Engineering and Social Justice
SYNTHESIS LECTURES ON ENGINEERING, TECHNOLOGY, AND SOCIETY #7
Mindsets in Engineering
â€œThe technical rationality that is the engineerâ€™s stock-in-trade requires the calculation
of means for the realization of given ends. But it requires no broad insight into those
ends or their consequences. Engineers are aware of, are trained to be aware of, these
limitations; insofar as they do consider ends, they cease to act as engineers.â€
Robert Zussman [1: 122â€“123]
This chapter uses engineering humor to draw out some mindsets commonly found in engineering and relates
them to the intersection of engineering and social justice. Some mindsets are so much a part of mainstream
engineering culture (or mainstream culture) that we may be unaware of alternative perspectives. The intent of this chapter is to separate the worldviews from the profession of engineering itself.
2.1 AN ENGINEERING MINDSET?
The last chapter dealt with developing a definition of social justice. Engineering may be somewhat
easier to define than social justice, but it too has a contested and changing definition. The earliest
uses of the word engineer in the English language (fourteenth century) were used to describe â€œa
constructor of military enginesâ€ or â€œone who designs and constructs military works for attack or
defenseâ€ . In the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, engineering was, in the words
of Thomas Tredgold , â€œthe art of directing the great sources of Power in Nature for the use and
convenience of man.â€ As the field sought to move away from its identity as a trade into that of a
profession, it emphasized its theoretical underpinnings in science and became thought of as the
application of math and science toward useful endsâ€”typically commercial, industrial, or military:
â€œThe application of scientific and mathematical principles to practical ends such as the design,
manufacture, and operation of efficient and economical structures, machines, processes, and systemsâ€ . Emphasis is often placed on problem solving as the primary activity of engineers or on
invention and creativity. More recently, the exploitation of natural resources has been dropped as a
defining element of engineering in favor of definitions such as â€œthe science and art of applying scientific and mathematical principles, experience, judgment, and common sense to design things that
benefit societyâ€ . To some degree, these shifting definitions of engineering reflect changing views
34 ENGINEERING AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
about the profession and its role in society as well as the changing values within the profession.
Thus, the profession itself and its meaning in society can and do change, reminding us that we can
shape what engineering is in order to make it more responsive to social justice concerns.
Before examining the relationship between engineering and social justice, I want to distinguish the profession of engineering from some common mindsets one finds within the profession,
particularly those mindsets that, as we will see in Chapter 3, often stand in the way of engineeringâ€™s
intersection with social justice. While I recognize that, of course, the profession currently and
historically reinforces and helps create the mindsets within it, I believe it is only through recognizing the underlying mindsets and changing them that the profession can truly be transformed.
The profession has a central role to play in bringing about this change in mindset, and so I begin by seeking to characterize the worldviews which are held so commonly in engineering and
throughout many parts of our society that one may not even recognize that there are alternatives.
I carefully and intentionally do not refer to â€œthe engineering mindsetâ€ because I seek to drive a
separation between engineering and common mindsets in engineering in order to create change; I
believe the mindsets I discuss here do not have to be the mindsets of engineers or of engineering.
Indeed, engineering would be quite different if different worldviews were more common, and that
is exactly the point.
Thus, we may not yet have a common understanding of what engineering is, or could be. I
assume that the reader is sufficiently familiar with the profession of engineering and I do not seek
to answer the question â€œwhat is engineeringâ€ in its naive sense, or in its totality, as many books,
magazines, and websites do in order to recruit students. Rather, I seek to highlight certain mindsets
relevant to the intersection of engineering and social justice. I seek to help engineers see ourselves
with a new awareness of some of the things we often take as given in our profession and education.
Some of these characteristics equip us to work on social justice issues, while others, as we will see
more fully in the next chapter, keep us from working onâ€”and sometimes even from recognizing or
fully understanding the complexities ofâ€”social justice issues.
2.2 PROFESSIONAL HUMOR: DRAWING ON STEREOTYPE
Every profession has a series of jokes about itself, generally told within the group and drawing on
some stereotypes about the profession. Clearly, not all engineers fit the stereotype, and some stereotypes are largely false. However, the jokes make some important contrasts between engineering and
other professions, which reveal something about common mindsets in engineering which are less
prevalent in other professions. If we look at these with an eye to cultural analysis, we can draw out
some characteristics of these mindsets that are relevant to the intersection of engineering and social
justice. These jokes may draw some strong reactions from readers; I ask that you remember these are
stereotypes. We have the power to challenge and resist any of these stereotypes in our own lives, to
MINDSETS IN ENGINEERING 35
develop new mindsets, and to change both the perceptions and the realities of the profession. These
jokes are part of an oral tradition and are related here as I recall them, although most can be found
in any number of online archives (see, e.g., http://www.inflection-point.com/jokes.php).
2.2.1 Joke 1: The Guillotine
A lawyer, a priest, and an engineer are scheduled to be executed by guillotine. The
lawyer goes first, the executioner pulls the cord, but nothing happens. â€œDouble Jeopardy! You have to let me go!,â€ cries the lawyer. And the executioner does. The priest
is next, the same thing happens. â€œDivine Intervention! You have to let me go!,â€ cries
the priest. And the executioner does. The engineer is next. As the executioner gets
ready to pull the cord, the engineer cries, â€œWait! I think I see your problem . . . â€
This joke is rich, revealing multiple perspectives and values. First, there is a valuing of problemsolving abilities and a celebration that engineers can solve problems others cannotâ€”in this case, to a
fault. Part of this ability is credited to another valueâ€”exclusive technical focusâ€”in this case, to the
exclusion of everything else going on in the world around us, even in our own lives. Third, this joke
draws on the value of loyaltyâ€”an unthinking willingness to accept the authority of the state, such
FIGURE 2.1: â€œWait, I think I see your problem. . . . â€ Engineers solving problems even if it kills us.
Accessed January 18, 2008, from http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/15200/15229/guillotine_15229_lg.gif.
36 ENGINEERING AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
that an engineer would fix a guillotine even when it is the engineer’s own neck on the line. There is
altruism here as well, a willingness to help other people and to solve their problems, even if it kills
us and even if it betrays a social justice value like opposition to the death penalty.
2.2.2 Joke 2: The Church Steeple
An engineer and a sociologist were tasked with finding the height of a church steeple.
The engineer measured the angle to the top of the steeple and calculated the height
using trigonometry. Then, to check the estimate, the engineer climbed to the top of the
steeple, lowered a string until it touched the ground, climbed back down and measured
the length of the string. The engineer compared the measurement to the estimate, calculated the standard error, and drafted a report documenting the methods and results.
The sociologist bought the sexton a beer in the local pub and he told her how high the
church steeple was.
This joke emphasizes the engineerâ€™s tendency toward â€œbrute forceâ€ methods of problem solving and
an exclusive focus on the calculated and measured solution, even if it takes much longerâ€¦ Perhaps
it does not occur to the engineer to simply ask someone; perhaps it does but a certain social awkwardness gets in the way.
This joke also says something about epistemology, or how we know what we know. While the
sociologist derives knowledge through human interaction, the engineer might not trust the veracity
of this type of knowledge. Instead, the engineer relies on the scientific method, using mathematics
to create an estimate and then designing and conducting an experiment to make a measurement.
This exclusive reliance on the scientific method to reveal knowledge is known to philosophers as
positivism. Positivist epistemology is a common mindset in engineering (certainly, our education
trains us in this way). Without an awareness of alternative epistemologies, one adhering to this
mindset might simply characterize scientific knowledge as â€œtrueâ€ or â€œfactualâ€ and view other kinds
of knowledge as â€œless reliableâ€ or as â€œopinion.â€
2.2.3 Joke 3: You Might Be an Engineer If . . .
You might be an engineer if . . . in college you thought Spring Break was metal fatigue
You might be an engineer if . . . you say â€œItâ€™s 77 degrees Fahrenheit, 25 degrees Celsius,
and 298 Kelvin,â€ and all they say is â€œIsn’t it a nice day?â€
MINDSETS IN ENGINEERING 37
Here, engineers are characterized as being solely focused on work and too busy to have fun, or too
focused on technical details to relate socially or just enjoy the day. Whether engineers are not interested in the traditional Spring Break activities involving the opposite sex and drinking, or whether
their engineering education is so overloaded with technical courses and grunt work that they have
no time to even think about Spring Break is up to interpretation; that is, the joke plays on both
stereotypes. The engineer apparently does not know when to turn off the technological approach,
when to stop analyzing/working and just have fun. The values here could be characterized as a
strong work ethic, and a strong and narrow technical focus, perhaps including as well a denial or
devaluing of relationships and enjoyment.
2.2.4 Joke 4: The Golf Course
A pastor (rabbi/imam/priest), a doctor, and an engineer were waiting one morning for
a particularly slow group of golfers. Annoyed, they decide to ask the greens keeper,
who explains that they are a group of blind firefighters who lost their sight fighting a
fire in the clubhouse years ago, and they play for free whenever they want. The pastor
remarked, â€œThatâ€™s so sad. I’ll pray for them.â€ The doctor said, â€œI know an ophthalmologist who might be able to do something for them.â€ The engineer said, â€œWhy canâ€™t they
play at night?â€
This joke reveals a mindset focused completely on the practical side, in the interest of problem solving, to the exclusion of human relationships and even basic compassion. Interestingly, engineering
is cast as a profession that is not a helping profession in contrast to medicine and ministry.
2.2.5 Joke 5: Mechanical vs. Civil
Whatâ€™s the difference between a mechanical engineer and a civil engineer?
Mechanical engineers build weapons, civil engineers build targets.
This is a joke about the military orientation of engineering. It is both a slight against civil engineers
(as in, ha, ha! You just build things so we mechanical engineers can blow them up) and a commentary on militarism in engineering. In one reading, this joke takes the work that civil engineers do out
of the context of helping people have clean water, sanitation, transportation, etc., and diminishes
it by placing it in the military context, in which it is seen as a â€œtarget,â€ destroyed by mechanical
engineers. This reveals a distinct militaristic mindset. In another reading, this is a comment on the
futility of militarism, or simply a matter-of-fact recognition of engineeringâ€™s military focus. This
38 ENGINEERING AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
reveals a mindset critical of militarism in engineering. I have heard the joke told in both contexts,
revealing both mindsets in engineering.
2.2.6 Joke 6: â€˜I Are an Engineerâ€™
Real engineers . . . have a non-technical vocabulary of 800 words.
This joke (and the joke I snuck in the section header) communicates a devaluation of written and
oral communication skills, as they celebrate engineersâ€™ difficulty in this area.
2.2.7 Joke 7: Real Engineers . . .
Real engineers . . . have politics that run toward a corner office and a parking space
with their name on it.
This joke emphasizes the corporate context in which engineers often work and a mindset of managerialism in which organizational bureaucracy is an end in itself. The popularity of Dilbert reinforces
the centrality of corporate life for engineers. This joke reveals a mindset that is careerist, politically
inactive, disinterested, or uninformed.
2.2.8 Joke 8: The Glass
To the optimist, the glass is half-full. To the pessimist, the glass is half-empty. To the
engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs to be (Figure 2.2).
This joke is overtly about engineersâ€™ worldview. Some would praise this mindset as creative thinking
outside the box (or the glass). Certainly, it challenges some things that are conventionally assumed.
At the same time, this joke reveals a mindset that will not evaluate a situation and refuses to make
a subjective judgment. Is this a sign of uncompromising objectivity, or just bad design? Drinking
water will continually require redesign of the glass.
2.3 WHAT DO THESE JOKES TELL US ABOUT MINDSETS IN
It is too simple to say that these jokes tell us nothing about engineering because they are based on
stereotypes, for which we can find many counterexamples. The fact that these are the jokes that
MINDSETS IN ENGINEERING 39
are told about engineering by engineers and that these are the stereotypes our community draws
on, and not other ones, demands our notice and our interpretation. How do they acculturate us as
members of the profession? There is a combination of self-deprecation and celebration of these
characteristics in the engineering jokes, an acknowledgement that many possess these mindsets and
a recognition that they may not always produce desirable outcomes. Within each joke lies not only
the presentation of a mindset but also some discontent with it and desire for change. Let us examine
each characteristic more carefully.
2.3.1 A Desire to Help . . . and the Persistence to Do It
There is something in the spirit of the engineer that wants to help. Some engineering deans call for
a public relations and/or recruitment campaign that presents engineering as a profession that serves
humanity [6,7]. They can cite examples, whether it is bringing clean water and sanitation to a community or developing new drugs, designing renewable energy solutions to address climate change,
or connecting people with wireless networks. Engineers are known for our work ethic; we are committed to getting the job done and will slog through hours of grunt work to make it happen. We
serve and serve well. The helping spirit and strong work ethic of engineers are important traits for
engaging in social justice work. There is a certain amount of overlap between the kinds of problems
FIGURE 2.2: Half-full, half-empty, or wrong-sized? Accessed January 18, 2008, from http://bp2
40 ENGINEERING AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
engineers solve and social justice problems, although the engineering approach may not define the
problem to be solved in terms of social justice.
2.3.2 Centrality of Military and Corporate Organizations
This raises a question: who does engineering serve? We want to help, but who are we actually
helping? Alice Pawley , assistant professor of engineering education at Purdue, analyzes the
narratives of engineering faculty members with an eye to the establishment and reinforcement of
gendered boundaries in engineering. She uses three tools in analyzing the way engineers define and
delimit the boundaries of our profession: space, time, and actors.
Pawleyâ€™s construct of space helps us understand where engineers work. Drawing on National
Science Foundation data as well as her interviews with engineering faculty, Pawley establishes that
engineers work overwhelmingly in private profit-oriented organizations and on industrial, commercial, and military problems. Problems tend to be at a larger scale, with small-scale problems
relegated to areas outside of engineering. There are few opportunities for engineering employment
outside of government, industrial, and commercial settings. The centrality of managerialism in engineering may not be surprising, given that engineers are embedded in corporate organizations.
Managerialism takes a systems approach to organizational management, viewing human relationships within the organization through a lens of inputs and outputs and increasing organizational
efficiencies by minimizing inputs and maximizing outputs .
Turning to actors, Pawley asks who defines engineering problems, who benefits from the solutions to the problems, and who actually does the work of engineering. She further asks who is left
out of the picture; while her analysis specifically examines how these boundaries are drawn along
gender lines, the questions are equally relevant for examining other questions of social justice. Applying Pawleyâ€™s construct of time to her data reveals that engineers typically rely on tradition and
precedent in determining what they should do in the present and future. This makes the profession
resistant to change.
Pawleyâ€™s constructs cited above and the research she draws upon in her work provide some
insight into why engineering retains a narrow focus that excludes and precludes a great deal of social
justice work. Clearly, broadening the settings in which engineers work and the actors involved is
necessary to create opportunities for engineers to work on social justice issues.
2.3.3 Engineers Have a Narrow Technical Focus and Therefore Lack a Number
of Other Skills
Engineeringâ€™s embedding in military and corporate applications can explain the narrow sense of
career path many students experience. There are few alternatives to a military or corporate career in
MINDSETS IN ENGINEERING 41
engineering and to the development of a culture within engineering that does not question authority in preparation for performance in hierarchical military and corporate organizations.
Bruce Seely , a historian who studies engineering education, has documented the reform
efforts in engineering education over the last century; one of the things they have in common is the
recurring debate about how broad or narrowly focused an engineering degree should be and how
much (and what specific) content from the liberal arts is appropriate. In 2000, the Accreditation
Board on Engineering and Technology  changed the program outcomes criteria (standards)
to include a number of nontechnical capacities engineering students must develop including communication, teamwork, global and local context, and professional responsibility. The extent to which
these are addressed varies from program to program, as engineering curricula continue to be packed
heavily with required courses.
Generally, engineering students learn to think analytically only in certain ways appropriate to
technical analysis. For example, we learn to break problems down into small parts, solve the individual
parts, and then work back up to a solution. We typically do not come away with the ability to think
critically, to question what is given, or question the validity of our assumptions, because we are too busy
learning the essentials of problem solving. For this reason, we often cannot see the larger context of the
problem we are working. We lose sight of the big picture, especially if we are sleep-deprived from too
many hours in the lab and doing problem sets. We do not learn, with any depth, critical approaches
from the humanities and social sciences, and we do not learn many communication skills beyond writing technical reports and giving PowerPoint presentations. Thus, it is no wonder that some engineers
may come across as apolitical or clued out about contemporary issues outside of technology.
2.3.4 Positivism and the Myth of Objectivity
A positivist mindset often relates to two other perspectives that are commonly held in engineering: reductionism and technological determinism. Reductionism is the notion that phenomena (or
problems) can be broken down into smaller components for analysis and that analysis of the components can fully explain the system as a whole. A reductionist perspective is evident in the engineering problem solving and engineering design processes. Technological determinism holds that
technology develops on its own in a self-propelling fashion (i.e., without regard to social forces)
and that its innovations, in turn, impact society and drive political, cultural, and economic developments. This perspective is found in engineering when concern is placed on the impacts of
technology on society without consideration for how society also constructs technology. Positivism
and technological determinism lead many engineers to believe that their work is objective and that
science itself is objective.
As Foucault  points out, however, science is subject to the same vicissitudes of power that
other forms of truth face from institutions in society. It is easy to recognize power at work in what
42 ENGINEERING AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
questions are considered fundable, what research is pursued and later published, and how entire
fields of inquiry are established and supported or left unfunded and floundering. For example, in the
Bush Administrationâ€™s Climate Change Science Program begun in 2002, 13 federal agenciesâ€™ funding directed toward climate research has been coordinated to answer questions determined to be of
high priority. Unfortunately, many of the most critical questions around the human and economic
dimensions of global change have been given short shrift, while the anthropogenic causes of climate
change (which were already well established by 2002) are now extremely well studied . It should
also be noted that in the Bush administration, even more extreme measures were taken to control
information related to climate change. Science journalist Seth Shulman  documents several
cases of government suppression of scientific studies that differed from the administrationâ€™s position and other efforts to undermine the work of government scientists. Cases include censorship of
government reports on climate change.
When science is seen as objective, technology itself is seen as neutral (and often ahistorical),
disregarding the social forces that demand certain forms of technology or pose certain questions.
The consequences of technology are attributed entirely to the way the technology is ultimately used
and not seen as part of the engineerâ€™s responsibility. Thus, the values that are embedded in technology are often those of the engineersâ€™ employers. Each engineered object brings with it a set of values
and assumptions, which ought no longer to be taken for granted. I will examine these issues further
in Chapter 3.
Waller  points out the predominance of positivism in engineering research, which carries
over into engineering education research, to its detriment. Harding [16: 125] questions the use of
positivist frameworks in engineering (and science) research, noting that â€œthe ideal of one true science obscures the fact that any system of knowledge will generate systematic patterns of ignorance
as well as of knowledge.â€ Harding further notes how the myth of expertise can lead to authoritarian
power structures. Science and technology studies scholar Langdon Winner  makes a similar
point in noting how engineered systems, such as nuclear power plants, require centralized power
structures in order to be created and maintained.
2.3.5 Uncritical Acceptance of Authority
A positivist mindset that sticks with the scientific method as the only way of knowing what we
know, combined with a lack of exposure to other ways of knowing, or contexts in which those other
ways of knowing are valued, can lead to a lack of questioning of certain types of information. When
we do not learn to question the information given to us, we are unlikely to question authority.
When the organizations who hire us operate in hierarchies and we are rewarded by following orders
within those organizations, we are unlikely to question authority. Sociologist Diane Vaughanâ€™s 
account of the events in National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) leading up to the
MINDSETS IN ENGINEERING 43
Challenger accident document the ways in which power can construct knowledge in organizations,
as outside pressures related to NASAâ€™s funding and productivity became internalized and began to
affect thinking and behavior inside the organization. She documents the ways in which engineers
conformed to organizational norms when raising concerns, following chains of command and deviating only at the behest of an authority. Vaughanâ€™s work suggests that the organizations in which
engineers work may play a large role in setting these norms for engineers, as other employees may
behave similarly regardless of their training or profession.
Sociologists Diego Gambeta and Steffen Hertog  present some unsettling data about the
overrepresentation of engineers among radical Islamist groups (44% of those with college degrees
where the major subject was known were engineers). Notably, engineers were not present among
non-Islamic leftist groups, but were well represented among non-Islamist right-wing groups and
overrepresented among U.S. white supremacists. In seeking to explain this overrepresentation, the
authors found no evidence of engineers being selected by the radical groups because of their technical expertise. They rather offer two explanations: that engineers experienced particular social difficulties in Islamic society and that engineers, among others, are more likely to possess a certain
mindset that increases their propensity to right-wing radicalism and violence. To support their
argument, Gambeta and Hertog reference documents from radical Islamist groups and Western
intelligence, noting recruiters look for a combination of intelligence and a willing acceptance of
authority. Engineers were, in fact, recruited by some groups (and self-selected into others) more for
their mindset than their technical ability.
This mindset exhibits three traits: monism (a belief in one right answer and an intolerance of
uncertainty), simplism (locating a single cause for complex phenomena, a belief that rational behavior leads to simple solutions to social problems), and preservatism (a desire to restore a lost mythical order to society). Monism and simplism relate fairly clearly to positivism and reductionism as
discussed above. Gambeta and Hertog cite additional evidence for the presence of this mindset in
surveys of engineers around the world and ethnographic work with radical Islamist engineers. This
mindset is distinctly right-wing in a political sense. It also prevents the acquisition of some critical
analytical tools used in the social sciences and humanities to understand our world.
Engineers and the engineering profession have some characteristics that prepare us well to work on
social justice issues: the strong desire to be helpful and the persistence of a strong work ethic. Yet
some structural problems with the professionâ€”its military and corporate focus and the narrowness
of engineering education, which excludes a number of important skillsâ€”can present obstacles when
we engage in social justice work. In addition, there is an engineering outlook that privileges scientific
knowledge over other kinds of knowledge, prefers certainty to uncertainty, and seeks single,
44 ENGINEERING AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
simplistic explanations for complex social phenomena, which creates a political tendency that eschews social justice and presents real roadblocks in acquiring skills outside of engineering that are
needed for social justice work. In the next chapter, we begin to step outside the common mindsets in
engineering by considering some critiques of engineering from a social justice perspective.
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Engineering and Social Justice