Paul Upham and Sally Randles. I also thank the three anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.

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Correspondence to Philip Boucher.

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Boucher, P. What Next after Determinism in the Ontology of Technology? Distributing Responsibility in the Biofuel Debate. Sci Eng Ethics 17, 525–538 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-010-9216-4

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  • Technical determinism
  • Social determinism
  • Critical realism
  • Technology
  • Biofuels
  • Responsibility