The �social shaping' of technology is a concept asserting that technology – which can be defined as �all methods and means devised by humans in pursuit of their practical ends' (Chant & Goodman, 1999) – is to some extent influenced by social or cultural factors. In particular relation to building technology, this means that how and what people build is influenced to a greater or lesser extent by such factors as the way their society is organised or whether religion is important in their culture. Social shaping can be seen as attempting a synthesis between two opposing theories of historical change, technological determinism – which claims that technological innovations cause societal change – and social constructionism – which counters that change is not inevitable when technology develops; rather, the effect of a technological development depends on negotiating the best solution for all social groups involved.

Ancient Egyptian society was hierarchically organised under the rule of the Pharaohs, absolute monarchs who owned all land and controlled trade. They believed in the after-life and that it was important to ensure dead rulers' comfort in it. This focus led to technological progress in several areas. Mummification techniques were developed to preserve the bodies. The need to build funerary structures to house the dead and their possessions meant that the simplest form, mastabas (underground burial pits topped with a �bench' of mud bricks) evolved into complex and massive stone pyramids. These required innovations in quarrying and stonemasonry, as well as in human-powered transport to move limestone and granite from near the Nile to the building sites and lifting mechanisms to assist in construction. The development of the geometrical skill needed to achieve the virtual perfection of the pyramids – Edwards (1985) claims accuracy exceeding 1 in 1,000 overall, and this was with very simple instruments – was in turn facilitated by the annual measurement of land boundaries required by Egypt's land registration and taxation system.

The erection of pyramids was facilitated by the absolute power of the Pharaohs and their monopoly over the use of stone, but the sheer number of people involved and the time taken are staggering in modern terms. Ancient Greek writer Herodotus (1999) claimed, �A hundred thousand men laboured constantly, and were relieved every three months by a fresh lot … The pyramid itself was twenty years in building.' However, it was not necessarily forced labour, since David (1999) claims that workers may have been motivated by a belief that those who helped in constructing a royal tomb would enter the after-life with their ruler.

Thus the organization of Egyptian society and its cult of the dead can be said to have socially shaped its building technology.


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