Bryan Pfaffenberger

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Bryan Pfaffenberger
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Alma materUniversity of California, Berkeley

Bryan Pfaffenberger (1949), is an American anthropologist whose research evolved from a focus on ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka to a new anthropological subfield, the anthropology of technology (AoT). He is considered to be one the new subfield’s several founders[1]. He was a professor of anthropology at Knox College (Illinois) from 1977 to 1984, and subsequently at the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia, until his retirement in 2013.


Pfaffenberger received his A.B. in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, graduating in 1971 with distinction, and enrolled in Berkeley’s Department of Anthropology the following year. In 1977, after three years of anthropological field research in Sri Lanka, he received his Ph.D. in the same field. His advisor was Gerald Berreman, who introduced Pfaffenberger to a perspective that influenced his development of AoT theory: symbolic interactionism.


In his graduate work at Berkeley, Pfaffenberger’s work focused on ethnic conflict in complex societies. In his field research in Sri Lanka, he studied Sri Lanka’s Kataragama pilgrimage and festivals, which are jointly attended by Sri Lankan Buddhists and Hindus[2]. His work among Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority resulted in numerous publications[3], [4], [5] but further study among Tamils in Sri Lanka became impossible due to the Tamil insurgency that began in 1983.

During a sabbatical leave in 1984, Pfaffenberger began his exploration of the new anthropological perspectives on the intersection of technology and society. To pursue this new interest in the history and sociology of technology, he accepted an appointment in 1985 at the University of Virginia’s Department of Science, Technology, and Society, which is housed in the university’s engineering school, with a mandate to develop the anthropology of technology and contribute to the public’s computer literacy. He wrote several books on computer technology for novice readers, including books on Linux, Usenet, Gnome, and a multi-edition dictionary of computer terms that was translated into more than a dozen foreign languages[6]. The move put Pfaffenberger in contact with colleagues specializing in British science studies (Michael Gorman) and the history of technology (W. Bernard Carlson).

The years to follow would see the publication of several [7] papers that are considered foundational in the new field pf the anthropology of technology (see Selected Publications, below.) Broadly, these papers help launch the anthropology of technology by introducing anthropological readers to concepts from the history of technology and science and technology studies (STS), as well as advancing these concepts in light of anthropological theory.


Fetishized objects and humanized nature[8] His first publication in the anthropology of technology, this paper argues that culturally supplied Western perspectives suspend views of technology within two equally unhelpful poles of mythic thinking: technological determinism (depicting technology as the cause of social formations) and technological somnambulism (denying a causal link). The paper argues for a distinctively anthropological view of technology founded on the insight of French anthropologist Marcel Mauss that technologies are among total social phenomena in Mauss’s sense; technology is simultaneously material, social, and symbolic. The paper illustrates this point as applied to Sri Lankan irrigation schemes.

The social meaning of the personal computer: or, Why the personal computer revolution was no revolution[9]. This paper draws on the work of anthropologist Victor Turner in developing a novel, processual social theory of technology called technological dramas. A technological drama begins with a rupture, an event sufficiently horrific to bring out hidden social conflicts. Here, the rupture was the revelation of computer use for targeting purposes in Vietnam. with massive civilian casualties. There follows a period of conflict, reflecting the hidden contradictions in a society and bringing them to the fore. Processes occurring during the period of conflict include regularization, the effort of some groups to reassert control by means of redressive measures, and situational adjustment, the strategy of those adversely affected by regularization efforts. In the PC story, adjustment included phone phreaking, computer break-ins, and college students bricking up the entrance to campus computer centers. All of these phases involve technological activities, ranging from invention to sabotage. The third phase, reconstitution, ends the conflict by means of a technological innovation that attempts to resolve the conflict: here, the invention of the personal computer. A final phase, designification, occurs when the history of conflict is forgotten.

The harsh facts of hydraulics[10]. Attacks the use of technological determinist perspectives to understand irrigation systems in contemporary as well as premodern Sri Lankan irrigation systems. Argues that countervailing customs negated the putatively inescapable social stratification impacts of gravity-flow irrigation systems.

Social anthropology of technology[11] Pfaffenberger’s most frequently cited work critiques a “Standard View of Technology,” a culturally supplied master narrative concerning technology that is deeply misleading. Critiqued are the narrative’s tropes, including “necessity is the mother of invention,” “form follows function,” and “the ages of Man can be expressed in stages “(Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron age, etc.). The paper shows how key concepts from science and technology studies, including sociotechnical systems, can help scholars free themselves from misconceptions.

The factory as artefact[12]. Employs technological dramas theory to explore the fraught history of industrialization in Sri Lanka.

Technological dramas[13]. Develops the technological dramas concept as a comprehensive social theory of technology.

Symbols do not create meanings — activities do[14].


Albert Payson Usher Prize, Society for the History of Technology, 1992 ASEE Book of the Year Award, 1992


He is married to the former Suzanne Naghdi, daughter of Paul M. Naghdi (1924-1993), a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. The couple have two children and six grandchildren.


•Bruun, Maja Hojer, Ayo Wahlberg, Rachel Douglas-Jones, Cathrine Hasse, Klaus Hoeyer, Dorthe Brogård Kristensen, and Brit Ross Winthereik. The Palgrave Handbook of the Anthropology of Technology. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022.

•Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1979). "The Kataragama Pilgrimage: Hindu-Buddhist Interaction and Its significance in Sri Lanka's polyethnic social system". Journal of Asian Studies. 38 (2): 253–270.

• Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1982). Caste in Tamil Culture: The Religious Foundations of Sudra Domination in Tamil Sri Lanka. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. ISBN 0915984849.

•Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1983). "Serious pilgrims and frivolous tourists the chimera of tourism in the pilgrimages of Sri Lanka". Annals of Tourism Research. 10 (1): 57–74.

•Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1988a). "Fetishized objects and humanized nature". Man 23 (2): 236–252.

•Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1988b). "The social meaning of the personal computer; Or, Why the personal computer revolution was no revolution". Anthropological Quarterly. 61 (1): 39–47. doi:10.2307/3317870.

•Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1990a). "The harsh facts of hydraulics: Technology and society in Sri Lanka's colonization schemes". Technology and Culture. 31 (3): 361–397. doi:10.1353/tech.1990.0000.

•Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1990b). "The political construction of defensive nationalism: the 1968 Temple-Entry crisis in northern Sri Lanka". Journal of Asian Studies. 49 (1): 78–96. doi:10.2307/2058434.

•Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1992). "Social anthropology of technology". Annual Review of Anthropology. 21: 491–516. doi:10.1146/

•Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1992). "Technological dramas". Science, Technology, & Human Values. 17 (3): 282–312.

•Pfaffenberger, Bryan (1993). "The factory as artefact". In Lemonnier, Pierre (ed.). Technological Choices: Transformation in Material Cultures since the Neolithic. London: Routledge. pp. 338–371. ISBN 0415073316.

•Pfaffenberger, Bryan (2001a). Webster's New World Computer Dictionary (9th ed.). New York: Hungry Minds. ISBN 0764563254.

•Pfaffenberger, Bryan (2001b). "Symbols do not create meanings–activities do". In Schiffer, Michael B. (ed.). Anthropological Perspectives on Technology. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0826323693.


  1. Brunn 2022.
  2. Pfaffenberger 1979.
  3. Pfaffenberger 1990.
  4. Pfaffenberger 1982.
  5. Pfaffenberger 1983.
  6. Pfaffenberger 2002.
  7. Bryan Pfaffenberger - Google Scholar
  8. Pfaffenberger 1988a.
  9. Pfaffenberger 1988b.
  10. Pfaffenberger 1990a.
  11. Pfaffenberger 1992a.
  12. Pfaffenberger 1993.
  13. Pfaffenberger 1992b.
  14. Pfaffenberger 2001.

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