Technological Potentialism

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Yannick Rumpala:

"Rather this article aims at exploring an approach that we will call “technological potentialism.” Its operationalization, as we will develop it, entails thinking in terms of conditions of actualization—notably, adaptability of techniques, acceptability by the people, and possibilities of appropriation. In other words, this potentialism does not depend on an essence, intrinsic nature, or autonomous force of technics, but rather on the way interested actors will be able to open up or find new opportunities in technological advances or heretofore unexplored technological solutions.


We prefer to talk about “technological potentialism,” although such an approach requires certain precautions that are both methodological and analytical. First, it is necessary to keep enough distance with respect to different types of discourses, which, be they emphatic or critical, can surround any new technological development (as has been highlighted in the case of “green technologies”; Caprotti, 2012). We must also be aware that the energy sought by human societies corresponds to an assemblage of many elements, which end up making a system and which therefore should also be understood systemically. That is, if technology should be taken into account, it is not only as material devices but also as elements embedded in sociotechnical systems, in which infrastructures, producers, users, consumers, regulators, and other intermediaries are themselves entangled (as is now commonly shown in the sociology of technology, and which can be transposed to energy-related techniques; G. Walker & Cass, 2007, p. 459). This means that there are at least as many interests, values, and expectations that will interact, and in the field of energy, we know that the arrangements thus formed can condition the dynamics of change (Rohracher, 2008). Moreover, energy is an intimate part of lifestyles and maintains strong relations with comfort conception (Chappells & Shove, 2005).

The following reflection will be organized to show that, while the development of alternative energies depends on technological advances, it can, in this process, also reveal political potentialities.


With this background in mind, we will first clarify the theoretical arguments in favor of an approach in terms of “technological potentialism,” aiming to help conceptualize and reveal the possibilities for reconfiguring established or prevailing models. Then, we will exploit this approach by identifying a set of potentialities linked with renewable energies as well as, going beyond their mere use as arguments to legitimize interest in such energies, the model that could arise from these alternative forms or schemes. Finally, we will examine how these potentialities could find paths to become effective and to what extent they could contribute to the installation of renewed sociopolitical configurations." (