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Engineering Studies: Conditions


"[...] I was long frustrated with STS for contributing to a longstanding practice of disappearing engineers. Founding STS scholars tended to focus on science and technology. Even medicine fell outside this demarcation.

Engineers and engineering tended to appear in STS work in one of two ways. The first was to accept the dominant popular image of engineering as downstream of science, linked to applied science and equivalent to technology. Reproducing the linear model, early STS scholarship privileged attention to scientists, the creators. In the same ways that applied sciences were less important, so it was with engineering. Even though the number of engineers working in the world is probably a few orders of magnitude larger than the number of scientists, engineers did not merit central attention from our field.

The second way the word “engineering” appeared in STS discourses was as metaphor. So, for example, John Law offered the helpful label “heterogeneous engineering” to name the messy processes through which diverse collections of human and nonhuman agents engage in contingent, heterogeneous negotiations to produce stabilized outputs and outcomes. He was contributing to a newly-inverted epistemological approach to social studies of science, agency-based accounts of knowledge and technological development. This was an important article, with lasting value. But it also important to remember that his study of heterogeneous engineering was not about engineers, people who are trained and identify as engineers. These were Portuguese sailors and other agents involved in Portuguese navigation. The word “engineering” appeared as a metaphor for the contingent practices of negotiation by heterogeneous agents in heterogeneous encounters.

While I was pleased to see the word appear in a prominent STS context, I also watched as using engineering as a metaphor for contingent negotiations, especially of new technologies, actually had the effect of directing critical STS attention and analysis away from engineers and engineering work. In the first place, it appropriated uncritically the equivalence engineers tend to draw between engineering and technological design. Engineers have long claim jurisdiction over technology via design. Since no other fields challenged this claim, until recently, it became commonplace to equate engineering work with the complex technical machinations of design. Other work that John Law did with Michel Callon did in fact call attention to the social work of engineers.

Appropriating engineering as a metaphor often draws on this equivalence without reflection or comment. At the same time, the development of technology studies as a field further devalued engineers and engineering, unintentionally I think, by showing that lots of people, lots of experts, many distinct modes of knowledge, and different kinds of people with different kinds of expertise all could be considered technologists contributing to technological developments.

So during the 1980s and 1990s, I watched as STS continued disappearing engineers and engineering as topics or sites for STS inquiry and critical analysis."

Downey and Zhang 2018: 13-14


Creative Commons Licence


Created date

August 7, 2018

Critical Commentary

This artifact includes a long quote from Gary Downey's published interview, delineating the need for a dedicated field of scholarship focused on Engineering Studies from within -- but also distinct from -- STS.


Excerpted from Downey and Zhang 2018.



Group Audience