MA History / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Technology, identity and society

Course unit fact file
Unit code HSTM60682
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine (L5)
Available as a free choice unit? No


This course addresses the history of technological development and its relationship with identity in human societies, in a variety of forms, from technological modernity as a rallying point for political nationalists, to fears of technology as an unstoppable force erasing basic human values, to the interpretation of former industrial sites and their legacies as a platform for community engagement. It pays special attention to how technology has been represented, both factually and fancifully, and how people have responded to these representations over time and in a variety of situations around the world. Coverage begins in the late nineteenth century, as the classic myth of the heroic “inventor” was being forged, and continues up to the present day. 


  • Introduce students to the interplay between technological development and identity within communities and social orders, from the late nineteenth century to the present day
  • Develop understanding of the infrastructural role of technology, including the power relations and value judgments embedded in ‘neutral’ or ‘inevitable’ developments
  • Encourage students to assess futurological predictions, fantasies, hopes and fears in terms of their influence on interpretations, definitions of options, and policy decisions in real-world technological change
  • Promote appreciation of the influence of everyday, unglamorous and ‘invisible’ technologies alongside prestigious and deliberately striking ‘high technology’, and of the fact that technological development and applications are global phenomena, whose manifestations in the global South have historically been under-explored
  • Develop students’ skills in analysing and discussing primary and secondary literature relating to the history of technology and its representations
  • Enhance students’ research and essay-writing skills, and provide suitable grounding for dissertation research into the history of technology.

Teaching and learning methods

The unit will be taught in six two-hour seminar sessions. Each session will focus on, typically, three required texts (usually articles or article-length book extracts) which address the weekly theme from different perspectives. Most texts will be secondary sources from the scholarly HSTM/STS literature, but coverage may include primary literature, popular writing and video material where appropriate. All texts will be made available online in advance, and accompanied in the unit handbook by guide questions to focus the students’ investigation and act as prompts for seminar discussion.
In advance of each class, a student will be nominated to introduce each text briefly to the group before general discussion begins: this will be done on a rotating basis to ensure all students contribute. Seminar attendance is not assessed, but full participation is required for all students. 
The class lecturer will as far as possible take a background moderating role to allow direct discussion between the students, intervening to deal with digressions or misunderstandings or to suggest further ideas. If the discussion is not flowing freely, the lecturer will take a more active role, prompting responses based on the pre-circulated guide questions. 
Students will develop their essays in the light of the seminar discussion and with guidance from the relevant class lecturers, with one-to-one discussion meetings available for planning. 

Knowledge and understanding

Describe and analyse the history of technological change, and its relationship with social identity, from the late nineteenth century to today and in a variety of local and global contexts

Intellectual skills

  • Critically examine the social consequences of technological innovation, and the strategic use of conspicuous technologies to promote interests and activities of various kinds, particularly at national level
  • Understand the nature of technological myth-making and the influence of mythic narratives and real-world policy
  • Construct and defend an argument according to the norms of scholarly historical research

Practical skills

  • Contribute to group discussion
  • Read, summarise and critically examine source texts, and present findings orally in a group setting
  • Conduct independent research on primary and secondary historical sources
  • Clearly present an argument in essay form using appropriate source documentation

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Critically and comparatively appraise source texts
  • Give an oral presentation examining a source text, and respond to questions or comments from others
  • Contribute to group discussion
  • Engage scientific, technical and lay audiences in discussions about the intentions behind, and consequences of, technological change

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 100%

Feedback methods

Detailed written feedback, delivered electronically. 

Recommended reading

  • James C Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 
  • Martha Lampland and Susan Leigh Star, eds, Standards and Their Stories: How Quantifying, Classifying, and Formalizing Practices Shape Everyday Life. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.
  • Christine MacLeod, Heroes of Invention: Technology, Liberalism and British Identity, 1750-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 
  • David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900. London: Profile, 2006.
  • Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
  • Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann, eds., Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology and European Users. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009.
  • Mark Edmonds, “When they come to model Heaven: Big Science and the monumental in post-war Britain,” Antiquity 84 (2010), 774-795.
  • Bryan C Taylor and Brian Freer, “Containing the nuclear past: the politics of history and heritage at the Hanford Plutonium Works,” Journal of Organizational Change Management 15 (2002), 563-588.
  • C Dianne Martin, “The myth of the awesome thinking machine”, Communications of the ACM 36 (1993), 120-133.
  • Eden Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011.
  • Amanda Rees and Iwan Rhys Morus, eds, Osiris volume 34, “Presenting Futures Past”, 2019.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 12
Independent study hours
Independent study 138

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
James Sumner Unit coordinator

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