The Deconstructed Engineer
A recent sociological study of engineers and engineering has produced some surprising results. Björkman and Harris (2018) investigate the roles engineers play in building and sustaining the modern metropolis. These sociologists applied critical theory analysis to describe the practice of engineering, looking across the full spectrum of activities performed by engineers.
The modern metropolis is a highly engineered environment, where the work of engineers is both pervasive and highly visible. However, Björkman and Harris found that the roles engineers play are far more diverse than is generally acknowledged, even by engineers themselves. Teasing apart what engineers actually do reveals that the sum of the parts is greater than what they are typically given credit for.
Sociologists use critical theory analysis to understand better how the world works by challenging conventional wisdom about society’s institutions and practices. Engineers are widely regarded as masters of technology, and it is generally assumed that the work engineers do is confined to areas where questions of a technical nature predominate. Björkman and Harris challenge this notion.
The results of this study are valuable because they come from well outside the realm of engineers. Most other studies that have characterized the work of engineers have been conducted either by practicing engineers or by faculty at engineering schools. Studies in the interdisciplinary area of Science and Technology Studies (STS) offer fresh perspectives from outside of engineering, science and technology. However, the approach of STS is to examine engineering practice from within engineering organizations.
By contrast, Björkman and Harris critically examine the role of engineers and engineering in the context of society at large, i.e. from the outside looking in. Unsurprisingly, they find that engineers and technology provide tools used by the established power structure to maintain dominance and preserve the statue quo. As such, engineers are complicit in the enterprise of colonization, and are enablers of the inequities produced by the blind pursuit of “progress” — a jarringly different characterization of engineers than what one usually encounters.
A central finding of this study is striking because it confirms and reinforces similar findings from other studies:
[E]ngineers are tasked with solving practical problems in the world — and are answerable within a broader and more diverse environment of actors and forces: socio-political, material, temporal, financial. Because engineering is a real-time activity in the world (unlike idealized notions of laboratory science), engineers carry out their work under myriad and exceedingly complex constraints and pressures.
Björkman and Harris offer unique insights into how engineers approach this task. Engineers themselves, they say, tend to associate the term “engineering” with solving technical problems, typically working alone.
However, Björkman and Harris find that engineers working “in the world” and subjected to “myriad and exceedingly complex constraints” often play the very social roles of mediators and facilitators. In these roles, engineers rely not only on their deep knowledge of math and science but also on skills of ingenuity, intuition, and craftiness.
Björkman, L., and A. Harris, 2018. Engineering Cities: Mediating Materialities, Infrastructural Imaginaries and Shifting Regimes of Urban. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 42(1), February 2018. DOI: 10.1111/1468–2427.12528