How the Telephone Brought Societal Change

by Fernando Quintero

Sociology professor Claude S. Fischer rang in the new year with a new award for his ground-breaking social study of the telephone in North America up to 1940.

His book, "America Calling" (University of California Press), won the 1995 Dexter Prize of the Society for the History of Technology for deepening our understanding of one of our century's key technologies, while at the same time providing fresh insights into the process of technological change in general.

"When we talk about technology, we speculate about what the implications of technology are. It's important not to fall into the trap of seeing technology as drivers of social change," Fischer said. "I wanted to show that we adapt technology to our own lives. People are much more resilient than they're given credit for."

In his book, Fischer describes how Americans in the years leading up to World War II encountered and used the telephone and addresses its social role: How did people learn of the new technological marvel? How did people use it in their personal relations? What difference did having it make socially and psychologically?

"Sociologists have always been fascinated with the big picture, the question regarding the nature of what we call modern society, and what was going on that led to the transition to modern society," said Fischer.

Because the turn of the century brought about such rapid changes in communication and transportation, Fischer found himself focusing his attention to the period between 1880 and 1920.

"I focused on the telephone because it was a pure example of communication, and there was very little written about the telephone's impact on society," said Fischer.

"I wanted to see how this technology played a role in the modernization of society."

Fischer examines the history of the telephone to challenge the common assumption that technology such as the telephone drives social change. He challenges the belief that the telephone helped to create a modern alienated society by undermining social bonds and enlarging social connections outside immediate areas.

Fischer said speculation about the telephone was that it would speed up life, eliminate regional accents, create a greater democracy and have people working out of their homes.

Drawing on a wide variety of sources including telephone company archives, city directories, Bay Area newspapers and interviews with people who remember when the telephone was a technological novelty, Fisher shows that the telephone did not create its own demand, and that its early widespread use was the result of effective marketing efforts.

"The people who developed the telephone had a clear sense of what the device would be used for.

"It was emphasized as a practical device for practical use in business," Fischer explained. "People, particularly women, were discouraged from using the telephone for 'mere idle gossip.'"

Meanwhile, a growing number of customers were discovering the telephone's value as an instrument of sociability.

As Fischer demonstrates, the telephone was not a technological juggernaut; its consequences were the result of particular actions taken by its promoters and its users.

Fischer, who has also been awarded Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships among other honors, is currently putting the finishing touches on his next book, co-authored with Berkeley faculty members Michael Hout, Mártin Sánchez-Jankowski, Samuel Lucas, Ann Swidler and Kim Voss.

The book, entitled, "Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth," takes a critical look at what Fischer refers to as "naturalistic" explanations of equality, arguing that inequality is not natural but socially constructed.


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
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