Impacting Knowledge, a history of designing the bicycle.

A Reflection on Methodology and Knowledge from Bijker’s Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs

While reading Bijker’s introduction in Of Bicycles, Bakelits, and Bulbs, it seems a key to method construction is to construct a method. For a novice, it’s as magical and elusive as an object in object oriented programming. The perennial question, “What is an object?” seems akin to the questions: “What is a method?” and “Where do I get one?” You create an object by calling it, you create a method by writing it. Bijker creates his method/theory through the writing of his first chapter and then instantiates this work through the writing of subsequent chapters. For many fields there are textbooks, courses, pamphlets, and listicles about valid modes of inquiry. Yet, at the day’s end, these are writings about people acting in the world and then inscribing their form of acting as method inventing/solidifying. Is that not what Bijker does? Through this writing there is an attempt to standardize and validate—but impact is determined by who has the power to speak and who has the humility to listen.

 What follows is a rather important question when it comes to methods, inscription, and the other mechanisms of scholarship: How do we move those with the power to speak to the humility to listen? Consider a scholar who adheres strongly to a belief in techno-determinism. This scholar picks up Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs and reads the first two chapters. Within 7 pages, they encounter the line “Too easily, linear models result in reading an implicit teleology into the material…” [1]. It’s hard to imagine such a scholar would read into this line; they’d likely just skim past it, perhaps rolling their eyes. Is linear bias so strong that after reading the sociotechnical theory of the history of the bicycle this scholar would conclude a linear narrative from this evidence of continuous, iterative, and social reconstruction? On the other hand, the very form of a book presents information in a straight line, even if the book’s words loop and create an intricate information dance.

How can we use academic writing to reach those who aren’t listening? This inquiry into the construction of knowledge, the social shaping of technology, and the mechanisms for making methods has relations with Kuhn’s talk of the resistance scientist face when presenting groundbreaking ideas, to Latour’s talk on the interplay between five types of claims in a field’s academic writing [2], [3]. The act of creating scholarship does not follow a linear path, like the design of the bicycle. Perhaps this monologue dances around the implications of socially co-constructed technology and side-steps the intricacies of how societies reaction to the release of the bicycle impacted its design in manifold ways, how these specific words are impacting knowledge. I see this as a response to the way the book inscribes it’s own theory and methodology. Simply writing knowledge does not provide a means for power or humility. It seems that those things must be sought elsewhere.


[1]            Wiebe E. Bijker, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. MIT Press, 1997.

[2]            T. S. Kuhn, “Scientific Paradigms,” in Sociology of science, vol. 280, no. 5717, S. S. Blume, Ed. Penguin Books, 1979, pp. 81–104.

[3]            B. Latour and S. Woolgar, “An Anthropologist Visits the Laboratory,” in Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979, pp. 43–90.


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