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Engineering and Social Justice

Copyright 2008 by Morgan & Claypool

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Engineering and Social Justice
Donna Riley
ISBN: 9781598296266 paperback
ISBN: 9781598296273 ebook
DOI: 10.2200/S00117ED1V01Y200805ETS007
A Publication in the Morgan & Claypool Publishers series
Lecture #7
Series Editor: Caroline Baillie, Queens University
Series ISSN
ISSN 1933-3633


ISSN 1933-3461


Engineering and Social Justice

Donna Riley
Smith College



The profession of engineering in the United States has historically served the status quo, feeding
an ever-expanding materialistic and militaristic culture, remaining relatively unresponsive to public
concerns, and without significant pressure for change from within. This book calls upon engineers
to cultivate a passion for social justice and peace and to develop the skill and knowledge set needed
to take practical action for change within the profession. Because many engineers do not receive
education and training that support the kinds of critical thinking, reflective decision-making, and
effective action necessary to achieve social change, engineers concerned with social justice can feel
powerless and isolated as they remain complicit. Utilizing techniques from radical pedagogies of
liberation and other movements for social justice, this book presents a roadmap for engineers to
become empowered and engage one another in a process of learning and action for social justice
and peace.

engineering and social justice, militarism, gender, race, critical pedagogy, liberative pedagogies

And so you ask, What about the innocent bystanders? But we are in a time of revolution. If you are a bystander, you are not innocent.
Abbie Hoffman [1: 183]
In recent years, some leaders in the engineering community in the United States and other countries
have been seeking to cast engineering as a profession in service to humanity. This characterization is
often propelled by the problem of an overall dearth of students entering engineering and a specific
concern about underrepresentation of women and men of color as well as white women. Some say
the problem is one of engineers not commanding enough respect in society or not achieving enough
I believe deeply in engineerings potential to be a profession in service to humanity and to
the planet, yet I cannot help but wonder whether what we have is merely a public relations problem
or something deeper. I personally find it difficult to recruit high school students to engineering by
holding out dreams of working on humanitarian or even environmental causes, when I know that
most students will be working either on military endeavors focused on the facilitation of war or on
corporate endeavors focused on increasing profits, often on the backs of poor communities.
The profession of law has a field of public interest law, in which the aim is an ideal of social
justice, in which the poor are represented as skillfully as the rich, the environment is defended, and
rights are extended to those who are not treated justly under current law. The medical profession
has its cohort concerned with social justice that establishes clinics to extend access to health care,
and public health practitioners make clear the connections between social problems and health
problems, advocating fundamental change. How is it that the profession of engineering has not
followed suit? Why is it so difficult to find communities of engineers interested in social justice? In
writing this book, I have come across many more examples of engineers working for social justice
than I imagined existed. Why do we remain so isolated from one another?
This book is an attempt both to explain the overall lack of emphasis on social justice in engineering and to build on the work of others to rectify this situation. Engineers cannot afford to be
dispassionate bystanders in the face of problems in which we can have a major impact. Our role in

vi engineering and social justice

achieving military and corporate ends cannot continue to go unquestioned. Neither can we continue
to overlook our conspicuous absence in achieving other kinds of social progress.
Hampshire College physics professor Herb Bernstein once commented on the irony that so
many engineering students worry when they encounter engineering ethics, that their designs might
injure someone, without an inkling of recognition that injury may be the very point of many designs
they are paid to produce. Engineers may not recognize the biases inherent in our profession: in who
benefits and loses from engineering, in who can and cannot do engineering, in what counts and
does not count as engineering. All of these choices reveal our collective biases. These choices and
biases are masked by ways in which they are considered mainstream and rewarded by society. But
we must remember there is a big difference between mainstream and value neutral. Values that
are outside of the mainstream are easily labeled as different; however, they represent no less of a bias
than the values that are accepted so readily, and thus go unnoticed.
Thus, I could say, after Augusto Boals foreword to Theatre of the Oppressed [2], that all engineering is necessarily political because of the ways in which engineering is embedded in political
processes; it is a weapon we must fight for because of the ways those in power wield it as an instrument of control. I could further note, again after Boal, that to claim that engineering is (or should
be) objective is to presume a certain political attitude. Those who try to pretend that engineering is
somehow objective and try to remove it from the political arena are themselves acting in a political
way. Thus, I do not doubt that this book will also be labeled political. But it is no less political than
the profession of engineering and the practice of engineering education, although the ideas in this
book may be less widely accepted in the mainstream.
This book offers a critique of the engineering profession and drives at the heart of its biases in
worldview and thought as well as practice. This makes the book hard to read in several ways. First,
many concepts are drawn from disciplines outside of engineering, thus may seem unfamiliar and
challenging. Other disciplines draw on a variety of worldviews and mindsets that the mainstream of
the engineering profession does not share and which most engineering educations do not impart to
students. Hence, this book may be slow-going in parts and may require the reader to further explore
some of the ideas I reference from other authors. Many readers may have not even heard of some of
the social theory presented, and some may have heard of it in disparaging ways only.
Second, the critique of engineering may come across to some as an attack. This is not my
intention in the least. I am an engineer, and I am proud to be one. I believe deeply in the promise
of engineering to address problems of social justice, and I seek to build more opportunities for that
work. This deep passion for the field and what it can be drives me to write the book and comes
through in my critiques. I hope readers will recognize that the critiques are driven by love for the
field and my own hopes for a more just and peaceful world. I hope that readers will stick to it and
read the entire book with an open mind, even if some of the language I use or the alternative ways of

preface vii

thinking I present are difficult to understand right away, are off-putting, challenging, or maddening,
or cause readers to question their identities as engineers.
Feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether wrote, Consciousness is much more of a
collective social product than modern individualism realizes. No one can affirm an idea against the
dominant culture unless there is at least a subcultural group that gives people both the ideas and the
social support for an alternative position [3: 184]. I am aware of how much the ideas in this book
reflect countless contributions from communities and individuals who have had an impact on the
way I think about the world. It begins with my own teachers at Westridge School, particularly
Gerald Fallon at Princeton who taught me to think critically. Frank von Hippel first taught me how
engineering and social justice might fit together, and Indira Nair at Carnegie Mellon modeled and
continues to model a principled career in engineering connected to social justice. A host of coconspirators in my activism over the years (you know who you are) have influenced my thinking about
social justice, in general, and its intersection with engineering.
I thank Caroline Baillie and George Catalano who have been organizing forums on the topic
of engineering and social justice for the past several years and to all the participants who have influenced this work. I thank friends who converse with me on these topics and challenge my thinking,
in particular, Alicia Waller, Lisa Armstrong, Vijay Prashad, Alison Newby, Jessica Tucker, Natalie
Flores, and Susannah Howe, who contributed some ideas in this book. My deepest thanks to my
friends and family for every kind of support, and especially to Phil, a kindred spirit.
I thank the library staff at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts for their assistance in locating resources. I thank Alice Pawley, Simone Sandy, and Lillian Wilson for reading and
commenting on drafts and for lively conversations on some topics. I thank Caroline Baillie, series
editor, and Joel Claypool, publisher, for all their help, hard work, and patience along the way. I thank
my colleagues in the Picker Engineering Program and Smith College for giving me the space and
support to do this work on the margins of what is conventionally considered engineering. I thank
Michele Schaft and Dawn Scaparotti for their support, both personal and professional, which has
given me the strength and courage to write this book.
This book is based on some materials on work supported by the National Science Foundation
under grant 0448240. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in
this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science


1. What Do We Mean by Social Justice?....................................................................1
1.1 Some Working Definitions................................................................................... 2
1.2 Streams of Social Justice Thought and Action..................................................... 5
1.2.1 Marxist Traditions: Economic Justice and Beyond................................... 5
1.2.2 Rights Traditions and Their Critics.......................................................... 8
1.2.3 Ecological Justice.................................................................................... 11
1.2.4 Faith Traditions and Social Justice.......................................................... 14
1.2.5 Critical Theories and Social Justice........................................................ 17
1.3 Forms of Dissent................................................................................................ 20
1.3.1 Civil Disobedience (Including But Not Limited to Nonviolent
Direct Action)............................................................................... .........21
1.3.2 Legal Protest.......................................................................................... 22
1.3.3 Rule Departures...................................................................................... 22
1.3.4 Conscientious Objection........................................................................ 24
1.3.5 Radical Protest........................................................................................ 24
1.3.6 Revolutionary Action............................................................................. 25
1.4 Conclusion......................................................................................................... 26
References.................................................................................................................... 26

Mindsets in Engineering.................................................................................... 33
2.1 An Engineering Mindset?.................................................................................. 33
2.2 Professional Humor: Drawing on Stereotype..................................................... 34
2.2.1 Joke 1: The Guillotine............................................................................ 35
2.2.2 Joke 2: The Church Steeple.................................................................... 36
2.2.3 Joke 3: You Might Be an Engineer If................................................. 36
2.2.4 Joke 4: The Golf Course......................................................................... 37
2.2.5 Joke 5: Mechanical vs. Civil.................................................................... 37
2.2.6 Joke 6: I Are an Engineer...................................................................... 38
2.2.7 Joke 7: Real Engineers........................................................................ 38
2.2.8 Joke 8: The Glass.................................................................................... 38

 engineering and social justice

2.3 What Do These Jokes Tell Us About Mindsets in Engineering?....................... 38

2.3.1 A Desire to Help . . . and the Persistence to Do It................................. 39
2.3.2 Centrality of Military and Corporate Organizations.............................. 40
2.3.3 Engineers Have a Narrow Technical Focus and Therefore Lack a
Number of Other Skills.................................................. ............... .........40
2.3.4 Positivism and the Myth of Objectivity.................................................. 41
2.3.5 Uncritical Acceptance of Authority........................................................ 42
2.4 Conclusion......................................................................................................... 43
References.................................................................................................................... 44

Engineering and Social Injustice......................................................................... 47

3.1 Political Conservatism and Libertarianism......................................................... 47
3.1.1 Countertrends: Engineers on the Left.................................................... 50
3.2 Engineering and Class........................................................................................ 51
3.2.1 Upward Mobility?................................................................................... 52
3.2.2 Professional or Proletariat?..................................................................... 53
3.2.3 Revolutionary Design?............................................................................ 55
3.2.4 Exploitive Management Roles................................................................ 55
3.2.5 One Countertrend: Rethinking the Engineering Design Process.......... 57
3.3 Materialism/Consumerism................................................................................. 58
3.3.1 Green Consumerism.............................................................................. 60
3.4 Militarism........................................................................................................... 62
3.4.1 Research Funding and Federal Policy Making....................................... 68
3.4.2 Military Cultures in Engineering........................................................... 69
3.4.3 Engineering Peace.................................................................................. 71
3.5 Colonialism and Globalization........................................................................... 73
3.5.1 Transportation........................................................................................ 73
3.5.2 Water and Energy.................................................................................. 74
3.5.3 Food Production..................................................................................... 75
3.5.4 Globalization of U.S. Corporate Culture............................................... 76
3.5.5 Global Development Engineering.......................................................... 77
3.6 Racism................................................................................................................ 80
3.6.1 Underrepresentation............................................................................... 80
3.6.2 Curricular and Pedagogical Reform........................................................ 82
3.6.3 Stereotypes............................................................................................. 84
3.6.4 Racist Cultures in Engineering.............................................................. 85
3.6.5 Beyond Underrepresentation.................................................................. 86

contents xi

3.7 Sexism................................................................................................................ 88
3.7.1 Underrepresentation............................................................................... 89
3.7.2 Sexist Cultures in Engineering............................................................... 90
3.7.3 Workplace Cultures................................................................................ 92
3.7.4 What Counts as Engineering? The Gendering of a Field...................... 93
3.7.5 Sexist Technologies................................................................................. 94
3.8 Homophobia and Heterosexism......................................................................... 95
3.9 Ableism, Assistive Technologies, and Universal Design..................................... 96
3.10 Conclusion......................................................................................................... 96
References.................................................................................................................... 97

Toward a More Socially Just Engineering.......................................................... 107

4.1 How Do We Get There From Here?............................................................... 107
4.2 Praxis................................................................................................................ 108
4.3 Engineering Ethics for Social Justice............................................................... 109
4.3.1 Autonomy............................................................................................. 109
4.3.2 Macroethics.......................................................................................... 110
4.3.3 Morally Deep Ethics............................................................................ 110
4.3.4 Non-Western Perspectives.................................................................... 111
4.3.5 Ethic of Care........................................................................................ 111
4.4 Critical Thinking for Social Justice.................................................................. 112
4.4.1 Epistemic Assumptions and Worldview............................................... 112
4.4.2 Critical Theory, Social Analysis and Social Justice............................... 113
4.4.3 The Role of the Learner Self................................................................ 113
4.4.4 Critical Thinking + Reflective Action = Praxis..................................... 114
4.5 Communication for Social Justice.................................................................... 114
4.6 Collaboration for Social Justice........................................................................ 115
4.7 Organizing for Social Justice............................................................................ 116
4.8 Learning for Social Justice................................................................................ 116
4.8.1 Attitudes Toward Learning.................................................................. 116
4.8.2 Vehicles for Learning........................................................................... 117
4.8.3 Create Your Own LearningAction Communities.............................. 118
4.8.4 Learning Models and Methods............................................................ 120
4.9 Conclusion....................................................................................................... 121
References.................................................................................................................. 121


Turning Knowledge Into Action: Strategies for Change..................................... 125

5.1 Case Studies for Inspiration and Critique........................................................ 125

xii engineering and social justice

5.2 Case Study 1. Users Designing for Users:

Whirlwind Wheelchair International and PROJIMO..................................... 126
5.3 Case Study 2. Challenging Pharmaceutical Profiteering:
One World Health........................................................................................... 127
5.4 Case Study 3. Watch-Dogging the Nuclear Industry:
Citizens Groups Take on Vermont Yankee....................................................... 128
5.4.1 Industry Insiders................................................................................... 129
5.4.2 Public Servants..................................................................................... 129
5.4.3 Whistle-Blowers and Advocates........................................................... 129
5.4.4 Concerned Citizens.............................................................................. 130
5.5 Case Study 4. Being a Change Agent: Barbara Waugh and Hewlett Packard....... 131
5.6 Case Study 5. Whistle-Blowing: Bunnatine Greenhouse................................. 132
5.7 Case Study 6. Inside Agitating:
Professor Steve Slaby and Student Activism Against Military Research.......... 134
5.8 Case Study 7. Organizing Around Our Expertise:
Delhi Science Forum........................................................................................ 135
5.9 Case Study 8. Making a Living While Making a Difference: Jonathan Rose........ 136
5.10 Case Study 9. Democratizing Technology:
The International Science Shop Network........................................................ 136
5.11 Case Study 10. Bringing Us the Weekend and Then Some:
The Boeing Engineers Strike........................................................................... 137
5.12 Conclusion....................................................................................................... 139
References.................................................................................................................. 140

Parting Lessons for the Continuing Struggle..................................................... 143

6.1 Dare to Be Different......................................................................................... 143
6.2 One Joke, Three Stereotypes............................................................................ 144
6.2.1 Lesson 1: You Do Not Have to Solve the Problem.
Maybe It Is Not Even a Problem................................ .................. .......144
6.2.2 Lesson 2: Explore Other Ways of Knowing.
Seek to Understand the Context.................................. ................. .......145
6.2.3 Lesson 3: Resist Being Co-Opted........................................................ 145
6.3 Valuing Relationships....................................................................................... 147
6.4 Having Fun....................................................................................................... 148
6.5 The Work Ahead.............................................................................................. 149
References.................................................................................................................. 150

Author Biography..................................................................................................... 151

chapter 1

What Do We Mean by Social Justice?

One cannot say, Im for justice, but any conception of justice anyone comes up with
is all right with me.
Martha Nussbaum [4: 4748]
This chapter reviews multiple perspectives in social justice action and thought with the intent of characterizing what we mean by social justice, particularly as it intersects with the teaching and practice of
It is difficult to define the term social justice. It is not that the term is poorly understood;
on the contrary, each of us knows what we mean by it. The problem is that the term resists a concise
and permanent definition. Its mutability and multiplicity are, in fact, key characteristics of social
Consider the reasons why a definition of social justice is difficult to pin down. Martha
Nussbaum [4], Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University
of Chicago, tells us that our sense of social justice is necessarily normative, i.e., drawing on our
sense of what should be and implicitly comparing what should be (social justice) to what is (some
reality of injustice). This means that our conception of social justice is contextual and somewhat
subjective, influenced by social position and experience [5]. The definition of what is considered
socially unjust has its grounding in experience, which is bounded by time, place, and social location. Of course, this is subject to variation across time, place, and individuals. In that sense,
the term is both contested and fluid [6]. Social justice is defined by this openness to change. It
recognizes that people in every time and place continue the struggle for justice in new contexts.
Social justice is not so much a thing to be achieved, as it is a continuing process and an ongoing
Second, our sense of social justice is crafted in community by groups of people. Each of us
may define social justice differently, but we use the term collectively and thus it takes on a collective
meaning, reflecting a multiplicity of perspectives. This multiplicity of perspectives is part of what
social justice is. As conservative commentator Michael Novak [7] points out, social justice is social

 Engineering and Social JusticE?

not only in the sense that it benefits groups of people beyond oneself, and indeed society as a whole,
but also in the sense that the process of working for justice is socialgroups of people organize
together to do social justice work, which cannot be accomplished alone.
While conservatives have been known to use and co-opt the term as Michael Novak does,
people more commonly think of social justice positions as varyingly liberal, progressive, leftist,
or radical. Because of the ways in which advocates for social justice struggle against the status quo
in society, social justice work is inherently political, as is the application of political labels to the
work, whether they are used by mainstream society to separate the cause from the mainstream, used
derogatorily by opposing forces supporting the status quo, or used as a positive expression of identity
by social justice advocates.
It is important to note that even as advocates for social justice resist forces of the status quo,
we cannot escape them entirely and sometimes, wittingly or unwittingly, we become complicit with
these forces or internalize their messages. Our expressions of social justice are therefore imperfect
and may contain reproductions or re-inscriptions of social injustices. Recognizing our own place in
relation to the work can help us identify our biases and move beyond them.
For example, in this book, readers may notice a strong U.S. focus. Because of my citizenship
in the United States and education as an engineer here and because of U.S. biases in American media, among other things, the data I use in this book are based mostly on U.S. sources. My efforts to
include non-U.S. examples have ultimately not been sufficient to remove the depth of this bias. It is
my hope that some of the ideas and examples presented here are nonetheless relevant in non-U.S.
contexts and that others with more knowledge of engineering and social justice around the world
will contribute to this conversation and provide a more complete story.



While a single definition of social justice may be difficult to come by, the reality is that social justice movements rely on their own functional definitions every day in doing their work. Naturally,
these vary from group to group and movement to movement and over time, but there are some
consistent themes. We therefore look to movements of people struggling for social justice to understand how they approach the concept, what it means to them in their contexts. Social justice
movements, through their actions, generate ideas about what should be out of their experiences of
To begin to characterize how social justice activists think about their work, consider the boxed
excerpts (page 4) from the Reach and Teach website [8], collected from some contemporary social
justice groups active in the San Francisco Bay Area and across the United States (Figure 1.1).

What do we mean by social justice? 

FIGURE 1.1: Medea Benjamin, arrested at Code Pink action at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Accessed March 2, 2008, from
.jpg. Photo by Eric Wagner. Used with permission.

The Columbia-Barnard wiki on social justice movements in New York City [9] seeks to
categorize organizations by topics, which gives some sense of what this group considers to comprise
social justice issues as follows:

Arts-based activism
Community health and environmental justice
Economic justice
Immigrant rights
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) and two spirit
Police monitoring/community protection
Prison crisis
Women and gender
Workers rights

 Engineering and Social JusticE?

Social justice means complete and genuine equality of all people.Paul George, Executive Director Peninsula Peace and Justice Center
Social justice means moving toward a society where all hungry are fed, all sick are cared for, the
environment is treasured, and we treat each other with love and compassion.Medea Benjamin,
Co-founder Global Exchange and Code Pink (Figure 1.1)
A long and mysterious historical process in which those who are excluded and exploited by social
forces of privilege and power attempt to consociate into movements that struggle for: a more equitable distribution of social and economic goods; for greater personal and political dignity; and
for a deeper moral vision of their society. Social justice is a goal toward which we move, always imperfectly, and persons and groups are motivated to realize it by their deepest spiritual and political
traditions. Justice is only meaningful when it is historically specific and embodied (as opposed to
theoretical or abstract).Ched Myers, ecumenical activist, Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries
Social Justice Work is work that we do in the interest of securing human rights, an equitable distribution of resources, a healthy planet, democracy, and a space for the human spirit to
thrive.Innosanto Nagara, Co-founder DesignAction Collective
Social justice means no kids going to bed hungry, no one without shelter or healthcare and a free
and lively discussion and participation by all people in the political direction and organization
of our communities and nation.Kirsten Moller, Executive Director and Co-founder, Global
[after a longer definition]...It means that those of us who have privilege must be willing to give
up those things that cannot be sustained in a fair worldespecially those things that use an
unfair percentage of the worlds environmental resources.Rick Ufford-Chase, International
Director, BorderLinks

While such definitions and lists may neither be complete nor definitive, they reflect how
people engaged in social justice work view their goals. The theme that cuts across these definitions
is the struggle to end different kinds of oppression, to create economic equality, to uphold human
rights or dignity, and to restore right relationships among all people and the environment. The
Ford Foundation [10] offers the following definition of peace and social justice that represents
their vision:

What do we mean by social justice? 

Peace is a precondition for the full achievement of the foundations mission to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation
and advance human achievement. Armed conflict destroys not only human lives but
also livelihoods, governments, civil institutions, trustin short, everything in its wake.
Social justice is the aspiration of all healthy societies and the only long-term guarantee
for sustaining peace.
Again, this is an imperfect definition that will not represent all perspectives. Some may argue
here that the definition of peace is too narrowly focused on the absence of conflict and that it offers
alternative definitions that reflect the importance of inner peace and interpersonal relationship or
that more strongly emphasize justice as a prerequisite for peace. This demonstrates that those who
work for social justice have many different ideas of what social justice and peace are and of how to
work for them. It is important to be clear what we mean when we use the term social justice, so
that we can better define our goals and make the best decisions we can about how to work together
toward common goals.



The set of intellectual and activist traditions that define or develop a concept of social justice are
many and varied, and discussing these thoroughly would fill volumes. I speak of intellectual and
activist traditions together, following on the Marxist notion of praxis, in which action and theory
each inform the other [11]. At the same time, it should be recognized that too often theory is disconnected from action. Despite some activists being intellectuals and vice versa, theory can often
be inaccessible to communities that inspired it or might benefit from it. In an effort to connect the
two as much as possible, we seek to discuss them together as traditions of theory and action. As
part of this work, it is not possible to offer a comprehensive discussion of all streams of social justice
thought and action; here, the focus is on streams that have been most influential to social justice
work in the United States.

1.2.1 Marxist Traditions: Economic Justice and Beyond

Economic inequality and the problem of poverty have been at the heart of social justice struggles.
Engineering and social justice expert Caroline Baillie [12], in her book in this series, notes that the
industrial revolution was a crystallizing moment for both engineering and social justice. Marx and
Engels were able to contribute an understanding of the social transformations taking place during
the industrial revolution that give us great insight into struggles for economic justice and economic
equality. Industrializations new technological developments created social conditions that highlighted the need and capacity for workers to unite to demand better working conditions.

 Engineering and Social JusticE?

Marx and Engels [13] (Figure 1.2) introduced the idea of class struggle as a critical lens for
interpreting historical and current events, emphasizing the importance of understanding structural
forms of oppression. Their work considers two main classesthe bourgeoisie who are owners of
capital and do not work themselves but profit from the work of others (or through trade, real estate,
or financial investment) and the proletariat who do not own any resources other than their ability to
work and thus must seek employment from a member of the bourgeoisie, entering into a relationship that is inherently exploitative.
Their critique focuses on the exploitative relationship between laborer and industrialist,
pointing out that Adam Smith and other free market theorists assume incorrectly that exchange
of labor and wages is entered into freely. On the contrary, Marx and Engels established the role
of power in such exchangesthe laborer is often not free to demand a higher wage because he or
she may not have other options. They focused on society as being centered around production and
noted that under industrial capitalism workers experience alienationfrom the products of their

FIGURE 1.2: Marx-Engels Memorial, Berlin, c. 1991. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, graffiti
artists wrote Wir sind unschuldig (we are innocent) at the base. Later, someone sprayed out the un
so it reads Wir sind schuldig (we are guilty). Photograph by Erika Riley.

What do we mean by social justice? 

labor, from themselves, from others, and from nature. This system that exploits and alienates labor
sets up inevitable class struggle.
Since Marx, many theorists have drawn on his work in order to expand our thinking about
classism and economic justice. One key idea is that class embodies not only an economic dimension but also social and cultural dimensions. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu [14] presents a theory of
social stratification based on aesthetics, taste, and cultural preference, arguing that peoples choices
(in food, education, culture, or material possessions, for example) reflect and perpetuate social class
and their related hierarchies of power. Taste and its categorization as refined or coarse serves
to distinguish one class from another and to secure the superiority of one over another. Bourdieu
developed concepts of social capital and cultural capital (114), which reflect the sum total of an
individuals social connections and cultural upbringing; these provide access to accumulate more
social and cultural capital as well as economic capital and economic opportunities, thus reinforcing
inequality and class-based hierarchies. This richer understanding of class is essential to address classism in society and is germane to our understanding of class and engineering, which we will explore
further in subsequent chapters.
Another important way in which Marxs ideas are employed today is in critiques of global
economic inequality. While few critics draw strictly or solely on Marx, preferring more current
theories (many of which grew out of Marx and responses to Marx), the influence of his critique of
capitalism and theory of social class is evident. For example, David Harvey, a political economist of
globalization, considers the origins of global economic inequality in the emergence of neoliberalism
on the world stage in the late 1970s and 1980s [15]. Neoliberalism is a fanatical form of capitalism that places ultimate faith in private property, free markets, and free trade, privatizing industries
and lifting any government protections on trade, the environment, labor, and social welfare. When
critics of neoliberalism identify the exploitation of labor around the world by multinational corporations and observe the widening gap between rich and poor, they echo Marx. Neoliberalism and its
critiques lie at the heart of todays problems of global economic inequality, and engineers concerned
with social justice would do well to understand globalization as an economic, political, social, and
cultural phenomenon [16].
Beyond his contributions to economic justice issues, Marx has contributed to social justice
both in a philosophical and a practical sense. This has had an enormous influence on movements
for social justice including struggles for workers rights, human rights, antiglobalization movements,
antiracism movements, feminist movements, and queer movements.
Marxs idea of praxis has been important for educators and theologians working for social
justice, among others. Marx conceived of a new type of activist philosopher when he said: The
philosophers have only interpreted the world in certain ways; the point, however, is to change it

 Engineering and Social JusticE?

[12: 8]. He encouraged intellectuals to remain embedded in the practicalities of human relationships. Rather than contrast theory with practice, praxis intertwines the two in a relationship of
dialogical exchange. Instead of starting with theory, then moving to practice, praxis is rooted in
social relationships as the basis for theorizing, always returning to the practical with a view to social transformation. There is constant exchange between theory and practice, between process and
product, and between thinking and doing. The thinking and doing are directed toward change that
is meaningful to society. Thus, praxis is not just any thoughtful act but an action with the power to
change individuals and society.
The notion of praxis has been utilized in academic and activist settings (and settings that
bridge the two) and has contributed a great deal to the Catholic and critical theory traditions in
social justice, as discussed in more detail below.

1.2.2 Rights Traditions and Their Critics

As Caroline Baillie [12] notes in an earlier book in this series, many social justice movements draw
upon a rights framework to further their cause. Rights approaches address what people (and sometimes other entities such as animals) deserve or are entitled to. Rights approaches differ from one
another in how they propose to distribute rights equitably. The roots of this framework lie in the
work of Enlightenment philosophers like Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes. Of particular importance
today is the influential theory of distributive justice of the late twentieth century philosopher John
Rawls [17] (Figure 1.3). He argues that charitable giving cannot achieve social justice and advocates
for institutional change to create greater social and economic equality for all. Rawls proposed the
difference principle, which dictates that society can only justify forms of economic and social inequality if they also improve the lives of the worst-off, relative to a position in which everyone was
given an exactly equal amount of goods and services. Critics point out the difficulties in actualizing
this: what would be an equal amount of goods and services, given peoples differences in needs and
preferences, and how could society maintain distributive justice over time? Setting aside the detailed
policy concerns, the radical theoretical implication is that Rawls denies that the talented are more
deserving of wealth and privilege, and rewarding them is only justified if it ultimately benefits the
least well-off in society [18].
The profession of social work draws on Rawls in its current ideas about social justice. For
example, The Social Work Dictionary [19: 404405] defines social justice concisely as the ideal condition in which all members of a society have the same basic rights, security, opportunities, obligations
and social benefits. Some social workers, particularly in the wake of welfare reform in the United
States, critique this definition, questioning whether obligations ought to be the same for all individuals in society, and whether these ought to be given in contractual exchange for social benefits [20].

What do we mean by social justice? 

FIGURE 1.3: John Rawls. Accessed August 15, 2007, from

Critiquing Rawls along similar lines, Nussbaum [4] notes that the social contract tradition
assumes that all individuals in society are equal, ignoring critical moments or life conditions in
which a persons needs are so great, or power imbalances are so big, that the mutuality, freedom, and
equality required by the social contract are not present. She offers an alternative conceptualization
of social justice that rests on the notion of redistributing capabilities [21] rather than Rawlss primary goods. Where primary goods are tangible commodities, capabilities are opportunities (e.g.,
the social basis of health, adequate working conditions, the social basis of imagination, and emotional well-being) [3: 53]. This focus on capabilities is the basis for extending social justice theory
to individuals in relationships with greater dependence (e.g., nonhuman animals, children). Others
question whether redistributing capabilities is sufficient, because these are merely opportunities
that may or may not be realized by individuals [22].
On a more practical level, rights arguments have been used by many movements in U.S.
history including abolition; womens suffrage; desegregation and other other civil rights for Chicanos, African Americans, Native Americans, and other minority groups; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and
transgender rights; disability rights; congressional representation for DC residents; and a womans
right to choose, among others. Most of these movements also include critics that point out the
limitations of the rights framework to accomplish the movements goals. This amounts to a divergence in theory (see discussions of critical theory and the ethic of care below) in some cases and a
divergence in approaches to action (see discussion of forms of dissent below) in other cases. Often,

10 Engineering and Social JusticE?

the struggle is seen as a broader struggle for liberation from oppression not necessarily limited to
rights bestowed or withheld by the state.
Human rights traditions. After World War II, the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration
of Human Rights [23] proclaimed that everyone in the world has a right to personhood, life, liberty,
and security; equality before the law; due process; freedom of conscience; and freedom from slavery,
torture, and arbitrary arrest or detention. Rights to work and to form unions, to health, education,
and social welfare are guaranteed in the declaration.
Legal scholar Cass Sunstein [24] and other critics of the rights framework argue that it is
based too strongly on liberal individualism, when rights are primarily a social construct. They note
that the rights framework precludes or de-emphasizes responsibilities, which they propose as a
replacement construct to rights.
Such critiques question whether the rights framework can be universalized across cultures.
Philosopher of religion Raimon Panikkar [25] took up the question, Is the notion of human rights
a Western concept?, noting the problematic nature of the question itself due to its implication that
if it is indeed Western, it should be rejected as colonialist. Panikkar argues that while human rights
is most definitely a Western concept, it should not be renounced, but other traditions ought also
to bring forth alternative frameworks that challenge or coincide with human rights frameworks.
He argues that this is, in fact, essential to the survival of non-Western cultures throughout the
To date, both African and Islamic charters of human rights have been written that are similar
to, but differ in important ways from, the UN charter. The African Charter on Human and Peoples
Rights [26] emphasizes duties as well as rights, while the Islamic countries Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam [27] retains those rights in the UN charter that can be supported by Islamic law.
An ethic of care. Another critique of Rawls and the rights tradition comes from feminist philosopher Nel Noddings [28] and others who promote an ethic of care as an alternative to what
they see as a more masculinist concept of rights or justice. This critique comes originally from
psychologist Carol Gilligans observation [29] that men tended to speak about ethical questions in
terms of rights language, while women spoke more relationally, out of concern or sympathy for others. Ecofeminist philosopher Karen Warren [30] identifies six problems with the rights framework
that advocates of the ethic of care commonly raise, namely, it focuses on individuals rather than
relationships among individuals; it limits morality as being about rights or rules; it sees resolution
hierarchically and as having winners and losers; it does not leave room for emotion and values of
care in decision-making; it oversimplifies morality; and it reinforces existing power relations by not
calling them out.
There is a strong essentialist association between women and caring based upon the origins
of this ethic. Feminist critics (e.g., Sandra Bartky [31]) problematize the notion of womens care for

What do we mean by social justice? 11

men as reinscribing gender roles and unequal power dynamics. To counter this, philosophers such
as Noddings [28] are careful to locate care in both men and women, and feminist philosopher Joan
Tronto [32] locates care in the experience of the oppressed.
It can be difficult to envision how an ethic of care might play out as a replacement to a rightsbased framework for justice, perhaps because so much of our history and interactions are based
in that framework or perhaps because this ethic is still new and not fully developed. Particularly
problematic is how to enforce the ethic of care; that is, how does society deal with uncaring individuals? How, in particular, can those not cared for or not cared about create change on their own
behalf? Proponents of the ethic of care look to methods of engagement such as conflict resolution
techniques, but it remains unclear how this might bring about justice.
Karen Warren [30] has developed a care-sensitive approach to ethics that requires three
conditions: (1) it recognizes caring for self and others; (2) it invokes situated universalsthat is, it
draws on ethical principles in context; and (3) it enhances (or does not detract from) the health or
well-being of involved parties.
The ethic of care serves as an important reminder to those who work for social justice everywhere to remember to approach our work from the heart and not from a detached intellectual perspective. This work serves to highlight the importance of relationships, for example, the importance
of interpersonal and intrapersonal work one must do to struggle against prejudice.

1.2.3 Ecological Justice

Nussbaum [4] and others note that theories of justice based on the work of Rawls and others do
not necessarily account for nonhuman entities. (Notably, however, Christopher Stone [33] argued
for extending rights to nature in the classic book Should Trees Have Standing.) Thus, a different
tradition has emerged to address issues of ecological justice. Some may include ecological justice in
their conception of social justice, while others might consider it outside the scope of social justice.
While previous work associated with movements such as American transcendentalism has
dealt with humans relationships to nature [34,35], a body of work dealing directly with the ecological problems of our time has emerged since the 1960s, set off by Rachel Carsons work Silent Spring
[36] (Figure 1.4) and inspired by Aldo Leopolds call for an evolving land ethic [37]. Key ideas
included ecologist Garrett Hardins [38] discussion of the tragedy of the commons, entomologist
Paul Ehrlichs [39] treatise on population growth, and medieval science historian Lynn Whites [40]
critique of Western views of technology and the anthropocentrism of the Christian worldview.
Deep ecology. Deep ecologists distinguished themselves from shallow ecologists by critiquing their sole focus on conservation, environmental regulation of industry without fundamentally
altering industrial activity, and anthropocentric relations with nature [41]. Deep ecologists intrinsically value nonhuman species and biodiversity and view humans as one of many species in nature,

12 Engineering and Social JusticE?

FIGURE 1.4: Rachel Carson. Accessed March 2, 2008, from


no more valued than nonhuman species. The work of chemist James Lovelock and biologist Lynn
Margulis on the Gaia hypothesis [42], which views the earth holistically as a single interconnected
biogeochemical entity, can be seen as part of deep ecology.
Social ecology. Murray Bookchin [43] and other social ecologists critique deep ecology because
it does not consider economic, social, and political factors that play a fundamental role in creating environmental problems. In the Marxist tradition of social justice, they look for root causes in
societal structure, governance, class struggle, and other power dynamics. Within the green party in
the United States, there have been historical debates between deep ecologists and social ecologists
reflecting this divide. According to Bookchin, Deep Ecology, despite all its social rhetoric, has
virtually no real sense that our ecological problems have their ultimate roots in society and in social
problems. It preaches a gospel of a kind of original sin that accurses a vague species called humanity,
as though people of color are equatable with whites, women with men, the Third World with the
First, the poor with the rich, and the exploited with the exploiters [44: 236].
Ecofeminism. Like social ecologists, ecofeminists focus on power relationships; in the words
of Karen Warren [30: xiv] (Figure 1.5), they seek to call out the interconnections, at least in Western societies, between the unjustified domination of women and other human Others, on the
one hand, and the unjustified domination of nonhuman nature, on the other hand. The work of
Vandana Shiva [45] on the impact of development on women and ecology in India is one example
of how ecofeminists make these connections. Ecofeminists have explored these connections in multiple contexts and academic disciplines and from multiple perspectives within feminism. While the
approach is conventionally critiqued for being essentialist (i.e., for reinscribing sexist ideas about

What do we mean by social justice? 13

FIGURE 1.5: Karen Warren. Accessed September 5, 2007, from

gender by identifying women as intrinsically linked to nature), it is important to recognize that

many ecofeminist philosophers critique essentialism in ecofeminism and seek to shape a philosophy
which is not essentialist [30].
Animal rights. Working against Western tradition in philosophy that afforded no rights to
animals, Peter Singer and others began in the 1970s to establish philosophical arguments supporting the ethical treatment of animals. This work kicked off the animal liberation movement. Singers
work uses utilitarian arguments for treating speciesism as a prejudice like sexism or racism; accordingly, nonhuman animals should not be exploited in factory farms or scientific experimentation, or
as part of the human diet. Tom Regan took a different approach, extending the rights-based tradition to apply to nonhuman animals [46]. Carol Adams, Josephine Donovan, and other feminists
have drawn on critical theory and ecofeminist theory in developing approaches to animal liberation
based in an ethic of care that go beyond utilitarian and rights-based thinking [e.g., 47].
Environmental justice. In the 1980s, as communities began to organize around toxic waste
discovered in their neighborhoods, activists began to notice a trend in which communities of color
seemed to be bearing more than their share of hazardous waste, air pollution, water pollution, and
other environmental hazards. In 1987, the United Church of Christ [48] released a groundbreaking
report on socioeconomic factors in the citing of hazardous waste facilities, providing statistical data
that proved that race was a dominant factor in citing facilities, even controlling for socioeconomic
class. The movement has broadened to include concerns around global distribution of environmental harm as well, as developing countries at times have been recipients of toxic waste exports from
developed countries (e.g., [49]).
The environmental justice movement has been applying Rawlsian ideas of distributive justice
to the problem of disproportionate environmental harm borne by poor communities and communities of color. They argue for a more equitable distribution of the risks generated by industrial activity,

14 Engineering and Social JusticE?

FIGURE 1.6: Hazel Johnson founded People for Community Recovery on Chicagos South Side in
1982 ( Accessed February 26, 2008, from

as well as for more transparent governmental processes with meaningful community involvement
for addressing local environmental problems (Figure 1.6). Some critique this approach from a deep
ecology perspective as being too anthropocentric; others argue for broadening the approach to include nondistributive justice considerations and an ethic of care [30].
Integrating several of these strands, two books in this series written by engineering and social justice scholar George Catalano [50,51] address ideas about ecological justice. Catalano [50]
proposes implementing a morally deep ecological ethic in engineering, which brings into moral
considerations all of earths beings. Then Catalano [51] proposes considering poverty and the planet
together in engineering, so that economic justice and environmental justice are integrated.

1.2.4 Faith Traditions and Social Justice

Faith traditions have a complicated relationship with social justice. Both social justice movements
and those who would resist social change draw on faith traditions to justify their perspective. Religious institutions often find themselves the subject of struggles for social justice as adherents seek
to change religious doctrine or policy. And, of course, many advocates for social justice neither draw
upon nor are influenced by any faith tradition. At the same time, faith traditions have had a significant role to play in shaping both the intellectual and activist aspects of social justice throughout
In fact, the origin of the phrase social justice is attributed to Luigi Taparelli DAzeglio
(Figure 1.7), a nineteenth century Sicilian Jesuit priest [7]. Many faith traditions contain teachings that support and inspire social action although the phrase social justice may not be part of
certain traditions. For example, Islamic values include freedom of conscience, economic and racial

What do we mean by social justice? 15

FIGURE 1.7: Luigi Taparelli DAzeglio coined the phrase social justice. Accessed February 26, 2008,

equality, and social interdependence [52]. In Hinduism, the writings of Vivekananda (Figure 1.8)
strengthened the Vedanta idea that none of us are free until all of us are free [53], influencing Indias
movement for independence and leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and later Martin Luther King.
Buddhisms principle of selflessness has been applied in contexts of social action [54]; in African
religions, values of community, cooperation, and mutual aid have informed social justice and human
rights movements [55]. In Judaism, there is a rich social justice tradition that begins with the struggle for freedom from slavery in Egypt and continues in our time and place addressing civil rights,
workers rights, genocide in Darfur, and peace, including approaching peace in the Palestinian
Israeli conflict [56]. Quaker testimonies of peace, integrity, simplicity, and equality have served as

FIGURE 1.8: Swami Vivekananda influenced Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Accessed
March 2, 2008, from

16 Engineering and Social JusticE?

a basis for Quaker social action. Several protestant traditions draw on the sayings and example of
Jesus to lift up the hungry and poor; they work to make peace and free the oppressed. Mainline
protestant religions have traditions of working against the practice of slavery, against poverty and
exploitation of workers in the nineteenth century, for civil rights, and against the death penalty in
the twentieth century (e.g., [57,58]).
Thomas Aquinas developed the concept of the common good based upon Christian theology combined with Aristotelian ideas of people as social beings that benefit from sharing community concerns and goals, rather than existing merely as individuals [18]. Aquinass ideas were
developed in the nineteenth century under Pope Leo XIII into a Catholic tradition of social justice,
based on the Churchs response to industrialization, its concern for workers rights, and the dignity
of the poor. These ideas were developed further in the United States through Catholic immigrants
involved in union organizing and, in the second half of the twentieth century, by Latin American
theologians, such as Gustavo Gutirrez [59] and Leonardo Boff [60], who combined ideas from
Karl Marx (class struggle, praxis) and Catholic Social Thought (workers rights, the dignity of the
poor) in a theology that related political empowerment and theological salvation. In turn, the ideas
of liberation in Latin America influenced a new generation of religious and secular scholars in the
United States working on specific social justice movements including the struggles against U.S. aggression in Latin America [61].
The role of the Black Church in the civil rights Movement and beyond has been well
studied (e.g., [62, 63]). Religion played multiple roles including being a source of personal strength
and inspiration, providing a critical organizational network and supportive community for activists, and providing a moral high ground on which to build persuasive arguments. Black liberation
theology grew from the experience of the civil rights movement combined with the influence of
Latin American liberation theologians. For example, James Cone [64] developed a systematic Black
theology, Allan Boesak [65] connected theologies of liberation to the struggle against apartheid in
South Africa, and Cornell West [66] built on liberation theology to create an approach to AfroAmerican critical thought, all of which have, in turn, informed and inspired further action. Womanist theology, addressed further below, emerged as feminists of color sought to address social justice,
acknowledging the complexities of intersecting oppressions based on gender, race, class, and other
True to our understanding of the dynamics of social justice, these faith-based social justice traditions include adherents who critique each of these traditions in light of current social justice issues
[e.g., Catholics for Choice ( or the Welcoming Church Movement (]. No tradition has a complete and unchanging belief
system that can lay out values for social justice for all believers in all times and places, but many believers draw on a rich tradition to support social action (including changing unjust practices of their

What do we mean by social justice? 17

own religious institutions) from different faith perspectives. Because the Right Wing in the United
States has deliberately co-opted religious language and organizations to achieve an antidemocratic
agenda [67], people of faith who stand for social justice have found it even more important to provide faith-based arguments that counterweigh those from the opposition.

1.2.5 Critical Theories and Social Justice

Following in the Marxist tradition and drawing on Kants critical approach to knowledgeaccepting
only that which has been thoroughly questionedthe Frankfurt School of critical theorists developed
a philosophical tradition directly concerned with the liberation of people from oppression [68]. Because it is interested not only with pointing out what is wrong with the world but also with identifying strategies for change, the field is necessarily interdisciplinary, combining philosophy with a variety
of disciplines in the social sciences. Feminist and critical race theories both draw on philosophers
from the Frankfurt School and develop their own kinds of critical theories in the sense that they are
concerned with combining philosophy and social science to address social justice.
Feminist theory. The feminist philosophical tradition predates the advent of critical theory and
thus retains elements of multiple philosophical traditions. Feminist theory is commonly classified
according to these traditions, with psychoanalytic feminists drawing on Freud, Marxist feminists
drawing on Marx, poststructuralist feminists drawing on critical theory, liberal feminists following
in the Western rights framework, existentialist feminists drawing on Sartre, etc. [69,70]. Rosemarie
Tong [70] notes that this categorization is itself problematic, because it rests on male philosophical
traditions; however, she also recognizes its usefulness in describing the diversity of perspectives within
feminism. A summary of Tongs and Donovans perspectives on feminist traditions follows [69,70].
Liberal feminism is what most of the uninitiated think of when they hear the word feminisma focus on legal rights that dates back to enlightenment thinking. It includes the arguments
of Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony seeking womens suffrage.
Later in the twentieth century, Betty Friedan founded the National Organization for Women in the
liberal feminist tradition, and other womens rights groups followed. Equality under the law and the
extension of equal opportunity is emphasized.
Radical feminists contrasted womens rights with womens liberation. Radical feminists focus
centrally on the patriarchy, believing that this is the root cause of womens experience of oppression.
The focus of radical feminist authors (e.g., Kate Millett [71], Mary Daly [72], Andrea Dworkin [73],
and Adrienne Rich [74]) tends toward sexual and reproductive relationships including motherhood,
pornography, intercourse, etc. Marxist and socialist feminists, on the other hand, identify underlying
social, political, and economic structures as the root of womens oppression, with Marxist feminists such
as Alison Jaggar [75] and Iris Young [76] focusing primarily on classism. Psychoanalytic feminists look
to psychological explanations for gendered behavior, rooted in early childhood experiences. Despite

18 Engineering and Social JusticE?

Freud being a problematic figure for feminists, psychoanalytic feminists both react against and build
upon his work.
Postmodern feminists resist identifying one specific reason for womens oppression and are
wary of applying labels because of their concern for the power of language. They draw both on
Simone DeBeuvoirs idea of woman as other [77] and on deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida and
Jacques Lacan who oppose Western dualities. Judith Butler [78] describes gender, sex, and sexuality
as being constructed through performative acts, enforced by society.
Multicultural feminists, such as bell hooks [79] and Patricia Hill Collins [80], critique liberal
feminism as racist, classist, and heterosexist, examining how other social locations such as class,
race, age, geography, and ability affect each womans experience of oppression. This intersectionality
of oppression recognizes that women embody multiple identities that can create layers of different
forms of oppression in womens lives.
To illustrate these varied feminist positions, let us consider what a feminist response to
Larry Summerss 2005 remarks about women in science and engineering might be. Summers attributed womens underrepresentation to intrinsic aptitude and legitimate family desires that
make women unwilling to work 80 hours per week (Figure 1.9). He dismissed socialization in favor
of genetics and dismissed discrimination as a factor in underrepresentation in academia, arguing
that if it were a factor, some university would gain a competitive advantage by not discriminating
and hiring qualified women [81]. One can find responses that draw on psychological understandings of gender discrimination, responses that question the underlying labor structures that call for
80-hour work weeks, responses that challenge the way women are treated differently from men, and
responses that valorize (however, tongue-in-cheek) womens stereotypical qualities.
Critical race theory. Critical Race Theory grew out of the struggles of activists, lawyers, and
academics following the advances of the 1960s civil rights movement. It draws on activist traditions
in the Black Power, Chicano and civil rights movements, on critical theory, feminist theory, and
postmodern theory, and the work of scholars and activists like W.E.B. DuBois, Cesar Chavez, and
Martin Luther King. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic [82] lay out the key ideas of critical race
theory as follows:

Ordinariness of racismRacism is not viewed as aberrational, but as an integral part of

our social, political, and economic system, from which many benefit. As a result, racism is
very difficult to eradicate. Liberal ideas that afford equality under the law or equality of opportunity can only go so far, addressing only more obvious forms of racism, leaving subtler
forms intact.
Interest convergence or material determinismBecause racism benefits so many in society in material or psychological terms, one must reexamine history in this light, recon-

FIGURE 1.9: Some feminist responses to Larry Summerss comments. Can you identify the feminist tradition(s) on which each
writer draws?

What do we mean by social justice? 19

20 Engineering and Social JusticE?

sidering who benefited and who lost from landmark events. For example, Bell suggested
that the Brown vs. Board of Education victory occurred in 1954 due to a convergence of
economic and political circumstances that made clear the benefits of the decision for white
elitesspecifically, the United States could not afford to look bad in the world press. Freeman [83] and others are critical of the step-by-step progress of liberal approaches, noting
that the slowness of progress serves the interests of those in power.
Social construction and intersectionalityRace and racism are not grounded biology but
constructed by society, representing products of social relations in a particular time and
place. Similarly, identity is not fixed along one category such as race or gender; multiple
factors, including race, religion, gender, sexuality, class, age, etc., all contribute to a persons
identity and experience of the world. That said, there is a uniqueness to the experiences of
people of color because they represent a voice that white people need to hear and cannot
know based on their experience of whiteness.

Some social justice thinkers interweave multiple strands of theory and practice. OBrien [84]
argues that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) represents a subversive departure from the
rights/equality framework into one that reflects both Marxist critiques of capitalism and an ethic of
care. First, because ADA requires companies to consider workers needs individually, it represents a
radical departure from the alienation of capitalism and can create an ethic of care that employers
must respect. Her idea of care, grounded in critical theory, departs both from a justice-framework
sense of equal treatment and from an ethic of care that creates dependence upon the kindness of
others. Independence and dependence are balanced, as needs are recognized and personhood is respected. She argues that with this conception of care, difference can be transformed into resistance
(71) in the location of the workplace. If we recognize that we are all temporarily able-bodied (1),
the applicability of the ADA to large numbers of workers holds great promise for radical transformation of the workplace.


Because social justice defines itself against the status quo, articulating what should be against what
is in order to effect change, dissentand the many approaches to expressing and theorizing dissentis a fundamental aspect of social justice. Of course, dissent is not the only form of social
justice action, but it is a central characteristic with depth and breadth that merits some further
discussion. Kimberley Brownlee [85] discusses this rich variety of activist traditions of dissent. The
discussion below summarizes her categorization and distinctions among different types of dissent
used in social justice movements, and their underlying philosophies.

What do we mean by social justice? 21

1.3.1 Civil Disobedience

(Including But Not Limited to Nonviolent Direct Action)
Thoreaus essay on civil disobedience [86] focused on his decision to refuse to pay taxes used in part
to sustain the institution of slavery, although it meant serving jail time. Brownlee cites the Boston
Tea Party, the movement for womens suffrage, the movement for Indian independence, the U.S.
civil rights movement, the movement against the Vietnam War, and the movement against apartheid in South Africa as effective uses of civil disobedience that created historical change. Direct civil
disobedience occurs when actors break the very law they view as unjust such as direct violations of
Jim Crow laws in the south. Indirect civil disobedience includes actions that break laws in order to
demonstrate opposition to another law, for example, peace protestors crossing the boundary of the
School of the Americas in Georgia (Figure 1.10).
Brownlee notes that key features common to these movements are:

Conscientiousnessa principled basis for action;

Communicationa clear condemnation of unjust laws and a desire to change those
laws. Some interpret laws to include private policies such as those of corporations or

FIGURE 1.10: Elizabeth Bradley arrested for civil disobedience at the School of the Americas, Fort Benning, Georgia, November 2003. Accessed February 29, 2008, from

22 Engineering and Social JusticE?

Additionally Brownlee notes that nonviolent direct action has the following qualities:

PublicityTypically, it is necessary for the act of civil disobedience to be conducted with

full knowledge of the authorities, with advance notice. Openness is seen by some as an essential aspect of acting in good faith in relation to the authorities.
NonviolenceNonviolent direct action, such as that used in Indian independence or in the
U.S. civil rights movement, is seen, by some, as an essential element in civil disobedience.
The common rationales for this are that violence can obscure the message protestors seek
to communicate and can be counterproductive; it can give the authorities an excuse to use
violence in return; and it can hurt strategic relationships with allied groups.
Fidelity to lawThere is an understanding that by breaking the law, one is still subject to
the law and may be punished accordingly.

Brownlee suggests that civil disobedience refers to a broader set of actions than nonviolent direct action alone. Specifically, publicity may be omitted in cases where advance notice to authorities
can result in a thwarted action. Certain acts of violence (e.g., vandalism) may be considered acceptable when it heightens the communication of the message and when the harm done is considered
less than or similar to harm produced by some nonviolent acts. Fidelity to law is also not upheld
when actions become covert or when violence is used.

1.3.2 Legal Protest

Legal protest has a great deal in common with civil disobedience, in that it stems from principle and
a desire to communicate injustice to people in order to create change. The key difference is that civil
disobedience involves breaking a law, and legal protest does not. Brownlee notes that sometimes
legal protest is not enough to capture the attention of the media and thus accomplish the communication goals of the protestors.
Legal protest is not limited to marches and strikes and may also include strategies such as fasting, whistle-blowing, muckraking, and boycotting. For example, consider consumer activist Ralph
Naders Unsafe at Any Speed [87] which galvanized auto consumer protection advocates; the Mother
Jones expos [88] on the cold calculations about the value of the life of a Pinto driver; and the combined marching, striking, fasting, and boycotting involved in the United Farm Workers struggle [89].
Figure 1.11 shows some buttons from marches on Washington, a common form of legal protest.

1.3.3 Rule Departures

When authorities use their power to correct for an unjust law, it is considered a rule departure. For
example, when needle exchange is considered low enforcement priority so that activists who pass

What do we mean by social justice? 23

FIGURE 1.11: Buttons from Marches on Washington: (top, left to right): (a) Students for a Democratic Society march against the Vietnam War, 1965. Accessed February 29, 2008, from http://www (b) The March on Washington
for Jobs and Freedom, 1963, at which Dr. Martin Luther King gave his I have a dream speech.
Accessed February 29, 2008, from (c) The
2004 March for Womens Lives supporting reproductive rights. Accessed February 29, 2008, from (d) The 1894 Coxeys Army march for
economic justice. Accessed February 29, 2008, from
(e) The 1993 march for lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights (photograph by author). (f ) The 2005 march
against the Iraq War. Accessed February 29, 2008, from

out clean needles and users who frequent needle exchanges are not punished by drug paraphernalia
laws, this is a rule departure. The relationship to civil disobedience is clear, in that the act communicates dissent and is, in fact, often used to communicate support to those engaged in civil disobedience. Rule departure, however, is not civil disobedience because it does not necessarily violate a law
and typically does not make the actor subject to punishment. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsoms
decision to order the county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in February and
March 2004 can be seen as a rule departure. While the marriages were not ultimately considered

24 Engineering and Social JusticE?

valid by the State of California and Newsom was found to have overstepped his authority, he was
acting at the time on his conscience and his reading of the equal protection clause of Californias
constitution [90], setting the stage for further action in the struggle for marriage equality in the state.

1.3.4 Conscientious Objection

When a person believes that complying with a law would violate a persons conscience (based in
moral or religious belief ), then an action violating the law is considered conscientious objection.
Conscientious objection is not typically motivated by a desire to communicate the objection publicly and does not necessarily violate a law (especially when there are exemptions for conscientious
objection, for example, in military service) [91]. However, when communication is an aim and when
laws are broken, conscientious objection can also be considered civil disobedience.

1.3.5 Radical Protest

When a protestor is acting in opposition to an entire regime, or when change is considered more
urgent, tactics, including but not limited to forcible resistance, may be used. Brownlee points out
that the strategies for communication may not be intended to win over the general populace. Often, protestors using these tactics do not wish to be caught and punished for violating the law and
actively seek to avoid arrest.
Often, radical direct action is not intended to inflict bodily injury but involves petty vandalism or trespassing with a sense of humor. For example, the Lesbian Avengers unleashed a plague
of locusts (crickets) at the offices of the ex-gay ministry Exodus in 1995 [92]. Earth First!s first
action was the cracking? of Glen Canyon Dam, unfurling a huge plastic crack banner over its
side in 1981 [93].
The underground railroad [94] and Nazi resistance [95] are two more examples of radical
direct action that involved illegal activity, sometimes violent. Radical abolitionists like John Brown
advocated the use of violence to end slavery; they employed it with some success in the events of
Bleeding Kansas (in which the raid on the arsenal there resulted in Kansas becoming a free state)
and later at Harpers Ferry [96]. As Frederick Douglas wrote in defense of radical protest:
If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and
yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they
want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar
of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and
it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing
without a demand. It never did and it never will. [97: 22].

What do we mean by social justice? 25

Sometimes violence is taken up as a strategy only after other options fail; sometimes violence
ensues only because groups are given no other choice by those in power. Smith and Warrior [98]
recount radical direct actions of the early American Indian Movement (AIM), which were highly
symbolic, involving trespassing and petty vandalism, intended to make a point without violence.
These actions included:

the takeover of Alcatraz Island to draw attention to the economic injustice and political
oppression of the reservation system;
takeovers of Mount Rushmore to call attention to the offensiveness inherent in the taking
of Native American land, considered sacred by the Lakota Sioux, to build a monument to
presidents involved in colonial wars against Native peoples,
the takeover of the Mayflower replica in Plymouth on Thanksgiving to call attention to the
violence against Native Americans that is hidden in many accounts of U.S. history; and
the Trail of Broken Treaties march/caravan on the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in
Washington and the takeover of the BIA to highlight the injustices of U.S. policy and action (often in violation of stated policy) toward tribal governments

Later, in another symbolic occupation, this time at Wounded Knee, the AIM would take up
weapons in order to defend against a heavily armed government siege. Here, forcible resistance was
used not as an extension of ideology but as a necessary reaction to the force presented by the U.S.
government (Figure 1.12).

FIGURE 1.12: Emma Goldman. Accessed May 22, 2008 from

26 Engineering and Social JusticE?

1.3.6 Revolutionary Action

Employing tactics of civil disobedience and/or radical protest, revolutionary action occurs under
an umbrella of overarching objectives and a broader vision for change (Figure 1.13). Brownlee
notes that unlike civil disobedience, the goal is not usually to convince an existing regime to change
its laws. The failed raid at Harpers Ferry, for example, is often considered a revolutionary act because of its place in a larger abolitionist movement and because of its role in precipitating the Civil
War and ultimately the end of slavery in the United States. More recently, the battle for Seattle
and other actions against globalization represent acts of civil disobedience and radical protest (as
well as legal protest) with a broad overarching goal [99].
It should be noted that the legal regime in which one operates can change the classification of certain actions. For example, striking is an action taken throughout history across many
different contexts, legal and illegal. Vernus [100] discusses accounts of strikes in twelfth century
B.C.E. Egypt, the earliest known strikes in the written record. More commonly, we think of
strikes as actions taken by industrial labor forces from the nineteenth century until today. Striking
may be legal or illegal, depending on local laws and actions used by workers. In that sense, strikes
may at different times fall under civil disobedience, legal protest, radical protest, or revolutionary
Whistle-blowing similarly falls into a gray area of categorization, but is an important venue
for dissent for many engineers and other employees. Whistle-blowing occurs when an employee
makes public information documenting improper behavior of ones employeroften, this behavior
is illegal, or it may be legal but considered unethical because it produces threats to public safety,
health, or welfare, or it violates the public trust. When undertaken by government officials under

FIGURE 1.13: Gandhi in the Salt Satyagraha, 1930civil disobedience that constitutes revolutionary
action. Accessed February 29, 2008, from

What do we mean by social justice? 27

the protection of whistle-blowing laws, the action may be a form of legal protest or perhaps a rule
departure. However, whistle-blowing is often considered illegal, either before or after the fact [101].
It may then be considered an act of radical protest or, if specifically challenging an unjust antiwhistle-blowing law, an act of civil disobedience.



This chapter has examined a variety of approaches to social justice action and thought and provided
some definitions of social justice. I have not yet developed a definition of social justice in the engineering context, recognizing that the types of critiques levied in engineering will no doubt shape the
definition. It is nevertheless important, when working in a specific context, to be clear about what
one means by social justice. To fail to do so can mean the co-optation of the terms of the debate and
the morphing of social justice into something less than what is desired by its advocates.




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chapter 2

Mindsets in Engineering
The technical rationality that is the engineers 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.
Robert Zussman [1: 122123]
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.



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 a
constructor of military engines or one who designs and constructs military works for attack or
defense [2]. In the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, engineering was, in the words
of Thomas Tredgold [3], the art of directing the great sources of Power in Nature for the use and
convenience of man. 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 endstypically commercial, industrial, or military:
The application of scientific and mathematical principles to practical ends such as the design,
manufacture, and operation of efficient and economical structures, machines, processes, and systems [4]. 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 the science and art of applying scientific and mathematical principles, experience, judgment, and common sense to design things that
benefit society [5]. 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 engineerings
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 the engineering mindset 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 what is engineering 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 onand sometimes even from recognizing or
fully understanding the complexities ofsocial justice issues.



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


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.,

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. Double Jeopardy! You have to let me go!, cries the lawyer. And the executioner does. The priest
is next, the same thing happens. Divine Intervention! You have to let me go!, cries
the priest. And the executioner does. The engineer is next. As the executioner gets
ready to pull the cord, the engineer cries, Wait! I think I see your problem . . .
(Figure 2.1).
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 cannotin this case, to a
fault. Part of this ability is credited to another valueexclusive technical focusin 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 loyaltyan unthinking willingness to accept the authority of the state, such

FIGURE 2.1: Wait, I think I see your problem. . . . Engineers solving problems even if it kills us.
Accessed January 18, 2008, from

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 engineers tendency toward brute force methods of problem solving and
an exclusive focus on the calculated and measured solution, even if it takes much longer 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 true or factual and view other kinds
of knowledge as less reliable or as opinion.

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 Its 77 degrees Fahrenheit, 25 degrees Celsius,
and 298 Kelvin, and all they say is Isn't it a nice day?


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, Thats so sad. I'll pray for them. The doctor said, I know an ophthalmologist who might be able to do something for them. The engineer said, Why cant they
play at night?
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

Whats 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 target, 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 engineerings 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: I Are an Engineer

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 engineers 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 engineers 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.


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


FIGURE 2.2: Half-full, half-empty, or wrong-sized? Accessed January 18, 2008, from http://bp2

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

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 [8], 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.
Pawleys 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 [9].
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 Pawleys 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.
Pawleys 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
Engineerings 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


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 [10], 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 [11] 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 [12] 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 Administrations Climate Change Science Program begun in 2002, 13 federal agencies 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 [13]. 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 [14] documents several
cases of government suppression of scientific studies that differed from the administrations 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 engineers responsibility. Thus, the values that are embedded in technology are often those of the engineers 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 [15] 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 the ideal of one true science obscures the fact that any system of knowledge will generate systematic patterns of ignorance
as well as of knowledge. Harding further notes how the myth of expertise can lead to authoritarian
power structures. Science and technology studies scholar Langdon Winner [17] 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 Vaughans [18]
account of the events in National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) leading up to the


Challenger accident document the ways in which power can construct knowledge in organizations,
as outside pressures related to NASAs 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. Vaughans 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 [19] 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 professionits military and corporate focus and the narrowness
of engineering education, which excludes a number of important skillscan 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.





Zussman, R. (1985) Mechanics of the Middle Class: Work and Politics Among American Engineers. Berkeley: University of California Press.
OED (1989) Engineer, n. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn. OED Online. Oxford
University Press. Accessed August 6, 2007, from
Tredgold, T. (1828) Draft of the Charter of the British Institution of Civil Engineers.
Cited in Mitcham, C. (1998) The importance of philosophy to engineering, Teorema,
17(3): 2747.
American Heritage Dictionary (2006) Engineering. The American Heritage Dictionary of
the Engligh Language, 4th edn. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
University of Utah College of Engineering. What is Engineering? Accessed September 26,
2007, from
Grasso, D. (2005) Is it time to shut down engineering colleges? Inside Higher Ed, September
23, 2005.
Jamieson, L.H. (2007) Who will become an engineer? Keynote address, Frontiers in Education Conference, Milwaukee, WI, October 12, 2007.
Pawley, A. (2007) Where do you draw the line? A study of academic engineers negotiating
the boundaries of engineering. Doctoral dissertation, Industrial Engineering, University of
Pawley, C. (1998) Hegemonys handmaid? The library and information studies curriculum
from a class perspective. The Library Quarterly, 68(2): 12344.
Seely, B.E. (2005) Patterns in the history of engineering education reform: A brief essay.
Educating the Engineer of 2020 (pp. 11430). Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
ABET (2008) Criteria for accrediting engineering programs. Accessed January 10, 2008,
from Documents-UPDATE/Criteria and PP/E001 07-08
EAC Criteria 11-15-06.pdf.
Foucault, M. (1980) Truth and Power. In: C. Gordon (Ed.) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 19721977. New York: Pantheon, 131133.
National Academy of Science (2007) Evaluating Progress of the U.S. Climate Change Science
Program: Methods and Preliminary Results. Washington, DC: National Academies Press,




2007. Pre-publication copy accessed October 5, 2007, from

Shulman, S. (2007) Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Waller, A.A. (2006) Special SessionFish is Fish: Learning to See the Sea We Swim in:
Theoretical Frameworks for Education Research, Frontiers in Education Conference Proceedings, San Diego, CA, 2006.
Harding, S. (2006) Science and Social Inequality: Feminist and Postcolonial Issues. Champaign,
IL: The University of Illinois Press.
Winner, L. (1986) Do artifacts have politics? The Whale and the Reactor (pp. 1939). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Vaughan, D. (1996) The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance
at NASA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gambeta, D. and Hertog, S. (2007) Engineers of Jihad. Sociology Working Papers 200710, Oxford University. Accessed January 25, 2008, from


chapter 3

Engineering and Social Justice

When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered
more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and
militarism are incapable of being conquered.
Martin Luther King, Jr. [1: 9]
This chapter motivates the kinds of social justice and peace work needed within engineering, taking a
historical perspective on the profession and identifying obstacles to social change work embedded in the
culture and power structures of engineering and its primary organizations. At the heart of this chapter is
the naming of militarism, materialism, the myth of objectivity, and other implicit perspectives with which
engineering has become strongly identified, motivating the need for engineers to be able to critique these
underlying worldviews and ultimately re-visioning how engineering might be different. It is not my intention to attack engineering, but rather to identify how some common mindsets lead to engineering that
produces injustice and to uncover what kinds of resistance have already emerged. What does it mean to do
engineering in the interest of social and ecological justice?



Previously, I discussed the myth of objectivity in engineering and the related myth that engineers
are apolitical. The myth of the political neutrality of engineering can be exploded in multiple ways;
most clear is the research on the expressed political outlooks and political culture of engineers,
which document prevailing conservative and libertarian values, many of which are at odds with
social justice ideals presented in Chapter 1.
Sociologist Robert Zussman [2] documented the conservatism of engineers in western Massachusetts (see Figure 3.1). He found that 71% of engineers reported a preference for Nixon over
McGovern in the 1972 presidential election; Nixon took 61% of the popular vote nationally, and
even less in the northeast where these interviews occurred. Similarly, 53% of Zussmans participants
identified more strongly as Republican than Democratic, as compared with 30% in a general national survey of the same post-Watergate period.

48 engineering and social justice

FIGURE 3.1: Political leanings of engineers in two Massachusetts firms (Republican shown in red
(light gray in print edition)). Top: Votes in the 1972 NixonMcGovern election compared with all votes
in the state. Bottom: General political leanings compared with national poll data of the same era [2]. Data
from Zussman [2].

Supporting Zussmans findings, feminist sociologist Sally Hacker [3] relates her experiences
in observing engineering classrooms, noting that at the most and least prestigious institutions, the
Institute and the community college agribusiness program, educators presented a conservative ideology, often through humor . . . (55).
Data from the Carnegie Foundation [4] taken in 1984, as analyzed in 2007 by sociologists Diego Gambeta and Steffen Hertog [5], also bear this out (see Figure 3.2). In seeking to explain the overrepresentation of engineers in radical Islamist groups around the world and white supremacist groups

engineering and social justice 49

FIGURE 3.2: Political identities of United States faculty members, 1984. Data from Carnegie Foundation [4] as analyzed by Gambeta and Hertog [5].

in the United States, Gambeta and Hertog reviewed research on engineers political preferences. They
considered only political preferences of men in the Carnegie study, because the radical Islamists and
white supremacists were male. This workup of the data is useful here for comparing political preferences across disciplines because of the underrepresentation of women in engineering; by considering
only male perspectives, it is clear that political differences across disciplines cannot be attributed to the
differences in proportions of women in those disciplines. While just over 20% of engineers consider
themselves left of center, more than half consider themselves right of center. Engineers have the highest percentage of conservatives among all disciplines.
It is important to note the limitations of the rightleft spectrum for describing political perspectives. Antigovernment perspectives, including libertarianism and all types of anarchism, are not
adequately accounted for in rightleft descriptions. Former Wired journalist Paulina Borsook [6]
documented the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist attitudes of engineers and computer scientists in
Silicon Valley. In terms of voting trends or party affiliation, Silicon Valley looks more like a crosssection of the United States, representing the full spectrum of voting choices, although with markedly less local involvement or political activity. Regardless of party affiliation, Silicon Valley geeks
share a philosophical libertarianism that is an insidious and pervasive fixture of Silicon Valley culture.
This is characterized by hatred of government and regulation, absolute faith in free markets, and

50 engineering and social justice

stinginess when it comes to individual giving or corporate philanthropy. Antigovernment sentiments

persist despite the fact that Silicon Valley owes its success to government investment in research and
development (R&D) and university training of computer professionals. Selfishness persists despite
the large amount of wealth generated throughout Silicon Valley.
Borsook attributes the attraction to libertarianism among geeks partly to a personality defect of social awkwardness that bespeaks a lack of human connection and a discomfort with what
many of us consider it means to be human. Its an inability to reconcile the demands of being individual with the demands of participating in society, which coincides beautifully with a preference
for, and glorification of, being the solo commander of ones computer in lieu of any other economically viable behavior. (15) (It should perhaps be noted here that technolibertarians connect at one
level with engineers interested in social justice issues through issues such as defense of online civil
liberties; groups such as Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and the Electronic Frontier Foundation would house both technolibertarians and engineers for social justice in the quest to
further these causes.)
While neither appellationconservative or technolibertariancaptures the outlooks of all
engineers, the snapshots tell two important stories. It should not be surprising, especially with the
strong role defense work plays in engineering, that there would be many engineers with a conservative political outlook, supporting a strong defense funded by the federal government. It should also
not be surprising, with the strong role of corporations in employing engineers, that there would be a
strong backing of free-market principles, which would lead to a conservative or libertarian outlook.
Similarly, antiregulation attitudes can be found among engineers working in different kinds of manufacturing (chemical, petroleum, etc.) as well as in Silicon Valley. Developing a critical perspective on
ones profession is extremely difficult, as in the oft-cited words of Upton Sinclair [7], It is difficult to
get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it! (109).
Given Winners [8] argument that certain technologies require certain types of power structures (e.g., nuclear power requires strong centralized control), it is possible to imagine that engineers
might be invested in those power structures that support the technologies they are responsible for
building and maintaining. The libertarianism of Silicon Valley is perhaps counterintuitive when one
considers the Internets origins as a federally funded defense project, but on closer examination, it
is easy to see how a lack of government involvement in the Internet serves the capitalist and commercial desires of Silicon Valley.

3.1.1 Countertrends: Engineers on the Left

One notable countertrend to this distinct conservatism was the group Scientists and Engineers for
Social and Political Action (SESPA), which later became known as Science for the People. Engineering historian Matt Wisnioski [9] relates the history of the group from 1969 to its demise in

engineering and social justice 51

1991. The group consisted of academics and citizens concerned about the use/abuse of science and
engineering toward militaristic and other socially unjust purposes. The group initially maintained a
distinctly Maoist socialist perspective, offering class analyses and critiques of imperialism in science
and engineering, opposing the war in Vietnam, poverty, racism, sexism, and environmental devastation. They staged protests at American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
conferences, which they called the AAA$. A revival group ( was
founded in 2002 in Europe, carrying on the mission of levying an anticapitalist critique of science.
Social anarchists have also had a role to play in engineering. The anarcho-syndicalist movement influenced the actions of engineers in Britain during and after World War I, when in the face
of strong state interest in engineers ability to manufacture weaponry, the state co-opted unions and
sought increased control over engineers labor [10].



Applying Marx's ideas about class (discussed in Chapter 1) in relation to engineering's relationship
to class, classism, and economic justice clearly shows a complicated relationship of engineering and
class. Part of the problem lies in the fact that engineers hold many different kinds of jobs, with
varying levels and types of responsibility and power. It is difficult to generalize about the positions
engineers hold or the roles they play in companies or government agencies. Are engineers members
of the proletariat, resourced not with capital resources but with only our skill set, which an industrialist needs for production? Or are we part of a middle-level professional or managerial class that
exploits labor?
Much has been made in engineering ethics of an engineeringmanagement split; what is
cast as the right thing to do from an engineering perspective stands in contrast to what a manager
would consider the right thing to do. This point is starkly made in many engineering ethics curricula
using the infamous incident referenced in the report of the Presidential Commission on the Space
Shuttle Challenger [11], in which Morton-Thiokol executive Jerry Mason instructed an engineer
to take off his engineer's hat and put on his manager's hat in considering the launch decision. Here,
engineers are proletarian heroes.
In many engineering jobs, however, the engineer is a hybrid of worker and manager. Ralph
Nader [12] points this out in Unsafe at Any Speed, where he relates the response of Howard Gandelot, vehicle safety engineer at General Motors (GM), to a letter from a banker whose 8-year-old son
broke a tooth on the dashboard of a Buick during a sudden stop to avoid hitting a kitten. (Gandelot
suggested the banker train his children to brace themselves using the command hands!) Nader
notes that Gandelot was not acting as a professional engineer, but as a loyal employee of GM, in
crafting such a reply. The automotive safety engineers . . . have been assigned the task of being the

52 engineering and social justice

company spokesmen whenever the issue of safe vehicle design is raised at technical meetings or in
public forums (173). Here, the conflict between manager and engineer is located within the individual, not within the organizational structure, although the structure clearly creates the role conflict
within a single position.

3.2.1 Upward Mobility?

Looking at career trajectories of engineers, there is a sense (at least historically speaking) of the profession as a route for the upwardly mobile, a way to move from working class to middle class, from
blue collar to white collar. In the 1960s, working-class students were more likely to choose engi
neering than students from other backgrounds [13]. In a National Merit Scholarship Corporation
study of students from 248 different colleges during the same era over 4 years, students switching
out of the engineering major were of higher socioeconomic standing, and those entering were working class, increasing the working-class composition of engineering students [14]. There are several
possible reasons for this, historically. The first was the promise of a 4-year professional degree that
led to a stable white-collar job with a good salary. Under the Servicemens Readjustment Act (G.I.
Bill) from 1944 to 1951, 450,000 former servicemen went to college (many with these aspirations)
and became engineers [15]. Engineering may also be perceived as an upwardly mobile profession
because of its hands-on nature; writer and engineer Samuel Florman [16], for example, argued
that Smith College would never offer an engineering major because its students were too upper
class to get their hands dirty. Putting aside the fact that history has proved him wrong in Smiths
case, it is true that many private liberal arts colleges, which have traditionally attracted students
from elite socioeconomic backgrounds, do not offer engineering as a major. Engineering is offered
widely at the more affordable (and far larger) land-grant state universities, which attract more working-class students. There are historical reasons for this development, related to the evolution of the
profession embedded in the military and mass-production industries [17], discussed further below.
At the same time, engineerings hands-on nature and professional orientation make it less attractive
to many elite private colleges.
Whether this class pattern holds true today and whether it holds true for women is unclear.
A 1970s examination of factors in Lehigh students choice of major, with a cohort of just under
200 students nearly evenly divided among engineering women, engineering men, nonengineering
women, and nonengineering men, found that upward mobility was the main factor for both mens
and women's choice of engineering as a major, with 60% of the women engineers in the study
mentioning job opportunities as their main influence [18]. Additionally, parental income was lower
among the engineering women in the study than in any of the other groups. At the same time, 29%
of the engineering women in the study had an engineer father (indicating middle-class background),
and 44% of the engineering women reported having a close relative (father, brother, and/or uncle)

engineering and social justice 53

who was an engineer. Other studies have suggested that engineering is solidly a middle-class major.
Sociologists Judith McIlwee and J. Gregg Robinson [19] surveyed nearly 400 electrical and mechanical engineering graduates (classes of 1976 through 1985) of two public engineering schools in
southern California, finding that most came from middle-class backgrounds, with 76.8% of men
and 82.8% of women (78% of all respondents) reporting their fathers occupation as professional,
managerial, technical, or sales. Anthropologist Cynthia Foors ethnography of a first-generation
multi-minority female college student from an economically disadvantaged background emphasizes
the importance of class as an obstacle to the student's success and feeling of belonging in engineering, suggesting that the major has taken on a more middle-class ethos [20].
None of these studies are comprehensive or definitive, and one cannot draw conclusions from
them. More work is sorely needed in this area. The available information tells a complex story of a
major that has a reputation for providing a route for upward mobility and thus may seem accessible
or desirable to working-class students; however, it may not fulfill this promise when the majority of
students come from more privileged backgrounds, which may provide real advantages in a competitive, weed-out engineering culture [20].

3.2.2 Professional or Proletariat?

Zussman's sociological study of engineers in two western Massachusetts companies, aptly titled
Mechanics of the Middle Class, captures engineerings place as a middle-level occupation [2]. Zussman contrasts two classic arguments in the sociology of labor: one that describes a process of professionalization, in which an occupation takes on the characteristics of the classic professions of law
or medicine, and another that describes a process of proletarianization, in which members of an
occupation become increasingly alienated from their labor through processes of fragmentation by
management. Zussman argues that neither applies to engineering. However, I argue that one can
observe elements of each phenomenon in engineering contexts.
Zussman argues that engineering does not fit the classic definition of a profession because
engineers do not possess the kind of autonomy doctors and lawyers classically have enjoyed, rather
they are firmly embedded in a workplace and labor process that continues to be organized by the
principles of capitalism (12). He notes that this is part of a larger historical trend, citing sociologist C. Wright Millss [21] discussion of the transition from an entrepreneurial society of small
farms and firms that once comprised the middle class because they were outside industry to todays
middle-level workers (perhaps including many doctors and lawyers!) who are part of larger industrial (or militaryindustrial) organizations. With this emergence of large industrial organizations
comes a new class of management workers, nonowners charged with the administrative work of a
firm and the management of the workers. Zussman notes that these workers occupy another kind
of middleit is their job, on the one hand, to manage labor, and yet they act as labor themselves,

54 engineering and social justice

challenging industrial organizations in different ways, for example, by fighting to retain autonomy
in their positions. Many engineering jobs fit this middle notion, part management, part laborer.
Marxs critique of capitalism [22] predicts that Capitalist production, therefore, develops
technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping
the original sources of all wealththe soil and the laborer. The engineer seems to function in this
system as technology developer; however, the key question is whether engineers control the means
of production. While engineers may create the means of production, the extent to which they ultimately control it varies. In most cases, engineers do not control the means of production because
they are beholden to the desires of management, CEOs, shareholders, the market, etc. Zussman
points out that engineers have limited or no ownership of the products or processes they design
(some may have certain intellectual property rights or stock options). Engineers are generally richly
rewarded by those who do control the means of production; in fact, they are a primary vehicle
through which the means of production is accomplished.
Because engineers have the ability to create the means of production, they do retain some elements of control. First, they can design some control into an artifact or process. Second, Zussman
suggests that engineers often trade on their career capital of education, experience, and reputation,
which cannot be taken away. In this sense, they do not fit the traditional model of proletarianization.
Historically, engineers have played a major role in enacting the process of automation, in
which skilled labor is replaced by lower-cost machines. For example, robots are often used on automobile assembly lines, or automated voice messaging is used for customer service telephone functions. Automation often works against the interest of laborers; thus, they face the elimination of
their jobs, which is often accompanied by a distinct lack of opportunities for retraining to other,
more secure, higher paying positions. Related to automation, engineers also play a key role in proletarianization, in which skilled labor is divided and managed, taking away the laborers autonomy
and ability to set hours or location of work as well as creating a division of labor that alienates the
laborer from the product, as they become responsible for and expert in the production of only a
small part of the whole.
One can view the professionalization of engineers as an attempt to resist proletarianization.
Zussman traces the emergence of engineering in the United States, from its early enjoyment of high
status in the nineteenth century, based on the long specialized apprenticeships and entrepreneurship of mechanical engineers, or in the elite training of civil engineers practicing as independent
professionals. As demand grew for engineers within industry, land-grant colleges began offering
degrees in engineering, and more and more people pursued engineering, but the nature of the job
had changed. While the field was now far more open to students from poorer backgrounds, the
autonomy and entrepreneurship opportunities had dwindled, with most jobs embedded in large
corporations. In response to this, engineers began to professionalizeto form professional socie

engineering and social justice 55

ties, institute codes of ethics, insist on licensing and educational standards, and argue for a stronger
position within industrial organizations.
Engineering historian Matt Wisnioski [9] notes that the debates about the role of scientists
and engineers under modern capitalism existed within the SESPA/Science for the People, with one
chapter casting scientists as workers, suffering from the alienation of labor by others who control the
means of production, while another chapter critiqued scientists as part of the bourgeoisie, in need of
liberation from the establishment in order to truly serve the needs of the people. It is very important
that we understand the dual nature of this relationship and recognize how both dynamics are occurring, at times simultaneously, for it holds the key to developing strategies of resistance.

3.2.3 Revolutionary Design?

Engineers occasionally have sought to be revolutionary actors, using their technological designs.
Rudolf Diesel, for example, designed his engine out of concern for the working class. His goal was
to create an engine that was accessible to small businesses and could run on any fuel and scale to
any size, and not be reliant on large amounts of capital that made steam engines the purview of only
large rich companies [23]. The subsequent broad use of the Diesel engine in many different contexts
raises an important question about how much power rests in engineering design: what are the limits
of design in controlling the means of production?

3.2.4 Exploitive Management Roles

In some cases, engineers take on managerial roles that exploit labor, as the engineer manager makes
decisions that trade off benefits, worker safety, environmental impact, and other concerns against
a solely economic bottom line. The actions of Robert E. Murray, operator of the Crandall Canyon
Mine that collapsed in Utah on August 6, 2007, killing six miners and three rescue workers, are
a stark example of the ways in which loyalty to the bottom linea common value in engineeringbecomes merely a disguise for greed and an excuse for unjust management and uncompassionate relations with miners and the public.
The mining operations at Crandall Canyon were a revisit to an old site originally mined in
the middle of the twentieth century. On the first pass, miners had removed what coal they could,
and left behind pillars of coal as structural support. Decades later, Murray Energy sought to remove
additional coal from the mine by targeting the pillars, a process known as retreat mining because
the structural instabilities created by mining the pillars requires work crews to retreat toward the
mine entrance as they work [24].
In addition to the inherent risks involved in retreat mining, there were safety concerns at
Crandall Canyon Mine prior to the collapse, including several Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) citations in 2006 and a bounce in March 2007, in which parts of the walls

56 engineering and social justice

and ceiling fell in near the north barrier pillar. As a result, the company closed that area of the
mine, but decided at a meeting 10 days later to recommence mining operations nearby at the
south barrier pillar. The August collapse occurred just 900 feet south of the site of the bounce in
March. Although Robert Murray denied having known of the bounce, meeting minutes (which
he legally fought to suppress) reveal that he did know about the incident, which was not reported
to MSHA in violation of federal reporting requirements [25]. The U.S. Senate Committee on
Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions [26: 7] found in its review that Murray Energy was
operating a dangerous mine in a potentially dangerous manner, was lax about or hostile to safety,
and was bullying a compliant MSHA. . . .These problems resulted from a cavalier attitude toward
safety among senior management.
Murray contends that he has the best interest of miners at heart and makes much of his
working-class history to this end. He comes from a family of miners going back three generations
in Ohio. Murray himself worked in a mine before attending engineering school at Ohio State, after
which he worked for 30 years at North American Coal, ultimately rising through the ranks to become CEO before leaving to found his own company, Murray Energy [24].
In stark contrast to his declarations of safety-mindedness is Murrays refusal to take responsibility for his decisions and their consequences. For example, he claimed against all seismological
evidence that an earthquake caused the mine collapse [27]. He denied that he was conducting
retreat mining at the mine, despite holding government permits to do exactly that. In fact, at the
August 7, 2007 press conference, he used an interview question about retreat mining as an opportunity to rail against MSHA officials and the United Mine Workers [27,28]:
Number one, I wish you would take the word retreat mining out of your vocabulary.
Those were words invented by Davitt McAteer, Oppegard, who are lackeys for the
United Mine Workers and officials at the United Mine Workers. They would like to
organize this coal mine. You people dont understand that.
Despite this diatribe against worker safety advocates, Murray sees himself as a miner and
seems to believe he has the miners interests at heart. I am a coal miner, he said. I have responsibility for this rescue. I am not a professional in talking to you or Americans. I am a professional
in talking to miners in distress [24]. While Murray recognized his lack of public relations skills,
he did not seem to be aware of his inability to communicate with miners families, evidenced in an
interview with John Ytsdie on National Public Radio [29]:
John Ytsdie: Let me ask you this, Mr. Murray. Many of the families of the trapped miners are angered over the suspension of efforts to find them. One of them, as I understand

engineering and social justice 57

it, threw a dollar bill at you as sort of a symbolic act suggesting that you had given up on
Bob Murray: Its unfortunate that many of the trapped miners families really dont
understand and are totally irrational at this point. And I cant continue to try to make
people that are very emotionaland rightly sounderstand the technology of coal
Murray packages out-and-out greed as mere engineering practicality and ultimate concern
for the bottom linevalues consistent with the worldviews of most engineers. He uses his technical
expertise to shield himself and his company from criticism, arguing that the problem is that upset
families of missing or dead coal miners do not understand technology.
Or as he opined inappropriately in a press conference about the search for the miners, presenting wild speculation as fact: We produce a product that is essential to the standard of living of
every American . . . without coal to manufacture our electricity, our products will not compete in the
global marketplace. . . . and people on fixed incomes will not be able to pay their electric bills . . . and
every one of these global warming bills introduced in congress today eliminates the coal industry,
and will increase your electric rates four to five-fold [27]. Murray uses his expertise to advocate for
increased profits for himself, his company, and the coal industry, in the middle of questions about
miners feared dead, revealing both a lack of compassion and a deep cognitive dissonance in which
he denies scientific realities such as global climate change in order to justify his work and its consequences. Despite his statements empathizing with mine workers or stating that he has mine safety
at the center of his thinking, it is apparent that he has other things on his mind, and other values
guide Murrays decisions about mine safety and labor. Without a clear commitment to social justice,
the engineering profession serves these interests and these values by default.

3.2.5 One Countertrend: Rethinking the Engineering Design Process

In marked contrast to this modus operandi, Catalano and Baillie [30] propose an alternative approach to engineering design that takes into account the impact of engineering on workers and
their families. In a piece that proposes an entirely new paradigm for engineering design based upon
a variety of peace and social justice considerations, they present an example of the design of a grape
harvester that threatens to displace workers by automating the harvesting process traditionally done
by hand. By asking about not only the problem definition and technical aspects of the solution but
also the impacts on farm workers and their way of life, they arrive at different crossroads: one in
which there are no easy answers, and one in which the way forward might involve seeking new solutions with the involvement of the farm workers themselves.

58 engineering and social justice



Anthropologist and engineering historian Gary Downey [17] argues that engineerings close ties to
industry in the United States date back to the 1870s, when the emergence of high-volume, low-cost
production produced a demand for a different kind of engineer. Prior to the Civil War, the models
of engineering preparation included an apprenticeship model geared toward talented elites, and
a formal military education tailored to the needs of the state. As Downey argues, neither model
was suitable for the new needs of industry; government involvement in industry was to be avoided,
eliminating military-trained engineers, and the shop model produced more entrepreneurial focused
engineers, not appropriate for industry's emergent mass production model. The land-grant universities thus emerged with specific missions to educate large numbers of working-class students
including engineers for industry. Downey argues that this responsiveness of the engineering profession to industry, tailoring engineering education to meet industrys changing needs, can be traced
throughout the twentieth century in the periodic reports on engineering education.
Consumerist ideas infiltrated engineering to such an extent that engineering education itself
reflects a factory model, which Hacker [3] notes was, in turn, influenced heavily by a military model.
She quotes from the Wickenden Report on engineering education:
Engineering education reflects our national genius for quantity production. Pressed to
get a maximum result in a minimum of time, engineering educators have borrowed,
half unconsciously, from the management methods of industry. The essence of the
scheme consists in first visualizing the process as a whole. Then dividing it into major
steps in a logical progression and finally breaking the work down into small units to
be done in a definite sequence, under prearranged conditions and with the materials
supplied precisely when needed and in the most convenient form, the task sequence
to be carried out under close supervision, with continuous inspection and grading of
piece parts, and the rewards to be paid in terms of a standard task with quality bonus
[31: 109 cited in 3: 70].
Engineering education and practice is steeped in reductionism not for its own sake, but to the
ends of consumption. Today, discussions of diversity or impending shortages of engineers continue
to employ industrial language of pipeline and throughput, reflecting and perpetuating engineering educations general ignorance and devaluing of relationships in the educational process [32].
The influence of industry on engineering education today remains obvious. The ubiquity of
corporate funding to support academic research surely influences the questions pursued, if not the
results obtained. Chaired professorships and buildings carry the names of corporations. National
accreditation criteria are set by assembling panels of corporate executives to provide input on what

engineering and social justice 59

kind of engineers they need. Individual engineering programs assemble similar advisory boards to
provide tailored input for a more intimate relationship between a department or institution and particular industries or corporations. The rationale for this heavy influence is simple, practical, matterof-fact, and unquestioned: engineering educators cultivate relationships with industry, and industry
cultivates relationships with academia because industry hires engineering talent. The notion that it
could be otherwise, or that engineering could be more than just this, is not widely entertained.
What happens when engineers are tailor-made for industry? History suggests some provocative answers. As industrial trends influenced American engineering education, the products of
these industrial education processes in turn create new models of mass production and consumption. Cultural historian and writer Giles Slade [33] traces the development of disposable products and planned obsolescence to encourage repetitive consumption (and keep production rolling),
building on journalist Vance Packards work [34] that was perhaps the first to indict engineers for
intentionally marketing shoddy products in order to sell more (e.g., General Electrics light bulbs
with infamously short lives). Engineers play a critical role in this process, as innovators and developers of new (or at least new-looking) designs. Slade profiles Alfred Sloan, a Massachusetts Institute
of Technology (MIT)-educated electrical engineer who saw the advantage in annual style updates
to General Motors cars, developing the creation of psychological obsolescence which proved more
valuable than technological innovation for selling cars. By contrast, Fords strategy to maintain quality in order to earn consumer loyalty was a colossal failure.
Today, Slade observes these trends amplified with the technological and psychological obsolescence of computers and cell phones, creating piles of electronic waste. In the electronics industry,
planned obsolescence is not a dirty phrase but an accepted reality [35]. Moores Law predicts that
the number of transistors on a chip doubles every year and a half, processing speed increases at a
similar pace, software developers follow suit, and consumers feel that they must keep pace and buy
the next best thing long before their chips wear out.
This aspiration of endless consumption, and the broadening of innovation to include marketing as well as technical concerns, is found in other industries as well. Consider some of the lessons
described in Winning with the P&G 99, a book written by a Procter & Gamble (P&G) brand manager [36]. Lesson 11 reads: The best is never good enough. Once you have improved a product,
improve it again (39). P&G historically invested much in research and development (R&D), and
thus cites the innovations in Crest toothpastefirst with stannous fluoride, then sodium fluoride,
then tartar controlas improvements that keep profits rolling in. But P&G is well known as much
for its branding and advertising as for its R&D, another way to make products new and improved,
and needing to be replaced. Thus, lesson 17 reads A brand cant stand still. A brand should be a
dynamic, constantly changing entity. It should evolve as consumer needs evolve, changing the way
it satisfies consumer needs (52).

60 engineering and social justice

Journalist Alicia Swasy [37] documented the lengths to which P&G would go to gather
information on consumers, in the name of developing better brands and advertising campaigns.
Tactics included home visits in which women were observed shampooing and using toilet paper
(do they crumple or fold?), snooping through friends cupboards when invited as a house or dinner
guest, and removing any competitors products they found, etc. Swazy relates an anecdote in which
one employee jokingly proposed paying trash collection companies to provide reports on consumers
garbage contents; the boss loved it and passed it up the line, not recognizing the parody.
Given the intricate relationship between engineering and industrys methods and goals, it
may not be surprising then that many engineers seem to have absorbed the ideas of neoliberalism (free-market extremism that opposes government regulation of industry and trade, collective
bargaining, and government provision of social services), almost without realizing they have done
so. As one engineering textbook put it in the first section of its introductory chapter Whats it all
about?: Its all about money. Engineers create wealth. Its really as simple as that [38: 1]. When
this attitude manifests itself on a global level, what will happen to the planet, to indigenous communities the world over, and to the worlds poorest?
Because engineers are educated primarily in technical depth, they may accept at face value
pop theories from economics and other fields. Before seriously considering the pros and cons of
neoliberalism or globalization, many engineers have already accepted their inevitability and have
moved on to what we often find more interestingproblem solving within these constraints. Having been taught that it is our job to respond to market forces, not drive them, engineers take little
action to change the structural realities in which we work.
Many engineers naively believe (and have a vested interest in believing) that engineering
ultimately raises the standard of living for all and that engineering developments that displace some
jobs will simply create others. If we are to be concerned with social justice, we must put this kind of
blissful ignorance aside. Technological developments that can revolutionize life for those who enjoy
access can also contribute to a widening gap between haves and have-nots. The global digital divide
(and the U.S. domestic digital divide) is just one example of this phenomenon (see Figure 3.3).

3.3.1 Green Consumerism

The environmental impacts of previous decades of industrial development in the United States have
been devastating to communities and have differentially affected communities of color and poor
communities. Federal regulation introduced in the twentieth century in the United States and elsewhere began to place limits on the pollution of water, air, and soil and created some accountability
for polluters to clean up previous messes they created.
In response to public concern and to technology-forcing regulations, green engineering has
cropped up in many sectors of the economy to reduce the environmental impacts of production

engineering and social justice 61

FIGURE 3.3: Global Digital Divide (after Steger [85], using United Nations Development Report
Data from 2001 and 2006 accessed from, Fall, 2007.

and consumption. Revolutionary ecological thinkers, such as Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter
Lovins [39] or Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart [40], challenge our thinking about engineering processes, pushing us out of certain boxes, telling us it is possible to create zero-waste
processes and the like. For example, reconceptualizing products as services can change our focus on
materialism and consumption. Textiles such as carpeting need not necessarily be a commodity we
consume: purchase, use for a time, and then throw away. Instead, these textiles might be designed
in such a way that we rent them for a time and at the end of one use they are removed by the service provider, cleaned, or recycled into new carpeting and placed in another home [40]. Once the
producer becomes the provider of a service, there is now an incentive to design textiles to be more
durable so they can be reused, or completely recyclable into the same textile product.
As revolutionary as this is, it must be noted that many green engineering proponents do not
necessarily propose a shift away from our high-consumption, no-holds-barred capitalist framework.
Perhaps it is out of a sense of political expediency, or perhaps they just plain believe in free-market

62 engineering and social justice

principles. McDonough, for example, is clear to minimize the value of environmental regulation
(most likely to win the favor of industrial clients), even as technology-forcing environmental regulation clearly created many of the situations from which he has profited [41].
Surely this movement can and will reduce the environmental impact of goods that might otherwise have been even more harmful. However, the profit motive may ultimately limit the good this
movement can do. First, the bottom line can limit the technologies engineers are able to explore and
develop. Second, the profit motive might spur unnecessary consumption that, if prevented, would
have caused even less environmental harm. From bottled water to organic cigarettes, eco-marketing
is everywhere, inducing consumption to fill manufactured needs. It takes a well-trained eye to locate
those items that will actually make a positive impact. The savviest consumer, of course, will recognize
that often the biggest impact is not to buy a product at all.
Ecological sustainability has become such an important design feature; some engineers will
exploit it in ways that stretch credulity. In 2007, Russia announced it had developed a thermobaric
bomb with four times the explosive power of the United States Massive Ordinance Air Blast, making it the largest nonnuclear bomb in the world. The Associated Press [42] wire report paraphrased
Alexander Rukshin of the Russian military as saying that unlike a nuclear weapon, the bomb
doesnt hurt the environment. In the military or in the market, if increased consumption is the
measure of success and growth, engineers abilities to realize new sustainable technologies will be
seriously compromised.
Our production and consumption relies more and more on energy use. As globalization intensifies, so do the energy costs associated with transportation in production and distribution. As
U.S. energy use relies heavily on foreign oil, the link between consumption and militarism is transparent. However plain and direct, this is not the only route that links engineering to militarism.



The profession of engineering has long been closely tied to military endeavors. As noted in the
last chapter, the origin of the word engineering is based on military technology [43], hence the
distinction of civil engineering as nonmilitary or civilian in nature. The first engineering school
in the United States was founded at West Point, and similarly the European polytechnics have
their roots as military academies [3]. Science historian Ken Alder [44] details the role of engineering in the design and mass production of military gun technology in the French Revolution.
Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute and Joe Carson, a professional engineer, [45] note in
the journal of the National Society of Professional Engineers that the engineering profession
and government are joined at the hip. Engineers create infrastructure for governments as well
as weapons of war; in almost every country, government contractors are the largest employers of

engineering and social justice 63

This statement stands to reason. However, it is interesting to note that in conducting the
research for this book, specific data that confirm this assertion were not readily available. After contacting engineering professional societies of all stripes like the National Academy of Engineering, the
National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Commission on
Professionals in Science and Technology, including numerous industry representatives and academics,
I found that the data on exactly how many engineers are involved in defense work were not directly
available. What does it mean that no one appears to be tracking (or releasing) these data? Can we examine the data that are available to learn what we can about engineers relationship to the military?
Dependence of engineers on military employment is a theme in many sources. Hacker [3:
71] states that the defense budget is the main variable in statistical models predicting engineering manpower needs. In the early 1990s, there was concern that engineering labor opportunities
were shrinking because of downsizing at the Department of Defense (DoD). The NSF [46] noted
that Although scientists and engineers comprise only 3 to 4 percent of the total U.S. labor force,
they account for a higher proportion8 to 9 percentof all defense-related civilian employment.
The report also noted that in 1987, 16% of engineers were engaged in defense-related work. This
number dropped to 13% in 1992 due to budget cuts, raising concern. In fact, these numbers may
be higher, given that data were based on a self-report survey of engineers asking them to select the
area to which they devoted the most time in their jobs [47]. Many projects with defense applications might fit more readily into a different category, e.g., manufacturing. Echoing the NSF report,
the National Research Council [48] considered the impact of the defense sectors growth on nondefense engineering jobs. As of 1984, approximately 20% of all engineering jobs were sponsored
by the DoD. Also, 60% of Aerospace engineers, over 40% of systems engineers, and nearly 30% of
electrical and computer engineers held DoD-sponsored positions (74). Of course, defense funding
levels have increased since the early 1990s due to the war in Iraq, among other things, relieving the
concern about the impact of defense cuts on engineering jobs.
More recent discussions reveal a shortage of U.S. engineers and competitiveness concerns
raised by projected shortages [49]. Why, in a globalized world, among people who otherwise support neoliberal policies and the outsourcing of labor, would we see such strong concern about filling
engineering jobs? So what if India or China produces qualified engineers for U.S. companies to
employ? The clear so what is that many, many engineering jobs are defense-related and require
security clearances and U.S. citizenship.
Looking at this another way, can we examine the overlap between the largest defense contractors and the largest engineering employers? One would think this would involve a simple Internet search. Interestingly, while the list of defense contractors is easy to come by, a list of the nations
largest engineering employers could not be found. No onenot the professional societies, not the
National Academies, not the Bureau of Labor Statistics, not the companies themselves seem to

64 engineering and social justice

keep (or are willing to release) data on who the largest employers of engineers in the United States
are. Still, the top 10 list of defense contractors does read a lot like an engineering job fair listing
(Table 3.1).
Additionally, executives at both Raytheon [51] and Lockheed Martinnumbers 5 and 1,
respectively, of Table 3.1have claimed in public addresses to be one of the largest employers of
engineers in the United States (How do they know this?). According to an executive vice president
at Lockheed Martin [52]:
We are the largest single supplier to the U.S. Department of Defense and the largest
provider of information technology services to the federal government. We also happen to be one of the nations largest employers of engineers and scientists, with about
50,000 of our 130,000 employees around the world holding some sort of technical
degree or credential. To sustain this critical mass of talent, we will hire approximately
9,000 engineers this year, including 3,700 new graduates. In fact, in any given year,
Lockheed Martin hires about one of every 20 engineering baccalaureates in the United
Statesfour to five percent of the entire nations undergraduate output.

TABLE 3.1: Top defense contractors for fiscal year 2006 [50]
Company name

Award ($ billion)

1. Lockheed Martin


2. Boeing


3. Northrop Grumman


4. General Dynamics


5. Raytheon


6. Halliburton


7. L-3 Communications


8. BAE Systems


9. United Technologies


10. Science Applications International


engineering and social justice 65

Is it really a coincidence that the largest defense contractor would happen to be one of the
largest employers of engineers?
Searching Dun and Bradstreets Million Dollar Database [53] for the number of engineer
employees at firms in the engineering services category (NAICS code 541330) also reveals a strong
relationship to defense (Table 3.2). It is important to note that the specific North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) code searched is for engineering services and does not capture
the whole of engineering, which would be listed under many different codes, often lumped in with
work that would not be considered engineering. Although an incomplete measure, it does offer
one slice of engineering employment data. Of the 22 companies in this NAICS code listing with
at least 2000 engineer employees, 13 were top 100 defense contractors. Among the top 5, the two
that are not listed in the top 100 for fiscal 2006 (Solectron and Westinghouse) still have strong reputations as defense contractors. In fact, Contract Manufacturing Solutions Specialists [54] decries
that globalization pressures have caused many defense contractors to overlook domestic manufacturers such as Solectron in favor of cheaper manufacturing abroad.
Looking at this question another way, of the seven companies identified in the IBIS World
Industry Report with the largest share of the engineering services market in 2007, six of them are
top 100 DoD contractors for fiscal year 2006 [50,55]. The seventh is Fluor, Inc., which is involved
in the cleanup of the Hanford nuclear waste site, funded by the Department of Energy. Hanford
was the location at which plutonium was developed for the nations earliest nuclear weapons. Thus,
it is important to note that some engineering firms that are not defense contractors in the formal
sense are nevertheless involved in military work.
Examining the top employers of large universities producing many engineering graduates
also reveals important linkages. Data on recent graduates employment from Ohio State [56] and
the University of Illinois [57] (selected based on size of school and publication of data) revealed
that the DoD itself was the largest employer, and many defense contractors (including General
Electric, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, United Technologies, and Northrop Grumman
from the top 10 list) were among the top employers. Also rounding out their lists were companies
that are likely subcontractors. For example, Dell computers is #50 on the list of contractors for
2006, but if Dell computers are delivered, one can be sure that Microsoft and Intel will, in turn,
benefit. Similarly, a contract with large construction contractors like Halliburton may result in
subcontracts to manufacturers of construction equipment such as Caterpillar. Following the chains
of production to their ends would reveal that a great deal of industries and all flavors of engineers
are represented.
Militarism is more readily recognized as affecting mechanical and aerospace engineers, as
well as electrical and computer engineers, but examining the list of top defense contractors demonstrates representation across engineering disciplines. Chemical/food engineering firms P&G and

10. Fluor Corp.

9. Southwest Research Institute

Irving, TX

San Antonio, TX

Scottsdale, AZ

8. General Dynamics C4 Systems


Cambridge, MA

7. Dehon Inc.

San Diego, CA

6. Science Applications Intl.


Monroeville, PA

5. Westinghouse Electric Co LLC

Houston, TX


4. Brown & Root Inc.

Bath, ME


Groton, CT











of site or

3. Bath Iron Works Corp.

rank FY 2006

El Paso, TX



2. Solectron Corp.

1. Electric Boat Corp.

Company name

TABLE 3.2: Million dollar database listing of NAICS code 541330 sorted by number of employees

66 engineering and social justice



16. Bechtel Group Inc.

17. Parsons International Ltd.

18. Kellogg Brown & Root

22. Foster Wheeler Ltd.

21. Mitre Corp.


Clinton, NJ

Bedford, MA

Pasadena, CA

20. Parsons Corp.


Windsor, CT

Arlington, VA

Pasadena, CA

San Francisco, CA

Tullahoma, TN

Los Angeles, CA

Shawnee Mission,

19. ALSTOM Power Inc.



15. Aerospace Testing Alliance


14. Aerospace Corp.

13. Black & Veatch Corp.

Houston, TX

12. Halliburton Nus Corp.


Franklin, TN

11. Nissan North America Inc.













engineering and social justice 67

68 engineering and social justice

Pepsi are on the list of top 100 defense contractors, with funds going to subsidiaries such as Sunny
Delight and Quaker Oats. Firms strongly associated with petroleum/chemical engineering such as
Exxon Mobil are on the list. Numerous construction engineering firms are on the list, including
Halliburton, CH2M Hill, Jacobs, and Parsons, and the list reveals top 100 contracts with transportation firms, notably Federal Express and United Parcel Service. This system of mutually beneficial
relationships is what was popularly known in the 1960s as the militaryindustrial complex after
President Eisenhower [58] and C. Wright Mills [59] brought the term to prominence.
Finally, examining business data on where the largest numbers of engineers live in the U.S.
(as a proportion of the population) reveals yet more linkages with defense. Forbes [60] listed cities
over 345,000 with the highest concentration of engineers. Huntsville, AL topped the list due to the
presence of Redstone Arsenal (housing the Army Aviation and Missile Command, and the Marshall
Space Flight Center) and Cummings Research Park, host to many science and technology companies including all five of the top defense contractors for 2006 and many more of the top 100 [50,61].
Melbourne, FL was number two, nestled along the Space Coast and home to General Electric (#14),
Harris Corporation (#25), Northrop Grumman (#3), and Rockwell Collins (#36) [50,62]. San Jose,
CA, the next highest concentration of engineers, of course boasts a large number of computer technology firms with large numbers of employees such as Adobe and Cisco Systems, but defense contractor IBM (#97) and Lockheed Martin (#1) are also on the citys list of largest employers [50,63].

3.4.1 Research Funding and Federal Policy Making

The history of governmental engineering (and science) research funding is deeply linked to the military. Roger Geiger [64], Distinguished Professor of Education at Penn State, traces the history of the
defense establishment in funding science and supporting the development of universities post World
War II. Immediately after the war, federal support for university research came almost entirely from
defense agencies including the Manhattan Project, which became the Atomic Energy Commission,
the Office of Naval Research, or the DoD itself. Excluding the life sciences, which were funded largely
by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Agriculture, defense funds accounted for 96% of research funding in universities in 1954 and 84% in 1958. For FY 2006, the federal
R&D budget in science and engineering (including the life sciences) was 59% defense-related [65].
During World War II, Geiger [64] explains that several top universities had contracts to
engage in weapons research. After the war, many of these same institutions set up contract research
centers on or near their campuses, in which the military agencies determined the scope and direction of research, and sponsored the research monetarily. Other laboratories, particularly those with
obvious defense applications (e.g., in aerospace engineering and electronics), developed close ties
and primary sponsorship from defense agencies. By 1970, sentiment against the Vietnam War led
to universities distancing themselves from defense agencies; at the same, time Congress passed an

engineering and social justice 69

amendment limiting defenses involvement in university research to those areas where support was
directly related to military application. While this may have somewhat chilled the relationship,
engineering still relies heavily on defense research funding.
It is important to also include contributions from agencies that are not explicitly labeled
defense-related but whose work clearly is relevant for military endeavors. In particular, the work
of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is largely relevant to the military
due to its emphasis on propulsion technology; the work of the Department of Energy has long
been relevant because of its focus on nuclear technology; and the work of the nation's many intelligence agencies is relevant because of their direct role in national defense. The recent addition of
the Department of Homeland Security suggests new avenues for defense-related work that might
employ engineers. These contributions are far more difficult to estimate because some portion of
each agencys work may not be military-related.
Lucena [32] chronicles the process ofpolicymaking to create scientists and engineers, marked
by the presentation of some threat to the nation (which changes over time), followed by lobbying for
federal funds and programs to address the threat, which further the goals of science and engineering.
In the 1960s, the threat was communism; the response was development of weapons technologies as
part of the arms race and development of space technologies for symbolic competition in space. In
the 1980s, the threat was Japans emerging technological economy, and engineers were enlisted to
compete by making new technological advancements. More recently, the war on terror has resulted
in engineering directed toward the development of new information technologies and other programs in terrorism prevention and response.

3.4.2 Military Cultures in Engineering

In addition to the more material associations in which engineers work is funded by military institutions, producing military products, there are deep cultural associations between the national
defense industry and engineering, in terms of both education and practice. Hacker [3] reviews the
influence of military institutions on many aspects of society, including manufacturing processes,
labor processes, the pedagogy and content of engineering education, socialization of boys in organizations such as the Boy Scouts, and more generally in the construction of masculinity. Engineering
plays a central role in Hacker's analysis as engineering education, with its strong military influence,
serves as a vehicle for establishing a particular version of masculinity that serves the ends of military
Hacker [3: 56] emphasizes the role of discipline in engineering education, describing events
such as having 10 points taken off a problem set for not stapling the pages, acceptance of throwing
up after tests as a routine occurrence, rigid rules for working in teams or for doing problems under
severe time constraints, etc.:

70 engineering and social justice

Everything we learned to value, the lifestyle we came to desire, the prestige, income and
status over others, all were perceived possible only by passing the tests. This daily experience required control of sensuality, the emotions, passion, one's very physical rhythms.
Hacker attributes the hierarchies and authoritarian culture of engineering to its military roots.
Philosopher James Crombie [66: 144] employs Lewis Mumford's analysis of megamachinestechnics focused on establishing centralized controlto examine how the war and mining industries, and their political and economic contexts, produced a particular set of values around
technology, society, and ecology, guided away from concerns we might identify as being related to
peace and social justice, in particular, those that sustain and enhance life:
In short, according to Mumford, the often unfortunate forms of social organization
which were eventually applied in the factory were first developed for the army and the
mine. And the first factories organized according to the principles of mass production
produced goods destined to be consumed by armies, such as uniforms and weapons.
Crombie, using Mumford, illustrates the close linkages between mining and war, as munitions and armor rely on mined materials. The production of munitions further served as an avenue
for profit making by financiers. Crombie argues that when the valuation of goods relies solely on
how rare a commodity is and what it takes to acquire it, it is no surprise that economic theory develops as classical economic theory has, failing to account adequately for social and environmental
externalities, natural capital, or future generations.
One can identify deep-seated militarism (not to mention nationalism, which often follows)
in popular engineering textbooks. Consider this passage, which seeks to explain the concept of entropy in thermodynamics using a military analogy:
Having a disorganized (high-entropy) army is like having no army at all. It is no coincidence that the command centers of any armed forces are among the primary targets
during a war. One army that consists of ten divisions is ten times more powerful than
ten armies each consisting of a single division. Likewise, one country that consists of ten
states is more powerful than ten countries, each consisting of a single state. The United
States would not be such a powerful country if there were fifty independent countries
in its place instead of a single country with fifty states . . . The old clich divide and
conquer can be rephrased as increase the entropy and conquer. [67: 355, emphasis in

engineering and social justice 71

This passage is clearly problematic in its nationalistic sentiments, but it is also problematic from a thermodynamic perspective. Setting aside the concern about using such analogies for
teaching entropy to undergraduates, and the flawed details of their argument (how does coordinating separate entities decrease entropy, compared with a single centralized force?), it is extremely
one-sided to teach a high entropy = bad, low entropy = good mentality, particularly as a military
strategy. One of the lessons of 9-11 is the vulnerability that comes with having a highly organized
economic center. And one of the lessons of U.S. occupations of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq
should be that the relative decentralization of power and organization in those societies carries a
certain advantage against military might.

3.4.3 Engineering Peace

Significant public resistance of engineers to militarism in engineering has a history that dates
back at least to the 1960s, when concerns about the militaryindustrial complex, in general, and
about the Vietnam War, in particular, became widespread. By that time, scientistsphysicists, in
particularhad already begun to raise similar questions in the wake of the development of the
nuclear bomb. Wisnioski [9] profiles three different approaches used in the 1960s by (mostly)
academic scientists and engineers to resist militarism in engineering. In one case, Steve Slaby, a
civil engineering professor at Princeton, questioned the work of some of his colleagues and supported student protests against the Institute for Defense Analysis enclave behind the engineering
building on campus. He organized and taught classes on the social contexts and implications of
technology. In the second case, the fluid mechanics laboratory at MIT, upon deciding that too
much of their funding was defense-related, sought to restore balance by taking on fluid mechanics projects in humanitarian areas. In the third case, Wisnioski profiles the group SESPA/Science
for the People. Their activities took on the flavor of more overt protest, as they staged actions
at the annual meeting of the AAAS. Wisnioski contrasts their activities to that of the Union
of Concerned Scientists (and one could add Pugwash and other science policy interest groups),
which formed largely to resist militarism in science, but chose to work within institutions, as a
policy interest group, capitalizing on their expertise as scientists and engineers.
What Wisnioskis work evidences is a rich history of resistance with multiple strategies used
in varying contexts. These are not histories that are regularly taught to engineers, but their discovery
can provide both hope and concrete ideas for how one might proceed in response to a number of
In the 1980s and early 1990s, impending cuts in the military budget, combined with the
dubious Star Wars project championed by Reagan, caused increased examination of the close
relationship between the institutions of science and engineering and military institutions. Jonathan
Feldman [68], former Program Director of the National Commission for Economic Conversion,

72 engineering and social justice

discusses the potential for defense conversion and cites several cases of academic dissent from military funding of academic research as follows:

MITs biology department voted not to receive any defense funding, only to be pressured
by the administration to reverse their decision.
A science writer at Wisconsin was fired for exposing research on biological warfare occurring on campus.
An assistant professor at Princeton raised his concern in a public television program that
three quarters of the research funding in his field (statistics and operations research) was in
defense, thus to refuse defense funding would make tenure even more difficult to achieve.
An astrophysicist at Rutgers University observed that a petition against Star Wars was
signed at much higher rates in chemistry, which receives less defense funding than in engineering, which received much more, or at campuses with low levels of military research
vs. high levels.
A professor at Swarthmore noted that when research is funded so predominantly by the
military, and when faculty teach what they know, engineering education and the jobs students are trained to do are being distorted toward military projects and applications.

Historian Barton C. Hacker [69] underscores the difficulties of resisting military influence
identified by Feldman: in reviewing the very volume in which Feldmans work appeared, Hacker
reported that the NSFs program on ethics was prohibited from funding the conference at which the
work was presented due to federal restrictions on funding ethics projects that questioned national
defense activities.
More recently, civil engineering professor and engineering ethicist Aarne Vesilind [70] hosted
a conference and produced a book on Peace Engineering, focused on what engineers roles might be
in working for peace. Working to eliminate poverty and hunger, to strive toward environmental
justice, and to provide better health care, water, and sanitation, locally and around the world, feature
prominently in the book. Reform of engineering education at military academies and decision making about weapons research work are suggested options for working within the system.
Engineering professor George Catalano [71] proposed to modify the engineering education
outcomes for accreditation based on The Integral Model of Education for Peace, Democracy, and Sustainable Development [72], highlighting peace with oneself, with others, and with the planet. This
addresses the notion that peace begins in the heart and the home, reaching out toward cross-cultural
and cross-national understanding, and ultimately leads to peace with nonhuman life on the planet.
Such proposals challenge the status quo in engineering education and help us imagine what is possible if we shift our priorities.

engineering and social justice 73



There is no doubt that engineers have played a strong role in development, with many positive
impacts for health and human welfare. The provision of clean water and sanitation, technologies
for energy, transportation, food production, and countless other innovations has positively impacted
many people, enhancing health, independence, and prosperity. At the same time, these advancements occur within social, political, cultural, and economic contexts that can benefit a few at the
expense of the many or that can perpetuate structures of power that place one tribe or nation ahead
of another.
Michael Adas [73], Science and Technology Historian and Abraham E. Voorhees, Professor
of History at Rutgers University, argues that technology played a central role in the colonialist
civilizing mission of European countries in the nineteenth century and later in the modernizing
efforts of twentieth century colonialists in the United States. Technology was used as a means of
controlling environments in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world, and the perceived need for
technological development was, in turn, used to justify colonial activity. When one considers colonialism as connecting military conquest to consumerism through economic development, it may
not be surprising that engineering would play a significant role. Here, I consider the key engineering areas of transportation, water and energy, and food production to examine critically the role of
engineering in global development.

3.5.1 Transportation
Caroline Baillie [74] presents a case study of transportation engineering in the service of British
colonialism in nineteenth century India, in which railroads exacerbated rather than relieved famine.
The famines were brought on by a complex confluence of forces and events including crop failures
that created a grain shortage, thereby increasing prices; market forces and economic policies that
discouraged storing of grain in rural areas for times of famine and rather encouraged its movement
toward those who could afford to pay exorbitant prices; and improved transportation that allowed
grain exports to move to central locations where it could be hoarded by merchants, or even shipped
off to England, worsening the scarcity. Millions died in famine after famine, as these conditions
recurred in different regions of India, with dire consequences in each instance made worse not only
by policy decisions and economic forces but also by technology.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, World Bank projects have employed engineers
in order to design and construct technologies that open new markets for economic development.
Attorney and former World Bank insider Bruce Rich [75] details the devastating environmental
and cultural impacts of two engineering and economic development projects in Brazil in the 1980s:
the trans-Amazonian highway in Polonoroeste and the Carajs project on mining and railroads.
The highway opened the door to an onslaught of settlers who burned the rainforest, farmed un-

74 engineering and social justice

til the nutrients were depleted, and resold the land to cattle ranchers and real estate developers.
The settlements resulted in the spread of diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and measles among
settlers and indigenous groups. Many tribal lands were pillaged. The railroad project had even
more disastrous effects on rainforest depletion, despite both projects being touted as ecologically

3.5.2 Water and Energy

Numerous dam projects have led to a variety of problems worldwide including the displacement
of peopleas many as 50 million in India alone [76], the destruction of cultural history, and the
spread of infectious disease. Smith College student Aryn Bowman [77] chronicles the scene at the
Tehri Dam in Uttaranchal, India. Bowman describes how the town of Tehri is in the submergence
zone, set to be flooded when the dam fills. The Indian government, in order to encourage residents
to leave, bulldozed the town in the night (with Caterpillar bulldozers). Bowman said the scene was
a battle zone and the scene of a crime . . . perpetrated by the Indian government, foreign funding agencies, transnational construction companies, the water lords, the dominant definition of
development, and those who define it [77: 2]. Bowman describes how women whose lives are so
connected to the river have chosen to drown rather than leave.
Suez, a French multinational, will transport water from the dam by canal some 200 miles to
Delhi, to sell clean waterfor profitto rich city dwellers. Nearby villages will be passed over for
water delivery, leaving farmers without irrigation upon which they once relied. This is but one dam
in India, one that has received less attention than others such as the Narmada or Sardar Sarovar
Dam. However, the same patterns are observed not only in India but around the world. Physicist
and ecofeminist Vandana Shiva [78] notes concisely the trouble with dams and other water privatization initiatives:
Privatisation of water denies local communities their water rights and access to water
in two ways. Firstly, the scarce and limited water resources are diverted, from the poor
to the rich, from the countryside to towns, from agriculture to industry leaving water
famines where people have no purchasing power, and providing water to those who have
destroyed their own water resources through waste and pollution. Secondly, the state
itself shifts from its functions in providing welfare to the needy and most marginalised
communities to the new function of providing public subsidies for private profits. Small,
decentralised rural schemes are starved of both water resources and financial resources.
Engineers are clearly essential actors in water privatization and other mechanisms of globalization. Is it acceptable to say that we as engineers only design and build the things we are asked, but

engineering and social justice 75

do not question the motives of those who employ us? As the stakes get higher, are engineers more
or less likely to take on the issues raised here?

3.5.3 Food Production

Engineers have played a major role in facilitating the Green Revolution in the mid-twentieth century
and are playing an even greater role in the biotech revolution in agriculture today. In both cases, a
strong narrative about ending hunger and feeding the world masks the reality of large corporations
reaping enormous benefits at the expense of local agricultural economies, in many cases creating
dependency and increasing poverty. In the case of the green revolution, high-yield crop varieties introduced monocultures that went hand in hand with increased use of chemical technologies such as
synthetic fuels, fertilizers, and pesticides. In many places, as production went up, prices went down,
making it increasingly difficult for poor farmers to afford the new chemicals and crop varieties.
Mechanization brought about by the introduction of heavy farm equipment created job displacement
and net job loss [79]. While the green revolution benefited some rich farmers in developing countries
and certainly corporations marketing chemical products, it did so at the expense of poor farmers.
Often, green revolution advocates attempted to export essentially Western technologies without consideration of social and cultural impact [80]. Finally, the green revolution had serious consequences
for public health; for example, increased use of pesticides created dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane
(DDT)-resistant mosquitoes, significantly reducing the effectiveness of a critical tool in antimalaria
campaigns [81].
Biotechnology advocates claim that advances in chemical engineering and biotechnology are
necessary in order to meet the world's food needs. Bruce Dixon, editor of the Black Agenda Report,
critiques a new $150 million initiative by the Rockefeller and Gates foundations to promote agriculture in Africa. This time, the risks for dependency are even greater, as patent rights for many crops
now belong to multinational corporations, who certainly stand to profit from the initiative [82].
Vandana Shiva [83] argues that rather than meeting the worlds food needs, genetically engineered crops are merely introducing increased use of agrichemicals and forcing the abandonment
of local farm practices for industrial style farming. She suspects that the plans of multinational
companies to meet the worlds food needs seem to coincide a little too closely with their plans to
grow profits. Policies, such as Monsantos Roundup Ready Gene Agreement that keeps farmers
from saving seeds or the engineering of sterile seeds to make seed-saving impossible, imposes economic burdens on local farmers around the world and threatens biodiversity with the introduction of
global-scale monocultures (and monopolies). Shiva describes cases of what she terms soy imperialism by U.S. companies in India, in which local farming and processing businesses for items such as
mustard oil gave way to imported soybean oil. Such replacements, occurring all over the world, affect
not only local economies but also threaten biodiversity, cultural diversity manifested in local cuisine,

76 engineering and social justice

and cultural and scientific knowledge embodied in local plant-based medicinal practices. Shiva [83]
also relates the effort by the American Soybean Association to sell soybean-based pellets shaped and
colored to look like a variety of Indian dalslentils, kidney beans, pigeon peas, etc.potentially
supplanting local farmers, local industries, local economies, local cuisine, and local culture.

3.5.4 Globalization of U.S. Corporate Culture

The focus on materialism and consumption in the name of profit-making drives corporations to
enter new markets across the globe. Thus, lessons 5259 of Winning with the P&G 99 [36] focus
on globalization of P&G. P&Gs desire to homogenize global consumption is evident in lesson 53,
Create global brands. Seek opportunities to meet universal consumer needs with universal brands
(136) and lesson 56 One Company; one culture (143). I quote extensively to provide a sense of the
language that reflects P&Gs culture:
The cultures of many societies around the world are incompatible with P&Gs culture
and the Procter Way of conducting its business . . . .In some countries, neither business nor social meetings start on time. In others, meetings begin with a lot of conversation around the subject to let everyone participate before getting down to the issues
and end with no definitive conclusions, next steps, and commitments. Some cultures
are inclined to work toward consensus and avoid confrontation. Others are very hierarchical and autocratic, and unlike P&Gs culture, dont demand initiative, commitment,
and leadership from middle and lower levels.
How does P&G transplant such a strong corporate culture into a foreign country that
has its own cultureespecially when non-Americans from the local country make up
the bulk of its staff? First it starts out with seasoned management imported into the
country, people who started their careers at P&G in the US or elsewhere in the world
and are steeped in the companys culture. These are internationalists, people who move
from country to country. Then they recruit and hire nationals out of the countrys colleges and universities who seem to have an affinity for the P&G culture. During the
interview process, recruiters talk extensively about the Procter Way, and the applicants
who are not comfortable with it are not hired. Those who are hired get extensive indoctrination and training (143144).
The Procter Way is capitalized as if it were a faith, and indeed it represents a deep cultural
worldview that is imposed on employees from all cultural and faith backgrounds. The definition of
an internationalist, in P&Gs view, is not a person who has a deep understanding and respect for

engineering and social justice 77

other cultures, but someone who moves from country to country proselytizing the Procter Way. The
overt reference to indoctrination belies the shamelessness with which culturally colonialist projects
are still being carried out by multinational corporations.

3.5.5 Global Development Engineering

The model that has been offered in contrast to multinational activity in globalization is a largely
non-governmental organization (NGO)-based approach that draws on appropriate technology ideas
from the 1970s toward the goals of sustainable development, the end of poverty, and meeting basic
human needs. Organizations have been springing up across the developed world including Engineers without Borders, Engineers for a Sustainable World, Engineering World Health, International
Development Enterprises, and other smaller organizations. Kick Start, formerly Approtec (www., claims in its tagline that it has the tools to end poverty. Engineering undergraduates and recent graduates have a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for these organizations and the
projects they offer. Along similar lines, engineering students can and do often seek experiences with
the Peace Corps or with United States Agency for International Development (USAID). But is it
an oversell for these organizations to claim to be ending poverty or to claim that engineering skills
can end poverty? Does that fundamentally misunderstand the nature of poverty and our economic
systems? Does it dangerously mislead communities? In previous work [84], I have posed these and
other questions from the standpoint of a practitioner involved in international projects, recognizing
my own complicity in this work that is as problematic as it is urgent.
The first set of questions I raise about this work is whether the groups involved fully comprehend or acknowledge the political, cultural, and economic contexts of neoliberalism that create
the needs they seek to resolve through engineering. Reading some of many available analyses of
globalization [8587] reveals a clear arc that begins with Thatcher's and Reagan's economic policies and ends with countries in increasing debt unable (partly due to loan restrictions and structural
adjustment programs) to provide basic human needs in their countries. What these small American
engineering nonprofits are doing is stepping into the gaping void created by these policies, without
consideration for how it might make the situation worse by enabling neoliberal policies, or by creating additional engineering disasters like those described by Bruce Rich [75] (albeit on a smaller
scale). Often, there is a naive assumption on the part of American engineering nonprofitsor perhaps it is an overall worldviewthat free-market solutions exist to end poverty. This unwittingly
supports the neoliberal structures that have created so much poverty and environmental destruction
around the world. Perhaps our time is better spent working with nonengineering development
groups in order to change the underlying economic policies?
Consider, for example, the widely touted MoneyMaker pump, developed by Approtec, now
KickStart. The initial philosophy of the company was to locally manufacture pumps in several

78 engineering and social justice

African countries, creating profits and local jobs for manufacturers and creating demand up the
materials chain. The pumps could be sold by middlemen who could profit (again creating jobs) to
farmers who could also profit from the increased efficiencies the pump offered. The logic was to
create a middle class to help the richer of the poor out of poverty. However, the logic of capitalism
under neoliberal global trade is this: the pumps are now produced in China where more can be
made faster and cheaper [88]. The 1970s appropriate technology logic made a certain amount of
sense in the economic context of its time, when government policies and funding protected projects
from international competition. Now projects have to survive in a global market place, often to the
detriment of the goals of appropriate technology. Are we anticipating these problems, and what
insurance do we offer communities who take large risks and invest time and money in projects that
may fail to stimulate the local economy?
Or consider hypothetically a number of small-scale electrification projects in one country.
Small university groups work with individual communities to meet their needs, with some opting
for wind power (maybe because a professor advisor is a wind energy expert, maybe because a funding
source favors wind), others for solar, maybe others for geothermal. Everything is site-specific, and
only certain communities (those fortunate enough to have connections to a foreign university or
nonprofit) get electrified. How are communities that receive electrification chosen, or families
within a given community? Do engineers ask why the government is not funding comprehensive
electrification for all? Do engineers plan so that the country could later move to comprehensive
electrification for all? Will the technologies implemented be compatible with a national grid, if that
is ultimately desirable to increase efficiency, reliability, and affordability? What becomes of the sitespecific solutions in the long term?
Second, despite the best of intentions, the overall dynamic of the model employed here is that
U.S. engineering students (or engineers) have some saving knowledge to provide to communities.
The belief that they know better in some waysmaybe just technological ways but often also
in cultural ways as well (and these are not as separable as we would like to believe, when it comes
down to it)is awkward at best and often detrimental to communities. Some members of groups
have missionary backgrounds and draw on those traditions, which often inculcate religious traditions while providing services. Little use is made, in many cases, of local engineers or local technical
expertise. Even when the group leaders take a different attitude, students more often than not make
implicit assumptions that are not deconstructed as part of their engineering education, that their
education has provided them with privileged knowledge they will now bestow upon needy others.
In short, the model reproduces a colonialist dynamic.
Third, again despite outward commitments to the contrary, the groups rarely integrate social
scientists and language/cultural experts from the United States or in-country who would provide
indispensable assistance in interpretation, facilitation of meetings, and attention to power dynam-

engineering and social justice 79

ics. As a result, communication is often poor. The models often place students in country for such
small amounts of time (usually weeks, months at most) that good communication is likely not
established and trust is not built. Too often, I meet engineers who assume that professional skills
are not skills, but something that comes naturally, that anyone can do. Even when engineers know
themselves well enough to acknowledge that some people are trained to do it better, the choice to
create separate aid groups specific to engineers sends a message of exclusionsomething an adept
communicator picks up immediately. It takes extra effort to recruit an anthropologist to a group
called Engineers for Global Development, for example, than if the group were interdisciplinary in
name and intent from the beginning.
Fourth, the models can create competing needs between what is good for a U.S. students
engineering education or a U.S. engineers career, on the one hand, and what is good for the community on the other [89]. If students are raising thousands of dollars for travel costs and materials
to send a group to engage in a construction project, why send engineering students to do that work
instead of providing money to a local organization that can oversee the project utilizing local labor
and stimulating other sectors of the local economy? Is the consideration of learning value for the
engineering students prioritized, regardless of missed opportunity for local community growth and
regardless of the dependencies it might create? Is it problematic that we are viewing the developing
world as the classroom of the twenty-first century [90]?
Fifth, again despite stated intentions, there is little recognition of past failures, or current
ones, and even less analysis of past failures in order to prevent future ones. Assessment is unconscionably rare. One leader in this field admitted to me that her projects do not involve assessment
because most projects fail. Not trying to learn from these failures is completely unacceptable.
Anthropologist Margareth Hammer [91] provides a clear discussion of how to avoid such pitfalls
1)Projects should be formulated in and by the communities that will ultimately benefit.
2)On-site feasibility studies must be undertaken before a project begins to ensure that it has
a chance of success.
3)Autonomy and economic independence and the ability to maintain or repair technology
are key factors in the long-term sustainability of any project.
4)Projects require thorough market analyses that include an assessment of actual production
costs and the available time of the people that do the required work.
5)The appropriateness of a technology should be assessed for the specific community in
which it may be implemented. This requires being in the field with the recipient community for some time.
6)Flexibility is required so that the project can evolve over time.

80 engineering and social justice

7)Responsibility does not end when the funding ends. The limitations on peoples availability
must be made known upfront before a project begins.
8)Communication and networking are essential.
9)Insurance should be provided so that if a project fails the community does not end up
bearing debt.
10)Know all partners in a project and what they are interested in gaining from the project.
Groups that are established and cohesive are more likely to stay together.
This is all far easier said than done. Engineers have the ability and responsibility to take action to avoid failure. Yet the consequences of engineers failure to conduct appropriate assessment
are borne largely by the community. An awareness of an individuals relationship to the context and
power dynamics is a prerequisite to ethical action. It is easy to recognize that many of the skills involved in avoiding these common pitfalls are not the traditional purview of engineers. Assessment,
communication, flexibility, market analyses, power dynamics, self-awareness, ethics, collaboration,
and challenging assumptions are skills not typically emphasized in engineering programs. Yet these
are the skills one needs to engage in social justice work. The next chapter examines how to acquire
these skills to improve engineers work globally and locally.



The word racism itself is not used very often in engineering circles. I suspect this may have something
to do with the fact that structural aspects of racism are not understood by many white engineers,
thus identifying racism would be perceived as tantamount to accusing an individual of intentional
discrimination, inducing immediate defensiveness. Many engineers ponder with concern and puzzlement the problem of minority underrepresentation in engineering. Why dont the numbers budge,
after putting so much money and effort into recruitment and retention efforts? I believe the problem has been ill-definednot in the sense that it lacks a detailed definition, but in the sense that
it has been defined incorrectly, with a nearly exclusive focus on underrepresentationand must be

3.6.1 Underrepresentation
The underrepresentation of certain minority groups in engineering does indeed raise important social justice concerns, but to define the problem solely in these terms is severely limiting. Figure 3.4
provides some recent data revealing continued underrepresentation of Hispanic engineers, Black engineers, and Native American engineers. It is important to note that this figure is difficult to interpret
because the U.S. Census Bureau has revised its data gathering on race and ethnicity so that individuals can mark separately the race(s) to which they belong and then note whether they are Hispanic or
Latino, while the NSF has apparently not yet made these revisions, treating the Hispanic category

engineering and social justice 81

FIGURE 3.4: Racial diversity of the engineering work force in 2003 against U.S. Population in 2000
[92, 93].

as one of several race options. Thus, the white and Black categories at NSF are non-Hispanic white
and non-Hispanic Black, while the Census categories include Hispanics/Latinos in both white and
Black categories. Still, the underrepresentation of many minority groups is clear and well known
within engineering.
Over the past several decades, a great deal of research and administrative action has been directed toward understanding why underrepresented minorities are conspicuously absent from engineering and seeking to correct that situation primarily through cocurricular programs. Engineering
professor Gary May and National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) vice
president Daryl Chubin [94] review the literature on success factors for underrepresented students
pursuing a degree in engineering. Citing the need for engineers and demographic trends, the authors argue for the increased recruitment and retention of traditionally underrepresented groups in
engineering. Success was correlated with the following:

precollege preparation, highlighting the need for well-resourced K-12 schools for minority

82 engineering and social justice

recruitment programs including promotion of engineering in high schools and media representation of minority engineers as role models;
admissions policies, highlighting the need to fight challenges to affirmative action and to
consider alternatives to standardized testing in admissions;
financial assistance, especially scholarships and grants, not just loans; and
academic intervention programs on the Minority Engineering Program model including
orientation courses, clustering minority students in courses, creating a student study center,
and structuring study groups.

Bradford Lewis [95], Assistant Professor of Science Education at Morgan State University, critiques common explanations for underrepresentation of African Americans as focusing too
strongly on students behaviors and attitudes. The goal has been to help the student adjust to engineering, to assimilate to its culture and practices. Some college-level institutional problems are
addressed in admissions policies and scholarships, but only a few have suggested changing the field
itself, changing curriculum content, or changing classroom pedagogy and climate.
Juan Lucena [32] analyzes the shift in rhetoric in the 1980s around underrepresentation in
the sciences and engineering. After social justice arguments failed, Lucena suggests, individuals
responded by tying the problem of underrepresentation to the perceived threat of economic competitiveness, related then to Japans success. Lucena tracks the history of numerous programs geared
toward addressing underrepresentation, but he notes that numbers have reached plateaus at around
20% for women undergraduates and 6% for Black and Hispanic undergraduates in engineering. He
calls for additional reforms in pedagogy, curriculum, and programs that look beyond the pipeline
model which seeks to adapt minority male and all female students to the engineering norm and
begin instead with a critique of cultural biases within engineering itself.
A large number of organizations exist to support people of color in pursuing engineering
careers, from K-12 education on through the end of a professional career. Professional societies,
such as the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), the National Society of
Black Engineers (NSBE), and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), as well as
NACME sponsor programs to spark early interest in engineering, support engineering undergraduates through mentoring, scholarships, peer activities, and other programs as well as support professionals by offering networking and professional development, among other programs.

3.6.2 Curricular and Pedagogical Reform

Critiques of curricular materials support the call for curricular and pedagogical reform in science and engineering around cultural sensitivity. For example, one review of 17 college and

engineering and social justice 83

high school physics texts examined the representation of African and African American contributions to science [96]. 10 images of Blacks were represented in the 17 books, but
none were scientists; eight were athletes or musicians, while the other two were unidentified.
As the study notes, such treatments serve to reinforce racial stereotypes about the intellectual
abilities of Blacks in the sciences and engineering. Perhaps more significant than the presence of
negative stereotypes is the utter absence of role models. The books reviewed completely omitted contributions from Africa and largely included only contributions (and images) of U.S. and
European scientists. In engineering, Frehills examination of first-year textbooks [97] identified
a similar lack of representation of women and minorities, as well as depictions that reinforced
In fact, one need not look far to find outright racial hostility in engineering classrooms. To
pick a particularly overt example, consider the electrical engineering mnemonic for the order of
resistor color codes (black brown red orange yellow green blue violet gray white). The mnemonic
has many variations, as it has been passed down in an oral lecture tradition not written in textbooks,
but one version (common enough to have about 50 hits in a Google search on the exact phrase) is
Black Boys Rape Our Young Girls But Violet Gives Willingly. In many instances black has been
changed to bad in a weak attempt to omit the overt racism. But it only begs the question, who is
the we speaking of our young girls? It is difficult to erase the reference to the white American
cultural tradition of raising fears of Black men raping white women [98,99]; the subtext is still there
in references to bad boys and our women.
There has been an ongoing curricular reform movement in science education, largely at the
K-12 level, to decenter Western civilization and increase the visibility of scientific contributions
from individual scientists of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Numerous resources exist for
the K-12 classroom, including lesson plans for math and science subjects, and books that profile
prominent scientists or inventors from diverse backgrounds (see
FRAMEWORKS/mathsci/msapdg.htm for a representative bibliography). In parallel with the
movement to create a multicultural classroom, Native Studies scholars, such as Gregory Cajete
[100], have opened up the possibilities for redefining science on Native terms, incorporating Native
values and worldviews in the practice of science. Science and technology studies scholar David Hess
[101] provides a critique of Western science and presents some of the alternative movements with
an emphasis on ethnoscience.
Much of this multicultural content has yet to see an undergraduate engineering classroom. To
be sure, more work is needed that focuses specifically on engineering, but there is already a wealth
of information available that could be incorporated. In previous work I provide a discussion of a few
avenues for incorporating non-Western notions of thermodynamics and increasing the visibility of
women of color in engineering thermodynamics [102].

84 engineering and social justice

3.6.3 Stereotypes
There are clear mythologies in our society about who can and who cannot do engineering. Asians
have been seen as an overrepresented group in engineering, and as a group with innate abilities that
imply they do not need assistance afforded to other minorities such as mentoring. Consequently,
real problems of discrimination in employment and education faced by Asian Americans are ignored [103,104]. Whites use this myth of the model minority against other minority groups, arguing that if Asian Americans are able to achieve middle-class status, then other minority groups must
not need support systems, because if they could just be more (pick a stereotype herehardworking,
obedient, etc.) then they too would be successful [104].
Sociologist Paul Wong and colleagues [104] interviewed over 700 university students, nearly
equally divided among white, Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian American, finding
all racial groups perceived Asian Americans as having significantly higher academic performance,
motivation to succeed academically, and probability of success after college. Asian Americans were
seen as a model minority by all racial groups in the study including Asian Americans themselves. However, measures of actual performance [grade point average (GPA), scholastic aptitude
test (SAT) scores, academic preparation] demonstrated no difference between Asian Americans
and other minority groups (except African Americans, whose SAT verbal scores and GPAs were
significantly lower). Asian Americans were found to be more likely to pursue an engineering major,
but not significantly more likely than whites, Native Americans, and Hispanics. Wong et al. further
note the importance of considering citizenship in analysis of Asian populations in the United States
and differentiating between Asian and Pacific Islander populations. Taking these different populations into consideration reveals a more complex story and additional challenges faced by Pacific
Islanders and Asian American citizens that can be glossed over when they are lumped into larger
categories of analysis.
Consideration of the intersectionality of race and gender in engineering reveals an even more
complex story. Education scholar Pauline Chinn [105] provides an insightful narrative analysis
of female Asian and Pacific Islander engineers and scientists, exploring racial stereotypes among
model minorities and incorporating the intersection of race and gender in her analysis. Confucian
ideas about gender affected family life and the participants' approaches to addressing the competition between gender and professional identity in engineering.
Education and Counseling scholar James L. Moore [106] presents evidence that cultural
stereotypes about Black men have a profound influence on their experience of engineering as undergraduates. The response among Black men who persist in engineering is characterized as a prove
them wrong syndrome in which Black men work harder to counter the negative stereotypes held by
peers and professors. Moore contextualizes these findings in earlier literature on experiences of African American males in higher education (e.g., [107]), in stereotypes of what it means to be Black

engineering and social justice 85

and male including Black intellectual inferiority [108,109], and in the phenomena of stereotype
threat and low expectations [110112].
Stereotypes can reinforce underrepresentation by making successful minority engineers invisible. Journalism professor Marilee Long and colleagues [113] analyzed the content of four children's
television shows aimed at promoting science education, noting that minorities were much less likely
to appear and to appear as scientists. Institutions can contribute to the invisibility (or visibility) of
minority engineers; for example, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education [114] decried the fact that
at that time, only eight Blacks were members of the National Academy of Engineering (comprising
about 1.5% of members).

3.6.4 Racist Cultures in Engineering

There is a literature that seeks to describe the experience of minority engineers and relate it to the
dominant culture within engineering education. Amy Slaton [115] relates the history of African
Americans in engineering education since World War II, examining both the student and institutional experience. Cynthia Foor and colleagues [20] examine the intersectionality of race, class, and
gender in an ethnographic study of one female, multi-minority student from an economically disadvantaged background. The authors compare the students answers to that of other students to point
out differences in social, cultural, and symbolic capital. Advantages, such as attending Montessori
school, attending science summer camps and SAT prep courses, having a parent with connections
for internship acquisition, and possessing certain types of knowledge like how to dress appropriately
for an interview, are pointed out as privileges of class.
Foor and colleagues [20] point out that this all adds up to students from less privileged
backgrounds not knowing how to play the game. As an example, the subject of the paper relates
missing co-op opportunities because she never approached the co-op office, assuming that she was
not eligible to do a co-op based on an average GPA. While class clearly limits her opportunity, the
student is also very aware of her status as biracial. She related in the interview the experience of
having to explain her identity and that her heritage is more than what people assume based on her
looks. The student indicted faculty who appeared to play favorites in class and an advisor who she
felt never wanted her to be an engineer, highlighting the important contributions faculty can make
to the level of welcome students experience.
Gary Downey and Juan Lucena [116] trace the experiences of two Black men and one Hispanic woman, examining the competition between senses of self. On the one hand, they argue that
engineering demands a self purely invested in mathematical problem solving, devoid of emotion,
devoid of hobbies such as ballet, and devoid of particular identities such as female, Latino/a, Black,
or working class. The profiles of the students show how some students may use the desire to explode
stereotypes (of Blacks or females as less capable engineers) as motivation for pursuing and persisting

86 engineering and social justice

in engineering. They also show how some stereotypes may directly encourage pursuit of engineering, for example, pursuing upward class mobility through focus and a strong work ethic. Stereotypes
may prove to be real obstacles, in the case of demanding a singular focus to the exclusion of other interests and parts of oneself such as hobbies or emotions. In particular, these denials of certain aspects
of self can be read by those who harbor minority identities in engineering (based on race, sex, class,
and I might also suggest sexual orientation and gender identity) as a demand to deny those identities, presenting a very real obstacle to underrepresented students pursuing an engineering degree.

3.6.5 Beyond Underrepresentation

Ultimately, underrepresentation is certainly not the only and probably also not the most important
issue around racism in engineering. Feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding [117] points
out that engineering, in particular, has tended to pursue technologies that may not interest minority
groups or that may benefit whites or other privileged groups at the expense of minority groups. For
example, she cites the U.S. Space program, intended to demonstrate the legitimacy and desirability
of global dominance by white supremacist Western societies (1718). The engineering community
would likely react to this statement with shock or dismissal due to a lack of familiarity with such
arguments. But the space program does represent this will to power, both on a symbolic level by
venturing into space and on a practical level, as the technological development of spacecraft has
clear military applications including but not limited to propulsion. The linkages from engineering
to racism and colonialism must surely limit the attractiveness of the field for anyone who does not
support those ends. The work of women's studies professor Banu Subramaniam [118] on the rhetoric around invasive species provides another example. She details how American fear of the other
manifests itself in our characterizations of and concern about foreign species.
There are stark examples of racist science and engineeringfrom Nazi biologists who provided scientific truth to back eugenics arguments and ultimately genocide [119] to American
scientists in the Public Health Service who participated in the Tuskegee Syphilis study, declining to
treat men infected with syphilis long after it was clear that this practice was unethical. The structural
nature of racism is revealed, in particular, in the Tuskeegee case, where African American medical
professionals and institutions participated in the study, and were in fact the closest to the studys
participants, and were responsible for carrying out many of the harmful actions and inactions that
were part of the study [120].
Poet Anthony Walton [121: 16] argues that African Americans experience of technology has
historically been irremediably devastating to their hopes, dreams and possibilities. He chronicles
the importance of the caravel (innovation in ship design) and the cotton gin to the rise and growth
of the slave trade. Later, the mechanical cotton picker would displace southern Blacks to find work

engineering and social justice 87

in northern factories, where white immigrants grew resentful of the impact on their job opportunities. Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws prevented African Americans from being able to participate meaningfully in technological transformations that have had such a negative effect on African
Americans. All of this, he argues, has contributed to Black folkways in Americahis word for
those unspoken, largely unconscious patterns of thought and belief about what is possible that
guide aspiration and behavior (17)folkways that do not support pursuit of technology. Black
folkways, he argues, do not see engineering as an upwardly mobile profession, do not encourage
pursuit of physics and calculus in high school, and do not support technological pursuits as a means
to make money. Walton argues that this is critical:
Mastery of technology is second only to money as the true measure of accomplishment in this country, and it is very likely that by tolerating this underrepresentation in
the technological realm, and by not questioning and examining the folkways that have
encouraged it, blacks are allowing themselves to be kept out of the mainstream once
again. This time, however, they will be excluded from the greatest cash engine of the
twenty-first century (18).
While Walton's analysis is different from the mainstream thinking about the causes of minority underrepresentation in engineering, his solution is the sameto encourage more Black students (his focus is on African Americans, in particular) to pursue technology.
However, Walton's analysis also gets beyond underrepresentation, examining deeper issues
of social inequality and the complex relationship between technology and society. For whom is
engineering done? Who benefits and who loses from engineering practice? What problems are
considered to be within the engineer's purview? The ways in which the answers to these questions
reflect our histories and current realities of racism must be examined further.
Langdon Winner [122] discussed how Robert Moses's overpasses on Long Island were built
so low that buses could not pass under them. As a result, the socioeconomic development of Long
Island was significantly affected, developing the area into white affluent suburbs. Winner argues
that this was a reflection of Moses's values, but there is some controversy now about his actual intentions and values. However, it is important to recognize that with or without intentionality, the
result is the same: certain values are embedded in that technology, and certain populations kept out
of communities as a result.
It is interesting to note that Bobby Seale, founder of the Black Panther movement, was an engineering student at Merrit College in Oakland and worked on the Gemini space program [9]. (He
left engineering for the social sciences as he became radicalized.) University of Wisconsin engineering

88 engineering and social justice

students Gottlieb John Marmett and Jennifer Schultz [123] argue that Seale brought the best of his
engineering abilities to bear on his work which they characterize as solving the problem of racism,
citing his eye for detail in planning actions (they do not, however, try to link engineering's military
culture with the guerilla culture of the Panthers). Given the problem of underrepresentation, perhaps
we should make Seale more visible as an engineerthough perhaps without going through contortions to fit his work into the engineering mold of problem solving. On the other hand, if Seale had
pursued a career as an engineer and worked for NASA instead of the Panthers, would he have been
co-opted rather than radicalized? Should we hold him up as an example of a radical engineer, or be
grateful that he left?
Harding [117] calls us to consider under what conditions could it occur that a society with
widespread and powerful forms of structural racisma race-segregated social structurecould produce sciences that did not participate in justifying and maintaining such white supremacy? (18).
This is indeed an important question for the field of engineering as well.



On December 6, 1989, at the University of Montreal, a man walked into a mechanical engineering
classroom, sent the men out of the room, yelled at the women, You're women, you're going to be
engineers, you're all a bunch of fucking feminists. I hate feminists! and opened fire, ultimately killing 14 women, 13 engineering students, and one staff person, before shooting himself [124: 228].
In case there was any doubt as to his intentions, he left a note behind that made clear that feminists
had ruined his life, and that this was the motivation for his killings. Afterward, some speculated that
his own denial of admission to the University of Montreal may have been a reason for targeting the
female engineers at that particular school [125].
Despite the blatant and explicit misogyny in the actions and words of the killer, there were
denials of sexism in both media [126] and my own experience, in which many of my peers (male
and female) baldly denied that this had anything to do with gender, saying the killer was just crazy.
Worse still, most of my professors seemed completely unaware this event even took place.
Denial of sexism is extremely powerful in engineering. Many women will respond to discussions of sexism in engineering with Well, I've never had a problemas if this N of 1 proves
definitively that there is no problem with sexism in engineering. Denial has its rewards, not only in
the sense that male power has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and denial of sexism
(especially by women) is a powerful means to that end, but also in the sense that it enables women
who feel isolated to just keep their heads down and get their degrees, their promotions, their next
step up the ladder. Its a strategy that works. A corollary to this denial of sexism is a repudiation
of feminism, also common in engineering. I have heard many female engineers express a desire for
equal pay for equal work or similar principles identified with liberal feminism and then complete
their thought with but Im not a feminist. In fact, one of the female engineering students at the

engineering and social justice 89

University of Montreal in 1989 pleaded with the shooter not to open fire, saying, Were not feminists. Were only women who want an education [127: 56].

3.7.1 Underrepresentation
Most work on sexism in engineering has focused on the problem of underrepresentation. Women
currently make up only 11% of the U.S. engineering workforce [128]. The National Research Council [129] recently reviewed the literature on the problem of underrepresentation in the academy,
finding that:

There are no significant biological differences between men and women that impact womens abilities in engineering.
While there is a leaky pipelinewomen leave engineering at all points from middle
school forwardthis leakage does not fully explain the low numbers of women in the field.
For example, for 30 years, there have been over 20% women receiving Ph.D. degrees in the
life sciences, but they only make up 14.8% of full professors.
Women face intentional and unintentional discrimination, self-doubt, and a lack of mentoring and opportunity. Implicit gender and racial biases are well-established in the literature, and document the tendency for people to discriminate, even when they believe they
are being completely objective.
Job structures that assume the help of an at-home spouse can disadvantage women.

In order to address underrepresentation in the workforce, a widespread effort has taken place
over the last few decades, with focuses on K-12 education (including math preparation beginning
in middle school and exposure to engineering as a career in high school), undergraduate recruitment and retention, and mentoring and networking in the workforce. Despite these many and
varied efforts, numbers have remained relatively stagnant. There are several possible reasons for

Efforts at reform have focused primarily on changing women to fit the mold of engineering,
not really changing engineering itself. Even efforts that seek to change the marketing of engineering (e.g., to highlight it as a profession in service to humanity) would not be successful
as long as engineering retains its strong ties to militarism or sheer profit making.
The culture and curriculum of engineering are deeply sexist and must change to make room
for women.
The social construction of engineering as a profession is gendered in such a strong way that
programs focused on individuals, even when aimed at all ages k-gray, cannot undo socialized gender role expectations.

90 engineering and social justice

Numerous groups exist to attract and support women to and in engineering. The Women
in Engineering Program and Advocates Network (WEPAN) shares information across university campuses toward the end of improving those programs that support women. The Society for
Women Engineers (SWE) has undergraduate chapters and seeks to support women engineers in
the workforce by providing networking and professional development opportunities. Mentornet
takes a laser focus on mentoring, making use of information technologies to link women across
distance. Sally Rides Imaginary Lines offers science festivals aimed at involving middle school girls
in science and engineering design projects, among other activities.

3.7.2 Sexist Cultures in Engineering

Sociologist and ethnographer Elaine Seymour [130] points to numerous cultural factors that cause
engineering students to leave the major, some of which point out glaring sexism. While the impetus
for her study was the underrepresentation of women in engineering, her findings point to much
more than that single problem emerging as a result of sexism in engineering.
Seymour is one of many to document the presence of a weed out cultureheaping on loads
of work that challenge students mentally, emotionally, and physicallywhich often encourages
students to leave, with women leaving in proportionally higher numbers. The classic introductory
lecture intimidation exercise that goes something like look to your left, look to your right, only one
of you will still be in engineering at the end of the term is legendary. Hacker [3] describes this element as disciplining students to suppress bodily desires in order to accomplish the work, denying
themselves time for sleep, food, and often recreation or pleasure.
Women undergraduates in Seymours study often spoke about the attitudes and behavior
of their male peers, including sexist jokes and comments, treating female peers as incompetent,
dominating laboratory experiences, and being overly concerned with the sexual appeal of women.
They described a sense that their male peers viewed their success in engineering as a threat, escalating their negative behavior. For their part, some men in Seymours study seemed obsessed
with female attractiveness, describing female engineers as unattractive, and nonengineers as attractive; one participant related a story of one female who switched out of engineering and went
from being unattractive to attractive. The women Seymour [130] interviewed were all too aware
of their male peers concern with looks and cited it as a barrier to establishing good working relationships.
In light of the negative attention from male peers, Seymour [130] found that many women
chose to become invisible (or less visible) as women by dressing in less stereotypically feminine ways
(less makeup, pants instead of skirts, etc.). This strategy of blending in with the guys is echoed by
Hacker [3], who describes her own experiences as an engineering student at MIT, in which being
invisible provided a welcome relief from unwanted male attention.

engineering and social justice 91

Ethnographer Karen Tonso [131] analyzes the discourse in an engineering design class and
the ways in which the cultural expectations of engineering are communicated to women. Her findings echo Seymour's, documenting male students' and/or professors' use of profanity, sexual innuendo, and violent language in class. She echoes Seymour's finding about the seeming compatibility
between male professional ability and sexual attractiveness, on the one hand, and the perceived
incompatibility between female attractiveness and engineering ability on the other. Tonso [132]
elaborates on these findings in a more comprehensive and updated study.
The mnemonic device discussed in the last section (Black Boys Rape Our Young Girls But
Violet Gives Willingly) evidences a deep misogyny in engineering, where women (rendered invisible in so many other ways) are made visible as objects of sexual violence. Examining engineering
textbooks reveals other forms of sexism. For example, consider the following quotes from a chemical
engineering textbook on transport phenomena:
The student may wish to satisfy himself at this point as to the reasons behind the unexpected result [133: 222]
Flux plotting is approximate, the accuracy depending upon the patience of the sketcher
and his ability to satisfy the above requirements [133: 247].
Whether the authors assume that all engineering students are male, or that the use of he as
universal is appropriate in a field so dominated by men, the result is the same: the text reinforces the
presence of men in engineering and erases the presence of women.
Other everyday examples from textbooks reinforce notions of gender outside of engineering. Consider one problem from a Thermodynamics textbook that sought to bring energy balances
home to students by examining human metabolism of food:
Problem 4-112. A 176-pound man and a 132-pound woman went to Burger King for
lunch. The man had a BK Big Fish sandwich (720 Calories), medium french fries (400
Cal) and a large Coke (225 Cal). The woman had a basic hamburger (330 Cal), medium
french fries (400 Cal), and a diet Coke (0 Cal). After lunch they start shoveling snow and
burn calories at a rate of 360 Cal/h for the woman and 480 Cal/h for the man. Determine
how long each one of them needs to shovel snow to burn off the lunch calories. [67: 211]
Before examining the sexism, it is worth commenting on the consumerism in this passage
and the product placement; does the publisher or author have an agreement to promote certain
products to engineering students or to college students? What influence does the heavy emphasis
on fast food (present in other problems as well) have on student nutritional choices?

92 engineering and social justice

But here I am focusing on the gender differences reinforced in the problem. Is Diet Coke
a product for women, who ought to be on diets? Are women assumed to always be smaller in size
than the men who accompany them, so that they consume less food and burn fewer calories when
they exercise? More broadly, it is problematic that the authors in presenting a section on food,
diet, and exercise from a thermodynamic perspective do not address directly issues related to body
image. In fact, one problem has an individual losing 11 pounds in 13 days, another binging on
a liter (2 pints!) of ice cream then seeking to exercise away those Calories, and another using a
treadmill to burn off Calories after drinking. None are exactly a good example to set for student
The same book awkwardly seeks to offer an analogy about the notion of an ideal process
in thermodynamics (a theoretical process that does not exist but represents the best achievable in
In daily life, the concepts of Mr. Right and Ms. Right are also idealizations, just like
the concept of a reversible (perfect) process. People who insist on finding Mr. or Ms.
Right to settle down are bound to remain Mr. or Ms. Single for the rest of their lives.
[67: 300]
Unlike the passages from the transport phenomena text, this passage seems to recognize a
coeducational audience. However, the authors are most likely assuming they are heterosexual. (At
the very least, there is an assumption that they are interested in being married as opposed to single,
and at all costs, they are interested in avoiding being single for the rest of their lives.) There is also
a message not to expect too much from a partner, because you might be disappointed. What might
this reveal about the emotional lives of engineers? Does this amount to advice to settle in order to
settle down, in stark contrast to Louise's exhortation to Thelma, You get what you settle for [134].
Sociologist Lisa Frehill's content analysis of the representation of women in first-year engineering
textbooks [97] reveals results consistent with these observations. In her study, the representation of
women in textbooks in the 1950s and 1960s revealed exclusive use of the masculine pronoun and
depiction of women in stereotypically feminine occupations. Beginning in the 1980s and into the
1990s, there was an increasing depiction of women as engineers and use of inclusive pronouns, but
exclusively male pronouns persisted in some texts, as did women depicted in stereotypically feminine and in sexualized roles.

3.7.3 Workplace Cultures

In case this will all be chalked up to the behavior of immature undergraduate men, it is important
to examine the patterns of womens workplace experiences as well. Again, we are reminded that

engineering and social justice 93

there are examples of workplaces that are supportive of and respectful toward women engineers,
but that does not diminish the seriousness or pervasiveness of sexism in engineering workplaces.
The patterns presented in the multitude of anecdotes in the literature (of which only a few are
presented here), and the high prevalence of reported incidences of sexual harassment described
below, suggest that we have more than a few bad applesin fact, we have a sexist engineering
Borsook [6] relates the reactions of men in Silicon Valley to Esther Dyson, whom she profiled in an early issue of Wired. When she interviewed others, they asked whom Esther was dating,
or made comments about what she wore and how she presented herselfall remarks Borsook had
never observed when writing profiles of men in the industry. When Borsook brought this to the
attention of her editor he commented that he did not think of Esther as a man or a woman (evidence of the invisibility strategy succeeding). L. Jean Camp [135: 119], then a graduate student in
information technology policy, relates the story of a member of the systers mailing list asking for
help dealing with sexist real engineers jokes at work (as in, You know youre an engineer when
you have a beard because you have calculated your efficiency loss in time shaving and found it unacceptable.) The response of systers, by the way, was a series of real engineers jokes presuming
femalenessreal engineers taking apart fetal distress monitors in delivery rooms, etc.
Social scientists Edward Lafontaine and Leslie Tredeau [136] studied the frequency of sexual
harassment reported by 160 women in traditionally male occupations including engineering. Over
75% of respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment (compared with about 50% generally
reported in the literature at that time for women across all occupations). Women working in engineering positions and in management positions reported higher levels of harassment compared with
those working in science, computing, or public administration. McIlwee and Robinson [19] also
documented sexual harassment in engineering workplaces; women experienced catcalls, being called
honey and other less than professional terms, being told inappropriate sexual jokes, and unwanted
touching from colleagues and supervisors, among other things. It appears that an engineering culture that is hostile to women persists in many workplaces; it may even escalate as compared to the
undergraduate experience because of the ways in which perpetrators can leverage workplace power

3.7.4 What Counts as Engineering? The Gendering of a Field

Scholars in Feminist Technology Studies point to a more insidious and structural form of sexism
which defines gendered boundaries of engineering. Alice Pawley [137] describes the field of engineering as a block of Swiss cheese, in which the field has excluded pockets of what would rightly be
considered engineering, but for its gendered nature. She contextualizes her research on contem
porary faculty perspectives by drawing on the findings of several feminist historians of engineering.

94 engineering and social justice

Historian Amy Sue Bix [138] details one example of this phenomenon in which household equipment studies emerged not as a subdiscipline of chemical or electrical engineering, but as a subdiscipline of home economics. The curriculum was rigorous, including courses in mathematics and
the physical sciences, but because the applications were in the domestic sphere, it was carved out
as women's work. Bix notes that the discipline was not threatening to men because of its domestic
applications; indeed, many women were trained with the goal of becoming potential consumers
or operators of the equipment. However, during World War II, many women were hired for their
engineering expertise.
Sociologist Lisa Frehill [139] seeks to answer the question of how engineering became gendered in the United States by examining the period of 18931920, during which engineers were
making the transition to increased industrialization and urbanization, and seeking to establish engineering as a profession, both in the context of a changing sense of what it meant to be a man in
American society. Frehill argues, based in part on Historian Ruth Oldenziels work [140], that the
profession was seeking to define itself as white, male, and middle class and performed acts of exclusion in order to establish these boundaries. Frehill cites evidence from the journal Engineering News
in which the emergence of women tracers (drafters) in England was justified on the grounds that
tracing was menial and tedious work that men did not want anyway, and then viewed as a threat by
the journals editors who complained that hiring women cheapened the labor, making British firms
more competitive against American firms. Similarly, women wastewater inspectors were not considered a threat because such inspections took place in the home, requiring the inspector to interact
with other women. Further, as rugged outdoorsman Theodore Roosevelt came to typify middleclass masculinity, an emphasis on the outdoors emerged in engineering education, used to recruit
boys into engineering, and used to exclude women, who were not considered suited for outdoor
endeavors. Engineerings weed-out culture was seen as a test of manhood, with explicit references
to military hazing. Hacker [3] similarly describes engineering education as a path toward imparting
specific notions of masculinity deeply shaped by military institutions.

3.7.5 Sexist Technologies

How does all of this sexism influence the artifacts and processes developed by engineers? One commonly cited example is the use of the average male in crash testing and other automobile safety
analyses and designs. It was not until 2000 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration required testing using a female dummy in addition to the average male dummy [141]. Smaller
occupants, including women and children, were being injured more frequently and more severely in
accidents, particularly in those in which airbags were deployed.
Sexism in computer games has been documented; as with noncomputer games, games designed for boys are viewed as the norm (and girls can, on occasion, cross gender boundaries to
play with them), while girls' games are marked as feminine, such that boys' playing with them is

engineering and social justice 95

considered seriously transgressive. Attempts to create games for girls often reinscribe gender roles,
playing on the most stereotypical ideas of what it means to be a girl [142].
Such stereotyping occurs outside of gaming as well. Consider Your Concept Car (YCC)
developed by a team of mostly female engineers at Volvo in order to market the car, in particular, to
affluent European businesswomen [143]. Features included:

storage ports for umbrella, purse, and phone;

gull-winged doors (like the 1980s De Lorean) to allow graceful entry and exit;
pedals and floor designed to accommodate high heels;
the interior can be redecorated seasonally;
the rear seats fold down for groceries; and
the car does not allow its driver to get under the hood; maintenance is automated by the
cars computer, which dials the dealership directly.

Automotive journalist Warren Brown asks the all important question, But is all of this YCC
stuff just a different form of pink, or is it a credible attempt to satisfy the needs of women in the
automotive marketplace?
This is an important lesson for social justice advocates to keep in mind and continue to communicate with people working on diversity issues in engineering and engineering education. Essentialism is alive and well, and diversity as headcounts still wins the day. We have to drive beyond
the superficial when it comes to sexism in engineering, to consider how the field is constructed and
bounded based on gender, to consider how gender itself is socially constructed, and to consider how
our designs are, in turn, influenced by all of these. We cannot step outside of the culture, but if we
can hone our analytical skills, we can work toward designs that resist sexism.


Homophobia and heterosexism also exist in engineering, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender
(LGBT) invisibility is an enormous problem (so much a problem that there are no data I am aware
of on representation of LGBT people in engineering). Gender role stereotypes and a general lack
of education about LGBT people as well as close ties to military institutions with clear anti-LGBT
policies and cultures all contribute to the homophobia in engineering. While some LGBT people
are out at work, it is not unusual in the conservative culture of engineering for individuals to be
closeted at work. Predd [144] profiles one gay and one lesbian engineer working in the high-tech
industry: one is said to have been closeted for the first 8 years of her career, while the other is still in
the closet and used a pseudonym in his interview.
The National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals seeks
to raise visibility and counter stereotypes of LGBT scientists and engineers through annual awards.

96 engineering and social justice

Digital Queers operated in the 1990s to promote queer visibility on the web, specifically helping
LGBT advocacy groups to develop a web presence. The group merged with the Gay and Lesbian
Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a group that focuses on media representations of LGBT
people. In other work, I have sought to provide some basic information about the LGBT community
to engineering managers, focusing on workplace issues [145].




Examples of ableist artifacts designed by engineers are ubiquitous. A new focus on universal design
seeks to change the status quo by emphasizing access for all. Martha Albertson Fineman [146],
Woodruff Professor of Law at Emory University, views the universal design movement as a positive
example of engineering in the service of social justice, in which individual differences are taken into
account rather than designing to an assumed norm that excludes some. In many examples, designing
for special cases improves a product for all users; Fineman cites curb cuts as one example, which allow
for wheelchair traffic, but also allow for strollers, suitcases, and other rolling traffic.
However, even the best of intentions matched with excellent technical skills and creativity
do not guarantee universal design that supports social justice. In practice, engineers or engineering
students become enthusiastically involved in assistive technology projects that may or may not help
clients as intended. For example, Catalano [147] cautions us to think through the consequences
of assistive technology design project courses for human relationships, describing a case study of a
project at the U.S. Military Academy in which a ticket-taking machine was designed for a disabled
worker at a movie theater. The individual was initially pleased both with the device and the increased
attention he received from the students with whom he developed close relationships and from the
media when the project was completed. Shortly thereafter, however, the withdrawal from the excitement took an enormous toll and the worker became depressed and was ultimately institutionalized.



By and large, one could say that engineering has reflected the values of mainstream society, neoliberalism, military and corporate interests. This is partly due to, and continually justified by, engineers'
commitment to considering themselves value-neutral or objective. But because there is no such
thing as value neutrality, engineering has reflected some unjust biases embedded in our social structures to the point where they have become so mainstream as to be rendered invisible. This default
set of values has been inculcated in engineers through the engineering education process. In the next
chapter, we consider what has been missing from the education engineers have typically received,
and what engineers, motivated to work toward social justice in their careers and lives, need to learn
in order to be effective agents of change.

engineering and social justice 97

In all these areas of historical and traditional injustice, voices are emerging, asking for whom
and by whom is engineering done, how is engineering done, and who wins and who loses from
engineering activity? We are at the beginning of an exciting time in engineering, and we have an
opportunity to transform the profession for the better.

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chapter 4

Toward a More Socially

Just Engineering
No education is politically neutral.
bell hooks [1: 37]
What do engineers need to know and be able to do in order to effect social change, and how do we get there
from here? This chapter identifies attitudes, skills, and knowledge engineers need to be responsive professionals, responsible citizens, and effective change agents. Identifying these elements points to some shortcomings of engineering education as it is traditionally practiced. Thus, this chapter also offers a road map for
bridging the gap from engineers traditional education and training to the preparation required for effective
engagement in social justice work. Liberative pedagogies for peer education and organizing are presented to
assist practicing engineers in building community and developing skills for social justice work.


As discussed in the last chapter, engineering has largely reflected the values of mainstream society
and of neoliberal, military, and corporate interests. This is due in part to, and continually justified by,
engineers commitment to considering themselves value-neutral or objective. This set of values has
been inculcated in engineers through the engineering education process. If, as Caroline Baillie suggests in the second book in this series [2], engineering serves the political interest of whoever is in
power and engineers have the choice to resist or support these interests, what skills do engineers
need in order to be effective in their resistance or support of power regimes? If engineering education fails to provide some of the key knowledge and skills required for engaging in social justice
work, what can practicing engineers and current engineering students do to fill the gaps?
I begin with a discussion of the ways in which social justice work ought to intersect with
learning, drawing on Brazilian educator Paulo Freires [3] and Karl Marxs ideas of praxis [4]. This
leads to a discussion of the moral direction of engineering education in support of social justice,
the kinds of critical thinking required which can augment traditional engineering education toward

108 engineering and social justice

social justice ends, and specific topic areas needed to transform critical thinking into reflective action, or praxis. Next, I examine our overall outlook on education and offer an alternative approach to
learning, grounded in social justice movements and geared toward students pursuing formal education as well as adults learning in less formal contexts. Finally, I consider specific learning strategies
for acquiring the attitudes, skills, and knowledge needed to effectively work for social change.
The intent of this chapter is to offer neither a replacement model for the engineering curriculum nor an augmentation intended to fit into a conventional 4-year degree. It is intended to simply
identify the needs that exist for current engineers, conventionally educated, interested in working
for social justice in order to make the transition into being effective change agents.



Praxis can be a difficult concept to grasp, but it is at the heart of what engineering and social justice
must be about. Marxs notion of praxis (which Freire called reflective action, introduced in Chapter
1) is useful for considering how our expertise as engineers can intersect with community movements
for social justice. Community education scholar Mark K. Smith [5] explains the concept of praxis as
it is used in critical pedagogy, drawing on Aristotle and Marx, as well as educational philosophers.
Praxis is more than just practice, the application of a theoretical concept in the real world.
Praxis always begins with relationships, with a problem or question that arises in community. It
does not begin with abstract theory or first principles. While the emergence of a problem from a
community need can and does happen with some engineering projects, the extent of community engagement or empowerment is often minimized and the importance of relationship de-emphasized.
Also, many engineering projects begin with a design idea that is later marketed to the community
through strategies that create needs among potential consumers through advertising; this kind of
artificial need inducement is most certainly not praxis.
A second key feature of praxis is moral direction. The question or problem must be considered in the context of ethicswhat is the right thing to do in response to the question or problem?
This normative aspect of praxis is essential to its definition and to its relationship to social justice.
A third key feature of praxis is openness to change. There are no assumptions about what
the right process to follow is, or what the right solution/end result is. Process and product, ends
and means, thought and action, the general and the specific, the theoretical and the practical are in
constant exchange and dialogue. As we think about answers or solutions or goals for change, the
process for getting there may change. As we go about the process, the end goals may change. This
process must involve communication, and it is fundamentally relational.
Smith [5] therefore calls praxis informed, committed action. More than just action that follows on reflection, praxis embodies a commitment to human well-being and the search for truth,
and respect for others. It is the action of people who are free and are able to act for themselves.

toward a more socially and just engineering 109

Moreover, praxis is always risky. It requires critical thinking and ethical judgment. It is not merely
the doing of something, it is creative, other-seeking and dialogic [5].
If praxis is the goal, then the first step must be community engagement and listening well
for problems that emerge from the community. Listening effectively, understanding group power
dynamics, organizing effective community forums in which all are heard all become essential skills.
More specifically, empowering communities to speak from their own authority about technical issues requires an attention to power dynamics around the cult of the expert. Several models already
exist for accomplishing this work around issues of technology in society, notably among risk communicators (e.g., [6]), advocates of democratizing science (see, e.g., [7]), and environmental justice
advocates (e.g., [8]).



In Chapter 2, I identified the problem of worldview, in which engineers see themselves and the
profession as apolitical, objective, and value-neutral, allowing implicit assumptions about the world
to govern our choices. Indeed, getting beyond views of truth as objective and absolute is the most
fundamental change we need in engineering education. Engineers seem to have trouble stepping
outside the profession in order to recognize and acknowledge the influences that already direct our
thinking in ways that have significant moral consequences.
The Accreditation Board on Engineering and Technology [9] has acknowledged this to a
certain extent in the recognition of the need to teach professional ethics in engineering. Engineering ethics has developed in response both to a desire to establish engineering as a profession
and to engineering disasters that erode public trust in engineers. Given engineers and engineering
educations history of working for industry needs, it may come as no surprise that engineering ethics
as it is taught in most engineering schools today focuses on engineers embedded in corporate and
government organizations. However, this education is therefore quite limited. In fact, the types of
engineering ethics that are taught today are largely business ethics, focused on the needs of industry
rather than on some autonomous definition put forth by engineers outside of industrys influence.
The list of what is missing includes the following, all of which are necessary for social justice work.

4.3.1 Autonomy
Science and technology studies scholar Gary Downey [10] relates the history of how engineering
became embedded in industry in the 1870s, as mass production became the goal, and how engineering education tailored itself to those needs. As engineers have become embedded in other organizations, they have not enjoyed as much autonomy as they had when practicing as independent agents
along the professional model of doctors and lawyers. As I noted earlier, Zussman [11] argues that in
this respect engineering does not fit the traditional sociological definition of a profession:

110 engineering and social justice

The technical rationality that is the engineers 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. (122123)
Gary Downey and Juan Lucena [12] observe that the traditional layout of engineering problem sets
beginning with Given: illustrates how engineers are trained to abdicate responsibility for problem
definition. Autonomy and the ability to make independent ethical choices is an essential element of
what defines professions in sociological terms. If engineers do not exercise these choices individually
and collectively, we may cease to be a profession in at least one important sense.
In fact, this recognition and claiming of our autonomy as engineers may be the first crucial
step. It is surely one example of what Freire [3] called conscientization, the awakening to realize that
we have a choice and can act according to consciencein ways that are independent of powerful
influences, in ways that create social change and work toward social justice.

4.3.2 Macroethics
Joseph Herkert [13], the Lincoln Associate Professor of Ethics and Technology at Arizona State,
makes a distinction between microethicsthe individual decisions that make up much of current
engineering ethicsand macroethicsthe largely ignored body of ethical problems that involve
collective action of engineers, or society as a whole. Science and technology studies scholars and
ethicists Deborah Johnson and Jamesoon Wetmore [14] similarly call for a broadening of engineering ethics to include analysis from the field of science, technology, and society. They argue
that considering the complex interactions between technology and society provides a very different
perspective on responsibilities of engineersboth increasing and decreasing responsibility in different areas. These perspectives are essential to engineering and social justice because they make a
distinction between critical thinking in engineering and critical thinking about engineering [15].
Engineers advocating for social justice must be able to stand outside the profession and take a critical look at what engineers do. It enables us to ask key questions: for whom is engineering done, who
wins and who loses by the actions of engineers, what work is considered engineering, and what
values underlie the drawing of these professional boundaries.

4.3.3 Morally Deep Ethics

George Catalano, in the first book of this series [16], recasts engineering ethics using Lawrence
Johnsons environmental ethic, which extends consideration to ecological entities. Catalano takes
this further by arguing that not only should the environment count morally but also others who
have been traditionally excluded from moral consideration by the engineering community. Thus,

toward a more socially and just engineering 111

this perspective broadens engineering ethics to make room for social justice questions and, as noted
in Chapter 1, combines ideas from deep ecology and environmental justice. Catalanos morally deep
approach asks who is to be included? Who is not at the table currently and needs to be brought in?
Catalano cites examples in which engineers engage in projects with new groups who count morally
and are recognized as engineering clients: wolves, Mexican peasant farmers, and a disabled person
working in a theater. Catalano goes on to propose new processes for engineering design that incorporate a morally deep perspective and evaluate the ends of the work in terms of social justice.

4.3.4 Non-Western Perspectives

Engineering professors Nael Barakat and Matthew Carroll [17] have noted the exclusively Western emphasis in engineering ethics and have called for a broadening of topics to include subject
areas that are significantly important outside the United States. Notably, topics include respect
for human rights; respect for natural resources; respect for intellectual property and indigenous
knowledge; and anticipating the social, cultural, political, and economic impacts of technological
development. These topics do not receive due consideration in the professional ethics codes of
American engineering societies. Barakat and Carroll further call for the incorporation of cultural
differences in learning engineering ethics and the incorporation of non-Western approaches for
resolving ethical issues.

4.3.5 Ethic of Care

Engineering professors Marina Pantazidou and Indira Nair [18] have called for the integration of
an ethic of care (discussed in Chapter 1) into engineering education and practice. They use the ethic
of care to highlight the importance of attentiveness (caring about, recognition of the need for caring) in the initial problem definition phases of the design process; the importance of responsibility
(taking care) in the generation of potential solutions; competence (caregiving) in design selection
and implementation; and responsiveness in assessing whether care was received in design assessment. Clearly, the failure to care at each of these stages can itself create social injustice and result in
technologies that fail to promote the ends of social justice. The authors note that the ethic of care
is particularly helpful for problems defined in specific context, possibly containing complex interrelationships and most probably requiring an integrated approach to problem solving (211) and call
for incorporation of more of these problems at the undergraduate level to better prepare students
technically and ethically for the work ahead.
All of these approaches lead to a broadening of ethical thinking in engineering and the development of moral direction, which is different from the default direction of following industrys

112 engineering and social justice



Social justice advocates need to get the moral direction of our work right; we also have to maintain
a sharp analysis of our world in order to discern the best courses of action. Central to this analysis
is the process of critical thinking. Critical thinking for social justice incorporates many of the same
principles addressed in the previous section on what has been missing from engineering ethics: critical thinkers need to think autonomously, examine a diversity of perspectives including macrolevel
and non-Western perspectives, and apply questions that arise from morally deep or caring perspectives. Education scholar Lionel Claris and I [19] have developed a working definition of critical
thinking in and about engineering that is relevant to our discussion of engineering and social justice.
Here, we consider three key components of our conceptualization of critical thinking as it relates to
social justice: the role of epistemic assumptions, the role of the learner/self, and the role of critical
theory in the development of a critical perspective on engineering.

4.4.1 Epistemic Assumptions and Worldview

In previous chapters, I have discussed the epistemic assumptions of engineering and the ways in
which these assumptions limit thinking about social justice. I have not yet discussed how one comes
to learn to take on new epistemic assumptions. Educational psychologists Patricia King and Karen
Kitchener [20] present a developmental model of reflective judgment that does exactly this, backed
up with a vast dataset that has only been augmented in the intervening years. They suggest that
these epistemic assumptions underlie what we might call critical thinking, but which the authors
call reflective thinking in order to distinguish it from definitions of critical thinking as mere logical
thinking or problem solving. Specifically, they build on developmental psychologist William Perrys
[21] model, incorporating John Deweys ideas about reflective thinking [22].
In King and Kitcheners stages of development [20], understandings of truth move from
absolute, authority-driven truth, through relativistic truth, to truth that is understood through a
dynamic process of questioning, reflecting, and making informed judgments, based on evaluation
of evidence, in context and in the midst of uncertainty. As such, these judgments are subject to
reevaluation. King and Kitcheners data on college students suggest that students operate at more
than one developmental stage at any given time, and that typically students move from absolute
notions of truth to relative ones while in college, and progress further toward reflective judgment
after college. (Studies of people who do not go to college reveal an analogous progression through
the developmental stages.)
Lionel Claris and I [19] seek to incorporate King and Kitcheners idea of reflective judgment
as part of critical thinking. In particular, critical thinking is not merely a set of skills, but a reflective
practice grounded in epistemic assumptions that foster reflective judgment. Before all, engineers
must recognize that there are other valid frameworks for understanding the world outside of the

toward a more socially and just engineering 113

positivist framework. Critical thinking that entails the development of reflective judgment is an essential component of social justice analysis and action.

4.4.2 Critical Theory, Social Analysis, and Social Justice

Teaching critical theory is certainly a direct way to challenge students epistemic assumptions
around absolute truth and assist their progression toward reflective judgment. More than this, critical theorys grounding in social reality as discussed in Chapter 1 gives it a direct relevance to social
justice. Lionel Claris and I [19] discuss how Foucaults concepts of power/knowledge and resistance
[23] and Derridas concepts of deconstruction [24] and questioning the condition of the question
[25] demonstrate ways of thinking critically, which go beyond mere logic or problem solving, getting to critical thinking about engineering and getting profoundly to what feminist theorist Donna
Haraway [65: 187] calls critical, reflexive relation, grounding and evaluating these methods of
analysis in social and interpersonal action, their manifestation in our lives.
Critical theory is only one of many social and political theories in the social sciences, and
other theories in policy and politics and in economics would also be essential reading for engineers
seeking to enact social change. I focus on learning critical theory because it contributes capacities
for social analysis essential for understanding social justice issues; other contemporary theories often
build on or react to critical theory.
Honing critical thinking abilities through reading critical theory enables deeper understand
ingof essential content areas. It helps us understand the institutional nature of prejudice, thecon
nectedness of oppression, and the notion of intersectionality. It also allows for understanding
sociotechnical systems and the co-construction of science and society. It helps us understand the
behavior of individuals within organizations and organizations in larger political and cultural landscapes. We can begin to understand how social justice issues arise, and how injustice is maintained
or dismantled. Critical theory poses questions that can help us reframe the problems that face engineering now, and help us define new ones. Critical theory employed in an engineering classroom
can deconstruct authoritative engineering texts, enable students to encounter problems that go beyond given: find, and lead students to examine their education, including learning objectives, the
course syllabus, and the textbook itself.

4.4.3 The Role of the Learner Self

This brings us to the third element of Lionel Clariss and my discussion of critical thinking: selfreflective processes directed toward the profession and ones individual role in it, as well as the social,
historical, and political contexts of engineering [19]. This is where critical thinking connects with
social justicebecause analysis is not occurring for its own sake, and is not just driven by ethical

114 engineering and social justice

concerns, but also by the personal investment in those concerns and in the effects of the analysis on
real lives. It is not just the question, or even the condition of the question, but also the individual
motivation behind the question, that matters.
Thus, engineers need to be challenged not only to think ethically and analytically about
technology in society or about the professions construction, but also to think personally about their
values and investment in the profession and in local and global communities. We need to think
about our own learning, not just in formal education but also across our lives [27]. This leads us to
be self-directed learners [28], continually identifying learning goals, assessing our accomplishments
in relation to those goals, and making changes to improve our learning. We must think critically
and reflectively to self-evaluate our learning, and to continually reassess our goals. We must know
ourselves, think independently and in relation to others in our midst; we must not only question,
but also know why we question, if our learning is to make a difference in the world or in our own
lives [27].

4.4.4 Critical Thinking + Reflective Action = Praxis

Praxis takes critical thinking and places it in a relational context, connecting it with community
needs and with action. Thus, the processes of understanding and interpreting phenomena are given
a purpose and a moral direction, in order to ultimately seek change. Just as engineers have a professional ethic related to technical competence, so should there be an ethic related to competence in
effecting change, utilizing technical knowledge, social understanding, and engaging the community
all the while, from the generation of project ideas and problem framing through technical processes,
implementation, assessment, and improvements. Many of the elements listed here as skills for reflective action have analogues in engineering education as conventionally practiced today, although
those elements are typically geared to corporate and government workplaces more than community
or nonprofit contexts.



In Chapter 2, I reviewed a couple of jokes about how badly engineers communicate; the profession
has a reputation for not possessing communication skills, and worse, not being expected by employers or society to possess them. However, it is increasingly recognized how important those skills are;
in fact, they are as essential for business as they are for working for social justice.
Written and visual communication skills for engineers often involve writing lab reports, design
documents, and other items of a technical nature. Some educators recognize the need to communicate
with nontechnical audiences in concise terms that are accessible to the uninitiated. In a social justice
context, the communication with lay audiences becomes even more important. An ability to make

toward a more socially and just engineering 115

technical material accessible to lay people in such a way that they can meaningfully utilize information
in activities related to engineering and social justice is required. Additionally, writing short pieces for
editorials or letters to the editor as well as articles in a newspaper or blog is desirable. This writing
tends to utilize more creativity and humor than typical technical writing; style matters much more.
Similarly, visual communication takes on a more creative and fun tone, where technical information
must be presented in even more accessible ways, and ways that are noticed. The writing of slogans and
presentation of those on posters or banners is another form of (written and visual) communication
engineers should master in order to be full participants in social justice causes.
Oral communication is essential as well in industry and in working for social justice. In industry, oral communication often takes place in meetings, in formal presentations utilizing Power
Point or other visual communication tools, and sometimes in community forums. Communication
for social justice occurs in meetings that often have a quite different dynamic and tone and in presentations that might utilize more creativity, passion, and humor such as rally speeches.
Many communities have endured public meetings convened by government engineers from
the local to the federal level who are not skilled in communicating technical information. Add to
this mix some common anxieties about local planning efforts or about environmental hazards or the
siting and permitting of polluting facilities and disaster can easily strike. Too often, the communicating engineer takes on a position of arrogance, assumes that she/he knows the real story and
that her/his job is to get the public to accept the version of the truth she/he has been given or has
come to understand. There is an expectation that the public will accept her/his authority and come
to believe what she/he does based on that authority or on her/his communication of the science.
Communication for social justice in this context would involve a change in attitude about who holds
the knowledge and the authority. It would also involve one skill engineers are typically not taught
as part of their communication packagelistening.
Listening skills require openness and humility toward other perspectives and an ability to empathize with others and their point of view. They require sensitivity to power dynamics that tend to
silence certain individuals or privilege the opinions of some over others. Finally, they require attention
to who has spoken, who has been left out, and who may not even be present for the conversation.



Industry has demanded that engineers learn how to work in team settings, and a great deal of engineering education has been directed toward this effort. However, the interpretation of team is
quite variable and may include some assumptions around competition and analogies to participation
in sports that do not translate well to social justice work. Some engineering classes are run such that
teams compete and grading is done relative to other teams outcomes, emulating the academic

116 engineering and social justice

interpretation of what takes place in industry. Within teams, individuals often assume roles such
that stronger students get more playing timereinforcing their advantage as they do more of the
work and get more practice in relevant skills.
A more collaborative effort for social justice work might recognize the contribution that each
member of a collaboration brings to the work, assigning tasks based on a combination of skills and
interests worked out in a democratic, consensus-driven manner. The importance of relationships is
paramount. Preserving and growing networks for organizing is one of the goals. Involving as many
people as possible supports those aims and is valued.


Organizing skills are essential to social justice work. Engineering schools currently teach leadership
and management instead. Some styles of leadership and management may translate, yet most of
the time, these are conceived in very top-down ways that do not prepare engineers to work on social
justice issues.
The ability to facilitate meetings, conversations, or public forums is an important organizing skill. Teaching principles around consensus building, listening, and creating opportunities for
participation from everyone support the development of facilitation skills.
Strategy is essential to organizing but means something entirely different in a business context. In a social justice context, strategy is based on knowledge of policy and politics, how political
decision-making processes work, and how to make effective change. This is a contentious area
where groups have distinct ideas about how to be most effective. Ultimately, the ability to step back
and recognize that different groups utilize different strategies to meet different goals is helpful, as
compared to narrowly choosing one strategy and seeking to apply it universally.
Organizing is fundamentally about relationship building, something engineers are almost
never taught and something at which many engineers are not naturally adept. At the end of the day,
ones ability to organize rests on the number of participants and investors, and personal relationships
are often a major draw to many peoples participation in social justice movements. This is perhaps
related to the ethic of care mentioned earlier in this chapter. Genuine concern for others and a
sense of community are often created in social justice work, and that sense of community is a powerful sustainer of individual efforts toward the common good.


4.8.1 Attitudes Toward Learning
One of the biggest problems with the way engineering is taught today is its reliance on power dynamics and assumptions about knowledge and ability that disempower learners. Previous chapters

toward a more socially and just engineering 117

have discussed the ways in which engineers are taught to obey authority and are not taught to think
critically. This is part of a larger problem in which engineering students are taught that they cannot
act outside of what they are taught. The grading system becomes the all-important arbiter of a persons worth; students are invested in it because they believe it determines their future success, more
than what they actually know or are able to do. This is an ancient problem, as noted in one of Stoic
philosopher Senecas letters to Lucilius [29], in which he lamented that too often philosophers learn
for the sake of the academy, not for life, and advised Lucilius to learn what was relevant for living.
To do this, one must know what one wants to know; that is, one must be an intentional
learner. This is part of self-directed learning discussed above. Often, what is relevant for living is
not learned in the academy; therefore, we must be open to learning opportunities all around us. We
need to be lifelong learners, reflectively questioning, utilizing self-directed learning, with a moral
direction. This often requires claiming the authority of ones experience as well, knowing what one
already knows and building upon that. One is not to be subjected to authority figures who presume
they know everything and learners know nothing, but to be confident in what one does know with
an openness to question it again and again and deepen that knowledge.

4.8.2 Vehicles for Learning

Lifelong learners recognize opportunities for learning in a variety of settings and are often able to
construct their own learning opportunities. For engineers interested in working for social justice,
learning opportunities abound in existing movements for social justice; it may also be worthwhile to
create focused learning opportunities that relate engineering and social justice.
Learn by doing. Most engineers I know who work on social justice issues gained their experience by getting involved in social justice movements as concerned citizens and working in their
expertise as it was needed. This takes a willingness to make mistakes and risk offending others in
the process. Problems can emerge if those mistakes serve to alienate others in the group, destroying
relationships in the process. Still, experience can be an excellent teacher if one goes in willing to
listen, observe, and learn, ready to take responsibility for error, and move forward making changes.
Read on your own. No matter what other strategies one uses, reading is a sure way to increase
ones ability to understand social justice issues and connect with other activists. A bibliography on
engineering and social justice is being developed as a collective effort facilitated by Martin Wallace and housed at Some books may seem beyond ones
understanding at first, especially when they refer to bodies of knowledge as yet unexplored by the
typical engineer. This usually leads to further background reading, which can open up new lines of
thought and approaches to doing social justice work.
Leverage virtual networks. In the Information Age, it is possible to connect with like-minded
people across the country and internationally. Electronic resources, including blogs and wikis, are

118 engineering and social justice

included in the webliography. Some of these electronic resources can link to local social networks,
so that one can find community, and introduce oneself with some background knowledge of where
people are coming from based on their electronic presence.
Continue formal education. While this is likely not necessary, it may be helpful to acquire
some knowledge in more formal ways. The benefits of this are having an automatic community for
discussing ideas, accountability for getting reading done, experiencing other perspectives on whats
important to read and whats important about those readings, and receiving feedback on ones understanding of these new ideas. It can be particularly helpful for topics that one finds challenging.
Formal education can also provide opportunities for building social networks or being involved in
activist communities on or near a campus.

4.8.3 Create LearningAction Communities

One model that combines several of these elements in a coherent whole would be to establish
a learningaction community. If there are like-minded others in ones neighborhood, campus,
workplace, or professional society chapter, it might make sense to form a group. A framework
is presented below that draws on community-organizing principles and the liberative pedagogies of Paulo Freire and others. Liberative pedagogies is a term inclusive of critical or radical
pedagogies strongly influenced by the work of John Dewey, critical theorists, and the civil rights
movement in the United States, and crystallized in Freires watershed book Pedagogy of the Oppressed [3]. Freires ideas were used in Brazil and later elsewhere in Latin America as part of adult
literacy campaigns that ultimately resulted in political empowerment of the poor. Freires pedagogy has been deeply influential and has been reinvented for new contexts like in the United
States, where feminist and postcolonial critics of radical pedagogy (e.g., [1,30]) have sought to
redefine and reshape the ideas toward greater inclusivity and justice. These new liberative pedagogies have been developed for learning about social justice issues particularly around gender,
race, and class.
The principles of liberative pedagogies are laid out well by Freire [3] and hooks [1]. A
concept map that illustrates relationships among these concepts is shown in Figure 4.1. There are
clearly multiple ways to relate the concepts of liberative pedagogies. Here, critical thinking, praxis,
and reflection are three cornerstones around life-relevant learning. I have arranged other concepts
between two of the three cornerstones; thus, between critical thinking and reflection lie concepts
that relate to intentional learning: responsibility for learning, self-directed learning, self-knowledge,
and the power of questions. Between reflection and praxis lie concepts related to interpersonal
interaction in liberative pedagogy: ethics, relationality, power sharing, decentering Western civilization, and sensitivity to different forms of oppression. Finally, between praxis and critical thinking
lie attitudes and approaches to thought characteristic of liberative pedagogies: an epistemological

toward a more socially and just engineering 119

FIGURE 4.1: A concept map for liberative pedagogies.

reliance on the authority of experience, welcoming uncertainty, integrative rather than reductionist
approaches to material, and attention to process. Items characteristic of liberative pedagogies that
have not been discussed so far are explained in more detail below.
Sharing power. Leveling the power dynamics so that everyone is both a teacher and a learner
is central to liberative pedagogies. In a learningcommunity, it would be natural to share the load of
who leads discussions or develops questions for each meeting.
Process matters. A focus on the learning process and the group process is central. Using consensus or other democratic methods of decision-making, making sure everyones voice is heard, is
important. Creating opportunities for feedback to planners and emphasizing an understanding of
the learning process and all that it entails can make people feel more comfortable and hold more
ownership of the group.
Authority of experience and engagement. One of the goals of liberative pedagogies is to empower learners. Drawing on authority of experience is a way of engaging people based on what they
know, and giving them a place of power from which to speak.

120 engineering and social justice

Connect learning to life. As learning draws on experience, so too it should be relevant for life.
Whatever the group strives to learn, having clarity about its application for social justice issues of
significance to members of the group is vital. This is true on both a group and individual level.
Relationality. In a learningaction community, as with any activism or organizing work, interpersonal relationships are very important. People need to feel they have a place, that they belong.
Here, relationships are focused around developing learning collaborations or around developing a
community of scholars focused on a specific set of topics or research for a specific action.
Decenter Western and male civilization. It is important to think critically about what comprises
a canon for a given topic and to include ideas from people who have traditionally been excluded.
This means decentering Western writers and male writers to make room for others as part of the
Sensitivity to oppression and exclusion. Related to the decentering principle is a concern for
how the learning process and content deal with oppression based on gender, race, class, ability, and
other forms of oppression.
Uncertainty. Creating space for the recognition and consideration of uncertainty and relativism is important to the learning process, especially for topics that shake the foundations of positivist
Integrative not reductionist. Liberative pedagogies seek to approach problems holistically rather
than breaking them down into subparts, which is the natural instinct of most engineers. Stemming
from this is a concern for students whole selves, not just their intellects, throughout the learning
process. Making room for people to bring their whole selves to the learning process is a prerequisite
for some of the other work around authority of experience and life relevance to take shape.
Reflection. Finally, continual reflection drives liberative pedagogies as individuals and the
group take stock of what is happening and where things ought to be going.

4.8.4 Learning Models and Methods

With these principles in mind, one can choose learning models and methods that suit a groups
personalities and interests. Some possible models that integrate learning and action include:

A book group model with a praxis component. A group of people (potentially including
both engineers and nonengineers) come together around a certain issue, do some research
and reading, then plan responsive action.

It is ironic that this very presentation of liberative pedagogies like other concepts in this book verges on reductionism. I have broken the concept down into component parts because I felt it could be more readily understood, even
as I recognize the concepts as inseparable. To what extent one ought to make such tradeoffs is an open question.

toward a more socially and just engineering 121


An institutional change model that chooses an issue within an institution of which one is a
member (or not), and a mixture of research, reading, and action ensues.
Forum theater, a type of theater developed by Augusto Boal that emerged in Brazil at the
same time as Freires pedagogy of liberation [3], involves using theater as a tool to help people
come into consciousness about the world and their lives and take action in response. Viewers
become spec-actors who are invited to participate at a point in the performance and change
the scene. Other Boalian exercises and strategies can be useful on a shorter scale and without people very familiar with theater [31]. Baillie [32] has discussed using a performance of
Copenhagen [33] and student-written plays about technology and society to spark dialogue
about science and engineering ethics.
A social networking model that involves building community and inviting speakers who
can inspire and work with organizers might be a good way to start before engaging in more
serious research or learning activities.
Focused work, either individually or in groups, with a peer feedback mechanism for improving the work can be a way to maintain a strong focus on small accomplishments while
improving skills.


In this chapter, I have developed a sense of the content knowledge and skill sets one would want
to pursue, leading to effective practices that support the ends of social justice. I have also discussed
processes by which one might pursue these skills and knowledge, employing liberative pedagogies.
Next, I will consider examples of engineers taking action for social justice utilizing different approaches to their work.

1. hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge.
2. Baillie, C. (2006) Engineers Within a Local and Global Society. San Rafael, CA: Morgan and
Claypool. doi:10.2200/S00059ED1V01Y200609ETS002
3. Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York:
Seabury Press.
4. Marx, K. [1845] (1976) Theses on Feuerbach. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works of Karl
Marx and Friedrich Engels, 184547, Vol. 5: Theses on Feuerbach, The German Ideology and Related
Manuscripts. New York: International Publishers.
5. Smith, M.K. (1999) Praxis. The Informal Education Web. Accessed August 21, 2007, from

122 engineering and social justice

6. Morgan, G.M., Fischhoff, B., Bostrom, A., and Atman, C. (2001) Risk communication: A mental models approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
7. Sclove, R.E. (1995) Democracy and Technology. New York: Guilford Press.
8. Corburn, J. (2005) Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
9. ABET (2008) Criteria for accrediting engineering programs. Accessed January 10, 2008, from Documents-UPDATE/Criteria and PP/E001 07-08 EAC Criteria 11-15-06.pdf.
10. Downey, G.L. (2007) Low cost, mass use: American engineers and the metrics of progress.
History and Technology, 23: 3, 289308. doi:10.1080/07341510701300387
11. Zussman, R. (1985) Mechanics of the Middle Class: Work and Politics Among American Engineers.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
12. Downey, G.L. and Lucena, J.C. (1997) Engineering Selves: Hiring Into a Contested Field of
Education. In: G.L. Downey and J. Dumit (Eds.) Cyborgs and Citadels: Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences and Technologies. Santa Fe, NM: The SAR Press, 117142.
13. Herkert, J. R. (2004) Microethics, macroethics, and professional engineering societies. Emerging Technologies and Ethical Issues in Engineering: Papers from a Workshop October 1415, 2003.
Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
14. Johnson, D.G. and Wetmore, J. (2008) Technology and Society: Building our Sociotechnical Future.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
15. Riley, D.M. and Claris, L. (2007) Learning to think critically in and about engineering: A
liberative perspective. ASEE Annual Conference Proceedings, June 2427, 2007, Honolulu, HI.
16. Catalano, G. D. (2006) Engineering Ethics: Peace, Justice, and the Earth. San Rafael, CA: Morgan and Claypool, 2006. doi:10.2200/S00039ED1V01Y200606ETS001
17. Barakat, N. and Carroll, M.C. (2005) Globalization of engineering ethics education. ASEE
Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings, 694753.
18. Pantazidou, M. and Nair, I. (1999) Ethic of care: Guiding principles for engineering teaching
and practice. Journal of Engineering Education, 88: 20512.
19. Claris, L. and Riley, D. (2008) Situation critical: A liberative perspective on learning to think
critically in and about engineering. Unpublished draft.
20. King, P.M. and Kitchener, K.S. (1994) Developing Reflective Judgment: Understanding and Promoting Intellectual Growth and Critical Thinking in Adolescents and Adults. San Francisco: JosseyBass.
21. Perry, W.G. (1968) Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years: A Scheme.
Cambridge, MA: Bureau of Study Counsel, Harvard University.

toward a more socially and just engineering 123

22. Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process. Boston: D.C. Heath.
23. Foucault, M. (1980). Truth and Power. In: C. Gordon (Ed.) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 19721977 (pp. 131133). New York: Pantheon.
24. Derrida, J. (1976) Of Grammatology. Translated by G.C. Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press.
25. Derrida [videorecording] (2002) Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, directors. Separately
translated by Lionel Claris. Excerpt accessed January 23, 2008, from
26. Haraway, D. (1991) Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of
partial perspective. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
27. Riley, D.M. and Claris, L. (2008) Developing and assessing students capacity for lifelong
learning. International Journal of Engineering Education, in press.
28. Costa, A. and Kallick, B. (2004) Assessment Strategies for Self-Directed Learning. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
29. Seneca, Lucius Annaeus (1996) Epistula CVI, Ad Lucilium epistuale morales (with an English
translation by Richard M. Gummere). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
30. Luke, C. and Gore, J. (1992) Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy. New York: Routledge.
31. Boal, A. (1992) Games for Actors and Non-Actors. Translated by Adrian Jackson. New York:
32. Baillie, C. (2007) Building the Impossible. ASEE Annual Conference Proceedings, June 2427,
2007, Honolulu, HI.
33. Freyn, M. (2004) Copenhagen. New York: Samuel French Inc. Plays.


chapter 5

Turning Knowledge Into Action:

Strategies for Change
One must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-worldliness of ones
thinking in practice. . . .The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various
ways; the point, however, is to change it.
Karl Marx [1: 8]
Change strategies are presented, building on the model of education as an organizing tool presented in the
previous chapter. Case studies of change brought about by individuals or small groups of engineers are presented. Strategies profiled employ various levels of power and influence, coming from the grassroots public,
the shop floor, the executive office, and the cube farm.



The following case studies identify work that can be characterized as engineering for social justice.
Each is an example of praxis: a community need that leads to critical thinking, research, engineering, with meaningful community participation. Each case study showcases different strategies or
approaches to social justice work. Not everyone involved in the organizations presented here is an
engineer by training, or even an engineer as defined by what they do in some conventional sense
(e.g., design, technical analysis). But the work is engineering for social justice, work that engineers
interested in social justice might aspire to undertake. These examples represent the tip of the iceberg; one can point to more organizations or individuals doing similar work or employing similar
models for different work. More groups form every day.
Many models can be critiqued from a variety of social justice perspectives. Will their strategy
ultimately produce the kind of change intended? Will new social justice problems be created as a byproduct? Is there something they have not taken into account, someone left out, someone adversely
affected? These critiques are left as an open exercise for the reader. We can use critiques to challenge
ourselves to do better and take the next steps toward a more just world.

126 engineering and social justice




Community-based rehabilitation expert David Werner and the Program of Rehabilitation Organized by Disabled Youth of Western Mexico (PROJIMO) [2], a grassroots rehabilitation nonprofit
organization run and organized by disabled youth in Mexico, have written a book full of examples of
approaches to individualized assistive technologies designed in context. PROJIMO is a community
group of disabled people in Mexico who collaborate with users to create assistive devices that meet
users needs, which vary based on any number of factors such as day-to-day activities and interests,
cultural expectations, and the surrounding physical environment. The back of the book lists nearly
50 organizations around the world doing similar work in Norway and Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and
Guyana, Thailand and Nicaragua. Werner is a biologist and educator who joined the work via an
interest in health and later became an engineer of assistive technologies, along with many users with
whom he works collaboratively.
Engineering professor Peter Pfaelzer and attorney Marc Krizack [3] describe a descriptive
design process used at Whirlwind Wheelchair International, in which wheelchair riders play an
active collaborative role. Whirlwind Wheelchair grew out of a partnership between Ralf Hotchkiss
(Figure 5.1), a wheelchair rider who began designing low-cost wheelchairs suited to use in developing communities around 1980, and Peter Pfaelzer. Today, they continue to teach their collaborative
design methodology and advocate for policies and practices that lead to individuals in developing
countries obtaining wheelchairs that best enable them to pursue their activities and interests independently and be involved with their community and society.

FIGURE 5.1: Ralf Hotchkiss, Whirlwind Wheelchair. Accessed March 2, 2008, from

Turning Knowledge Into Action: Strategies for Change 127

The models represented here empower users by involving them meaningfully in the design
process, thus providing assistive technologies that support participation in community and individual independence. The employed design processes change the relationship of people to the technologies they use and upend a power dynamic that perpetuates dependence, gaps in communication
and understanding, and suboptimal designs for assistive devices.




One World Health is a nonprofit pharmaceutical company with a plan to provide affordable drugs
for infectious diseases in the developing world [4]. Victoria Hale (Figure 5.2), a former Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) drug evaluator and researcher who left Genentech in 1998 with a list
of ailments for-profit firms neglected or were unable to address cost-effectively, founded the Institute for One World Health. She began working immediately on a drug to treat visceral leishmaniasis, which infects about half a million people a year in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sudan, and Brazil;
of these, about 200,000 die. The new drug, approved by the Indian government in 2006 [5], shows
a 94.6% cure rate and stimulates an immune response that offers lifelong protection from future
infections. The One World Health [6] website projects a cost of $10 per course of treatment, about
one-tenth the cost of current treatments [4].
The company accepts donated intellectual property and utilizes in-country pharmaceutical
production facilities to keep costs down. It draws on the expertise of many scientists and engineers
around the world with years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry and infectious disease
research. Moreover, it creates an environment in which for-profit firms are more likely to partner
with nonprofit firms, as the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis recently did with

FIGURE 5.2: Victoria Hale, One World Health. Photograph by Andy Berry, Orange Photography.
Accessed March 2, 2008, from

128 engineering and social justice

the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, a project of Medecins Sans Frontieres and academics in
the health field, to provide malaria medication at cost [7].




In 2002, just as the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant was reaching year 30 of its 40-year projected
lifespan, it was bought by Mississippi-based Entergy Corporation. Since then, numerous changes
at the plant, combined with a few mishaps involving aging infrastructure (Figure 5.3) have increased
the level of citizen activism. Among other things, Entergy sought an increase of the power output of
the plant by an unprecedented 20%, the approval for storing future nuclear waste on site (like other
facilities in the U.S., they have been stockpiling waste since the plant opened), and an extension of
their 2012 licensing deadline to 2032.
In 2006, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted Entergys request to increase
power output by 20%, after what the NRC called the most extensive review of its kind [8: B3].
The New England Coalition against Nuclear Pollution and other opponents expressed the concern
that the plants age and the increased power production will create vibration and stress critical com-

FIGURE 5.3: Vermont Yankees cooling tower failure in August 2007 raises concerns about aging nuclear facilities. Accessed March 2, 2008, from Photo submitted
anonymously to Brattleboro Reformer.

Turning Knowledge Into Action: Strategies for Change 129

ponents of the plant [8: B3]. Jim Dyer of the NRC countered that they took great care to identify
and address technical concerns with safely operating the plant at increased power [8: B3]. Just 4
days later, the Boston Globe reported, A 20 percent power increase at the Vermont Yankee nuclear
plant has been put on hold until a problem with excess vibration in a main steam line is resolved, a
US NRC spokesman said yesterday [9: B2].
What did plant opponents know that Entergy and the NRC did not know? Reading the
public documents from the review process, it is clear that safety concerns were raised repeatedly by
many people with different kinds of credentials.

5.4.1 Industry Insiders

Two nuclear engineers and energy consultants, with experience dating back to the 1970s including
consulting with management of nuclear plants as well as delivering plaintiff-side expert testimony,
raised safety and process concerns to the NRC [10]. It makes sense that some engineers who believe
in the promise of nuclear power as a safe source of electricity with no direct carbon emissions would
want to ensure the safe operations of plants in the United States, in order to protect the industry in
the long term.

5.4.2 Public Servants

The state Department of Public Service, including state engineer William Sherman and others,
raised specific detailed technical questions about the plant operation and its plans to increase power
output [11]. Bill Sherman, in particular, took on the NRC for apparently changing its policy on
regulating accident containment pressures [12]. Surely, citizens groups and the general concern of
the population of Vermonts citizens enabled the state officials to challenge the NRC as strongly
as it did. The technical detail of the challenge requires understanding the minutiae of not only the
Vermont Yankee plants operation but also the history of decisions made by the NRC.

5.4.3 Whistle-Blowers and Advocates

David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, participated
in the Vermont Yankee uprate process and commented publicly that Theres nothing that requires
them to increase power pressure by 20 percent, other than greed. There ought to be some sanity
involved, so that we do not sacrifice safety just so the company can make a few more dollars [12].
Lochbaum worked for 17 years in nuclear power plants as a nuclear engineer. He became a
whistle-blower in the early 1990s when his attempts to draw attention to a safety problem he and a
coworker discovered were ignored first by plant management, then the energy company, and finally
the NRC. Ultimately, they appealed to Congress, and the issue was resolved not only at the plant

130 engineering and social justice

in question but also at other plants around the country [13]. Lochbaums status as a whistle-blower
provides him more freedom to comment on the motivation of Entergy Corporation in this struggle
and to advocate for the concerns of both citizens and scientists involved in the issues before the

5.4.4 Concerned Citizens

Ray Shadis, a member of the New England Coalition, is not an engineer, but after decades of studying nuclear power plants in his role as watchdog, he has developed an equivalent careers worth of
expertise. Many other members of his group and other groups, such as the Citizens Action Network
and Nuclear Free Vermont, have developed similar kinds of expertise. How does one acquire information on nuclear power facilities, especially now that terrorism concerns have made such information less accessible? Once one obtains this information, how can a citizen with no engineering
education interpret the documents? Some concerned citizens may have formal training in science
or engineering and, of course, pass on that knowledge, but in many cases, information is acquired
independently. Citizens develop the kinds of analytical ability engineers are taught in formal settings in order to do the work to which they are called.
The example of nuclear power is just one issue related to technology and social justice with
which engineers could be involved on a local level. To find other examples, I briefly scanned a list
of nonprofit groups in my area and found several opportunities for engineers to get involved, in my
relatively sparsely populated corner of Massachusetts:

Members of several existing community development and environmental justice groups in

Holyoke, MA formed a coalition called Holyoke Organized to Protect the Environment
(HOPE) to oppose a proposed waste transfer facility that would have added to local air pollution problems in a community that already bears more than its share of the environmental burden for the region and suffers higher rates of asthma. In fall 2007, one member organization,
Nuestras Raices, helped organize a citizen air-monitoring project aimed at developing estimates of pollution sources, which would increase with the proposed waste transfer station.
The Free Press, a locally-based national nonprofit, has recently run a campaign on net neutrality, seeking to keep bandwidth equally available to small as well as large not-for-profit
and for-profit organizations.
The National Priorities Project, a locally-based national nonprofit that monitors the federal budget and military spending, works to educate citizens so that we can work to change
federal budget priorities. What better way for engineers to work to decrease the military
emphasis in engineering than to work for less military spending and more on infrastructure
development, environmental protection, or renewable energy?

Turning Knowledge Into Action: Strategies for Change 131

Engineers involved in groups such as these may work as experts or as citizens, wherever our
talents are needed and wherever we can contribute. Who knows in what ways our engineering backgrounds may prove indispensable?




Barbara Waugh [14] (Figure 5.4) writes in her memoir about her career as a change agent at
Hewlett-Packard (HP), where she increased minority hires, created networks for isolated and tokenized women, reversed HPs support for Governor Wilsons budget reforms that would have cut
benefits for Aid to Families with Dependent Children in California, and visioned and implemented
global corporate responsibility for HP. A former activist in the civil rights movement, the peace
movement, and the womens movement, she felt that she would have more impact in the corporate
sector and brought all of her tools from social justice work to her career at the company. She describes in detail how she made changes in each case, utilizing many skills I have identified in the last
chapter as importantbuilding relationships, reframing issues, amplifying the positive work already
taking place, creating opportunities to bring like-minded people together, understanding the larger
context, and remembering who she works for (hint: it is not HP). Barbara Waugh does not have a
background in engineering but in psychology and theology (and she suggests that this placed her
on the margins in HP and made her less threatening and able to accomplish more). However, her
memoir contains stories of co-conspirators who are engineers and were drivers for change as well.
An engineer could follow her example to be a change agent in any corporate context, provided that
she/he learns the tools and approaches.

FIGURE 5.4: Barbara Waugh. Accessed March 2, 2008, from


132 engineering and social justice

One could also be a change agent within other kinds of organizations, such as an engineering professional society. Most have policy committees that can create statements for approval by
the professional society, which translates into government advocacy. For example, the American
Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) takes many positions on water management, but does not have
a position on water privatization. A civil engineer change agent could serve on a policy committee
in order to create such a statement.




Blowing the whistle is sometimes thought of as the opposite of working within the system, but
whistle-blowers often come from high places within the system and spent a great deal of time working within the system prior to blowing the whistle. Often, they act with the intent of remaining true
to the ideals which drew them to their work in the first place. Above, I already discussed the story
of David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who had to take his safety concerns all the way to Congress
in order to have them addressed.
Bunnatine Greenhouse (Figure 5.5) is another such whistle-blower; she was the Chief Contracts Officer at the Army Corps of Engineers, with a bachelors degree in math and three masters
degrees, including one in engineering management from George Washington University [15].
Washington Post staff writer Neely Tucker [16] provides a detailed account of events leading up to
Greenhouses going public. Hired in 1997 by the Corps Director to restore integrity and order to
a process that had become too reliant on buddy networks over qualifications, Greenhouse resisted

FIGURE 5.5: Bunnatine Greenhouse. Accessed March 2, 2008, from

Bunnatine Greenhouse.jpg.

Turning Knowledge Into Action: Strategies for Change 133

approving and later testified to Congress regarding a 5-year emergency no-bid contract issued to
Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) for a variety of services in Iraq. Her discomfort arose from the knowledge that other firms could do the work and should be given a chance
to bid and from the fact that an emergency contract need only last for a year before consideration
for renewal. Greenhouse did not actively seek to go public, but her notations expressing her concerns on the contract itself became known through a media Freedom of Information Act request
on war-related contracts. This coalesced with a separate Pentagon audit that revealed that KBR had
overbilled the government $61 million for fuel in Iraq. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in order
to quell that controversy, granted KBR a waiver in a blatant end run around Greenhouse, waiting
until she was out sick and rushing the documents through.
Tucker [16] further enriches the analysis with a description of the workplace dynamics
Greenhouse encountered as an African American woman, prior to the contracting issue, even prior
to the beginning of the Iraq War. Lt. Col. Ballard, her first boss and the first African American
Director of the Army Corps of Engineers, was well aware of race- and gender-based animosity
regularly directed at Greenhouse, once stepping in to reprimand an attorney who had behaved
inappropriately toward her in a staff meeting. Once Ballard left, her job evaluations went from
spectacular to horrific, and Greenhouse filed a race and gender discrimination complaint with the
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. These complaints were never investigated. Instead,
in 2005, for doing her job and acting in keeping with the public trust, Greenhouse was demoted
out of the Senior Executive Service and relieved of her responsibilities for overseeing international
contracts. One silver lining is that both houses of the 110th Congress passed legislation on government contract accountability intended to limit no-bid emergency contracting [17].
Despite the existence of some legal protection for whistle-blowers, the reality is that whistleblowing often results in retaliation, with many whistle-blowers finding themselves entirely without
work, in bankruptcy, or facing lawsuits. Joseph Mangan, for example, was an aerospace engineer
working for a supplier of microprocessors for the Airbus A380 when he became concerned about
the risk of rapid cabin depressurization on the aircraft. There were software glitches that could re
sult in the depressurization valves opening when they are not supposed to. Each valve had only one
motor operating it, and all four valves were to use the same processors and software, with no manual
override. (Other aircraft have redundancies such as three motors per valve with different processors and software for each motor, plus a manual override capacity.) When the company he worked
for did not respond, he took the issue up with the European aviation authorities. His family faced
eviction and bankruptcy when his company, located in Vienna, fired him and pursued both civil
and criminal cases against him for disclosure of proprietary documents (he was fined $185,000 for
posting information on his blog) [18].

134 engineering and social justice




Engineering historian Matt Wisnioski [19] offers an analysis of the roles scientists and engineers
played in social protest in the 1960s, with three case studies. In Chapter 3, I discussed all three (the
actions of civil engineering professor Steve Slaby at Princeton, the shift of the MIT fluid dynamics lab away from military applications, and the formation and activities of Science for the People).
Any of these would be excellent case studies for engineering and social justice, but the story of
Steve Slaby is especially relevant for those working in isolation to understand the power of a single
individual acting alone inside the system. Slaby had been involved in the civil rights movement and
peace movement in the 1960s and began to teach some courses in the politics department on these
In 1967, when an article in the Princeton student paper focused on the work of the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), a private think tank contracted with the Department of Defense
(DoD), the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) initiated a sit-in and faculty circulated a
petition to end the relationship between Princeton and the IDA. Wisnioski observes that while the
IDA was an easy target for students to protest (Figure 5.6), the larger issue of DoD funding for

FIGURE 5.6: Princeton students protest on the steps of the Institute for Defense Analysis, May 1970.
Accessed January 23, 2008, from Courtesy of
Princeton University Archives. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Princeton University

Turning Knowledge Into Action: Strategies for Change 135

faculty research was far more nebulous. This is where Slaby was able to deepen the conversation and
take the issue further with faculty and administrators. He doggedly asked for public revelations of
the nature of work being done in engineering, the identity of funders, and the numbers of students
involved. Wisnioski notes the singularity of Slaby doing this from his position as an engineering
professor: Unquestionably, among the critics he was the closest to its sources and its consequences
[19: 320]. This resulted in a university committee that criticized some engineering departments for
their defense involvement and a resultant shift in focus from military to environmental problems.
Perhaps more profound albeit less tangible was the impact Slaby had on engineering students
as a role model of an engineer invested in peace and willing to challenge power structures in order to
achieve it. In a sea of professors who run from apolitical to right wing, possibly sprinkled here and
there with a closet lefty who would never let it be known among colleagues, Slaby stood out, proof
that one could be an engineer without adopting conservative political values and that one could be
in engineering and uphold principles of peace and social justice.




The Delhi Science Forum (DSF) was founded in 1978 in order to work on popular access to science and on science and technology policy. It produces reports on science and technology issues of
importance to India and the rest of the world including energy, telecommunications, intellectual
property, and global trade. DSF seeks to make science accessible to the public through legal advocacy; grassroots campaigns; educational events like street plays, exhibitions, and workshops; and
Groups operating on similar models exist around the world, with different focuses, orientations, and strategies specific to their location. In the United States, the closest similar group may
have been Science for the People, discussed in Chapter 3. In addition to these, there are more
focused groups. Consumers Union leverages science and engineering in the public interest to help
consumers make better informed choices, preventing not only fleecing but also potential injury
from hazardous products. Engineers without Borders and other similar organizations seek to bring
together engineers interested in meeting basic human needs and working to end poverty around the
world. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility focuses specifically on science and technology policy issues related to computers and information technology. Digital Queers, founded by Tom
Rielly and Karen Wickre, sought to leverage connections of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender
(LGBT) people in the high-tech industry to build organizing infrastructure for the LGBT community, working to wire nonprofits with donated skills, time, and equipment [20]. Finally, a large
number of professional networking groups exist to increase the success of underrepresented groups
in the sciences and engineering [21,22].

136 engineering and social justice




What if there were an engineering firm committed to social justice principles? What would it look
like? What projects would it undertake? Who would be its clients? So far, weve considered several nonprofits engaged in engineering work, including KickStart, Whirlwind Wheelchair International, and One World Health. But can a conventionally modeled for-profit engineering firm serve
unconventional social justice ends?
One attempt to do this is the multidisciplinary real estate development firm Jonathan Rose
Companies, founded with the mission to repair the fabric of communities. Engineers, architects,
planners, and real estate professionals work together to create community development plans that
lead to mixed-use and mixed-income communities with appropriate access to public transit, preserved open space, and opportunities for residents to create meaningful livelihoods. They seek to
preserve both the ecological balance and the culture of communities in which they work [23].
For example, a project to develop David and Joyce Dinkins Gardens in Harlem produced
85 units of affordable housing including units for youth coming out of foster homes. In addition
to a host of green design features that save energy, harvest rainwater, and reduce costs, the project
includes community gardens, an educational garden of native plants, and a Construction Trades
Academy which will provide job training opportunities [24].




One excellent example of praxis realized is the model of the science shop, first conceived in the
Netherlands in the 1970s and implemented around the world. However, in the United States, they
have most often been conceived specifically as universitycommunity partnerships for communitybased learning or research. The International Science Shop Network [25] exists as a clearinghouse
for individuals and groups working with the science shop model, undertaking science questions
with public resonance with the participation of communities who otherwise could not afford to undertake the work. Feminist science studies scholar Lisa Weasel [26] proposes extending this model
to create feminist science shops which would entertain concerns and questions brought by women,
undertaking the work with their full participation.
University of Amsterdam scholars of technology dynamics Loet Leydesdorff and Janelle
Ward [27] present an analysis of the science shop model based on 21 case studies collected across
Europe. Engineering-related projects included studying:

Stakeholders views of the bicycle as a technology through literature review and interviews
with cyclists, public officials, and traffic planners to assist the Danish Cycling Federation
in their work on traffic planning.

Turning Knowledge Into Action: Strategies for Change 137

Environmental management in a day care center.

Drinking water quality in the community, comparing problems in treatment plants, formulating appropriate solutions, and organizing a public forum for community discussion.
Environmental impacts of waste waters in a local river, on behalf of an ecology and tourism
nongovernmental organization (NGO).
Environmental impacts of a planned tunnel on behalf of one NGO, which led to some conflicts among local environmental organizations, resulting in a second science shop project
about cooperation and communication among environmental groups.

In all these projects, students bring to bear more than technical expertise, gaining skills in social science research, such as interviewing and analyzing qualitative data, and in engineering professionalism such as working with clients, collaborating with team members, managing projects, and
effective communication. Each project brings both the specific benefits of addressing a local need
and the added benefits of increased citizen engagement in the projects of science and engineering.
In the United States, somewhat different models have been adopted at many universities as
part of community-based learning and research efforts, or as service learning projects [28]. In engineering, many faculty connect with their institutions own efforts; additionally, Purdue University
has launched an engineering-specific program known as Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) (, now franchised on other campuses [29].




In February and March of 2000, 19,500 Boeing engineers and technologists engaged in what was
called the largest white-collar strike in US history [30,31] (Figure 5.7). For 40 days, members of
the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) held out for high wages
and better benefits, resisting Boeings moves to break the strike [32]. Participation in the strike was
widespread, with 8590% of the engineering employees participating including many non duespaying members [31].
The strike damaged the company significantly, stunting its ability to deliver aircraft. Revenues fell 31% in the first quarter compared with the previous year, and profits fell 11%. In the first
quarter, Boeing delivered only 75 planes, when they had expected to deliver nearly 50 more [33].
Work on military contracts, including the B-1 bomber and the Joint Strike Fighter, fell behind
schedule. On Wall Street, stock values fell from $44.63 to $35.63 over the course of the strike, recovering only after a settlement was reached [31]. Once the strike ended, Boeing caught up quickly
and recovered its production levels by July [34].
In the end, engineers won wage increases of 8% in the first year and 4.5% in subsequent years,
bonuses of up to $2500, the extension of health benefits to domestic partners, and the ability to

138 engineering and social justice

FIGURE 5.7: Boeing worker on strike, 2000. Accessed March 2, 2008, from Photograph by Valorie Cowan Zimmerman; used with permission from Bob Zimmerman.

decide to make union dues mandatory for workers. They staved off Boeings attempts to cut healthand life-insurance benefits [35,31].
The power of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) is
derived from its alliance with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which it had forged less than 6 months prior to striking. In the months
prior to the strike, more and more employees joined the union, and the backing from AFL-CIO as
well as other unions acting in solidarity, provided much needed moral and financial support [31].
Teamster United Parcel Service (UPS) drivers refused to cross picket lines to deliver parts, union
railroad engineers left fuselages on the side of the tracks, and Boeing machinists (whose contract did
not permit them to strike) enacted a slowdown to further affect production [30].
At Boeing, the 1998 purchase of McDonnell Douglas resulted in the adoption of a business
approach that prioritized stock prices over everything, leading to layoffs and costing the company
some clout in the aerospace community [30]. Similar situations continue to arise from other corporate mergers. Thus, the Boeing strike and the conditions that led up to it can be seen in the larger
context of a movement among white-collar workers to organize against management efforts to
reduce benefits and other forms of compensation, with the strike helping to spur union efforts to
organize among white-collar workers and serve as a warning to management everywhere to pay attention to the concerns of this group of employees [36].

Turning Knowledge Into Action: Strategies for Change 139

USA Today journalist Ted Fishmans analysis of the strike [37] points out that engineers are
not the typical strikers because management often recognizes the advantages of sharing power and
profits with that group; he argues that this could change if salaries and benefits do not keep up with
other high-tech jobs, and if management does not involve engineers in key decisions. Boeing did
not do better by its engineers because it had previously gotten away with it, and only by striking
could the engineers achieve a better deal.
This was a momentous strike in U.S. history, something engineers can be proud is part of our
history as well. Even as we celebrate these achievements, we ought also to remember those stories
that are less dramatic, where unionized engineers fight to retain wages, retirement benefits, and
health benefits, as well as to prevent layoffs, downsizing, and outsourcing through the more mundane processes of collective bargaining without a strike. Although less contentious, the gains are no
less important for workers and their families.
Just as other unions supported SPEEA, unionized engineers also work in solidarity with
other unions, joining picket lines where other workers are striking. They work legislatively to lobby
for expanded rights and protections for workers at home and abroad. They question presidential
candidates about their positions on labor issues, technology issues, and other concerns. Even at job
sites where engineers are not organized for collective bargaining, it can be helpful for individuals to
subscribe to publications from national unions, such as the International Federation of Professional
and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) or the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), to stay
connected with important issues and add one more voice. What might happen if this collective bargaining power were leveraged on a broader scale? It was noted in Chapter 3 that engineers have an
unusual place in industrial organizations; how could union organizing change the power dynamics,
and what might that mean for the behavior of large industrial organizations?



There is no single strategy for change, no one right way for engineers to work for social justice. The
case studies presented here can provide ideas and inspiration and remind us that there are engineers
working for social justice and that the possibilities for change increase when we work together
and when we make these stories more visible to one another. In the introduction to this chapter, I
noted that I would leave critiques to the reader. It is certainly possible to raise questions about each
of these case studies, whether the ends are really directed toward ones own conception of social
justice, whether means are effective or might produce new injustices. For now, let us let these stories
stand as important efforts that have gone before; they present a challenge to us to act as boldly in
our own lives. If there are those among us with the will and ability to improve upon these efforts,
more power to you!

140 engineering and social justice

1. Marx, K. [1845] (1976) Theses on Feuerbach. In K. Marx and F. Engels (Eds.) Collected Works
of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 184547: Vol. 5. Theses on Feuerbach, The German Ideology and
Related Manuscripts. New York: International Publishers.
2. Werner, D. and PROJIMO (1998) Nothing About Us Without Us: Developing Innovative Technologies For, By and With, Disabled Persons. Palo Alto: Health Wrights. Available at http://www.
3. Pfaelzer, P. and Krizack, M. (2000) Wheelchair riders in control: WWIs model of technology transfer, June 1, 2000. Accessed January 15, 2008, from http://www.whirlwindwheelchair.
4. Stix, G. (2004) Making drugs, not profits. Scientific American, 290(5): 424.
5. Pharma Marketletter (2006) Paromycin approved by Indias Drug Controller General. Pharma
Marketletter, September 14, 2006.
6. One World Health (2008) History of One World Health. Accessed January 15, 2008, from
7. Jack, A. (2007) Anti-malaria drug to sell at cost price. Financial Times, March 2, 2007, Europe
edition, p. 7.
8. Bender, B. (2006) Vermont Yankee gets OK to hike its power. Boston Globe, March 3, 2006,
p. B3.
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p. B2.
10. Blanch, P. and Gundersen A. (2004) Documents submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as part of Vermont Yankees uprate application. Accessed January 15, 2008, from
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Turning Knowledge Into Action: Strategies for Change 141

15. National Whistleblowers Center (2007) Bunnatine Greenhouse. Accessed January 22, 2008,
16. Tucker, N. (2005) A web of truth: Whistle-blower or troublemaker, Bunny Greenhouse isnt
backing down. Washington Post, October 18, 2005, p. C01.
17. Barr, S. (2007) New deal for contracting. Washington Post, November 9, 2007, p. D01.
18. Pae, P. (2005) Column one: A skeptic under pressure; A US engineer faces bankruptcy and arrest in Austria as he questions the safety of a component in the huge Airbus A380 jetliner. Los
Angeles Times, September 27, 2005, p. A1.
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protest in the long 1960s. History and Technology, 19(4): 31333. doi:10.1080/0734151032000
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gay America. New York Times, June 26, 1994, p. F21.
21. Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute, University of Wisconsin (WISELI)
(2008) Links. Accessed January 22, 2008, from
22. Environmental Careers Organization (ECO) (2008) Diversity resources. Accessed January 22, 2008, from
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of High Performance Buildings Two: Lessons Learned (pp. 634). New York: Earth Day New
York. Accessed February 23, 2008, from
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27. Leydesdorff, L. and Ward, J. (2005) Science shops: A kaleidoscope of science-society collaborations in Europe. Public Understanding of Science, 14(4):35372. doi:10.1177/0963662505056
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142 engineering and social justice

30. Paton, D. (2000) Strike echoes in white-collar world. Christian Science Monitor, February 24,
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that offers too little too late. The Globe and Mail, March 7, 2000, p. B13.
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chapter 6

Parting Lessons for the

Continuing Struggle
It is wrong to expect a reward for your struggles. The reward is the act of struggle
itself, not what you win. Even though you cant expect to defeat the absurdity of the
world, you must make that attempt. Thats morality, thats religion. Thats art. Thats
Phil Ochs [1]
As engineers working on social justice issues, it is helpful to consider that we are part of a long struggle that
has come before and a longer struggle that will continue long after we are gone. This is hard work, where
we must look at ourselves and our actions with a critical eye and, at the same time, guard against opposing
forces. Outcomes are not always immediately tangible, and it is wise to focus on the process of struggle itself,
and the sense of community that struggle engenders.



So far, I have considered what we might mean by social justice, what a social justice perspective
might contribute to engineering, what kinds of things one needs to know and be able to do as an
engineer concerned about social justice, and what kinds of strategies one might use to put that
knowledge into action. It is clear that to be an engineer working on social justice issues is to buck
the trend regarding the kinds of work engineers do. This is a more radical act than it might seem
at first because it entails a challenge to engineering identity, upending what engineers do and how
we do it, altering the culture and the politics of the profession and calling engineering ethics and
engineering education to account.
This chapter revisits the key things engineers need to be able to do in order to work effectively on social justice issues, with an eye to encouragement for carrying on the struggle for justice.

144 engineering and social justice

The work inherently challenges several stereotypes about engineers, evident in the professional humor discussed in Chapter 2. I will revisit three of the jokes considered there, and dig a little deeper.
Before, the jokes were a window on what mindsets engineers tend to hold. Now, I draw lessons
for engineers going about the work of social justice and exploding the stereotypes presented in the


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. Double Jeopardy! You have to let me go! cries the lawyer. And the executioner does. The priest is
next, the same thing happens. Divine Intervention! You have to let me go! cries the
priest. And the executioner does. The engineer is next. As the executioner gets ready
to pull the cord, the engineer cries, Wait! I think I see your problem. . . .
Revisiting the Guillotine joke brings up three distinct stereotypes we need to dispel in order to be
effective engineers for social justice:
1. Engineers solve problems . . . at any cost.
2. Engineers are so interested in technical details that they ignore all context: social, historical, political, personal. . . .
3. Engineers are easily co-opted.

6.2.1 Lesson 1: You Do Not Have to Solve the Problem. Maybe It Is Not
Even a Problem
Engineers are trained to solve problems. It is such a strong part of our identity as engineers that it
can be hard not to view social justice issues as problems to be solved. In some ways, such a perspective may be helpful if it contributes to framing an issue well. But, too often, engineers forge ahead
too soon, rushing to the solution when others are still exploring the nature of the problem, or question, to see if it is even a problem, or if solutions are wanted or needed. Engineers can often take too
much responsibility for solving the problem or become too invested in a particular solution. When
engaging in engineering and social justice work, it may be easy to fall into the mistaken belief that as
the engineers, we are the problem-solving experts, the ones who know what the right solution is,
and simply try to convince others of our point of view. Being less goal-oriented and more processoriented can help here.


6.2.2 Lesson 2: Explore Other Ways of Knowing. Seek to

Understand the Context
If engineers approach working in a social justice group with humility, knowing that we have one
type of knowledge, and others possess equally valid but completely different perspectives, we can
come to understand things in a different way. The challenge before us is dauntingto become facile
with social theory, the history of social justice movements, the political process, tools for critical
analysis, and new activist skills. We can learn a lot by listening and observing other people, as well
as reading and talking with others.
It takes courage to be willing to examine ourselves as individuals, our profession as engineers,
and our strategies and commitments as people working for social justice. This is hard work, but it is
also rewarding. One of the most important lessons we can learn from history as engineers for social
justice is that there were multitudes of people working on social justice before us, and we can be
confident that there will be multitudes in the future. We can draw strength from the lessons of the
past, and we can be encouraged that others will carry on work we may not be able to complete in
our lifetimes. To work in this context is to let go of the need to be the one who solves the problem
here and now; instead, we can be part of a larger solution.
The quote by folksinger Phil Ochs that opens this chapter puts it most eloquently. When we
engage in social justice work, our reward is the work itself, not the ultimate outcome. It is the process that matters because the process builds relationships and creates the community that sustains
us, thus the work can continue into the future.

6.2.3 Lesson 3: Resist Being Co-Opted

In Chapter 2, I discussed this joke in terms of unthinking loyalty to the state; now I draw a lesson
that is more subtle. Looking at this joke with a view to both engineering and social justice, there is
a particular power dynamic operating here, one in which the engineer is co-opted to serve the will
of the state.
It is the nature of power to co-opt resistance into itself, to appropriate or misappropriate a
movement for its own political ends, to neutralize opposition by making it seem as though concerns are addressed when, in fact, actions taken may be superficial at best. Language is very easily
co-opted, because someone else need only take the words and attach slightly different meanings to
them in order to alter critical outcomes. A phrase like social justice is easily altered in this way,
which is why I began this book with an entire chapter discussing what might be meant by social
justiceand who gets to decide.
In fact, there are times when co-optation may be desired because it signals a mainstreaming or
institutionalization of an idea that was once marginalized. While a social justice group knows there
will be some compromises, the advantages of being mainstreamed may outweigh the costs. For

146 engineering and social justice

example, as an undergraduate I was involved in a campus queer rights and visibility group. What
had started as a small and often secretive organization had become increasingly visible and sought
funding to hire a staff person to support students; help organize social, cultural, and academic
events; and work with the administration on reforming its own policies and curricula to be more
just and inclusive. Once the position was fully funded by the Dean of Students, the staff member would face a conflict of interest between supporting student activism, on the one hand, and
representing the Dean of Students, on the other, with some responsibility for reining in student
actions that might violate college rules. Students who once carried a great deal of responsibility for
program planning or peer education took smaller roles. One can argue whether shouldering all
responsibility is good experience or too much to ask of students. But a student organization office,
which had been referred to as the closet due to its miniscule size in a marginal location, became
larger and ultimately centrally located in the campus center. On balance, the changes represented
a growing acceptance of queer people and ideas on campus, but certain kinds of student radicalism
were redirected through other student groups and unofficial channels.
There are other times when co-optation is clearly to be resisted. Writer and engineer Derrick Jensen [2] interviews John Stauber, editor of the watchdog publication PR Watch and author
of Toxic Sludge Is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry, about the use of
public relations (PR) firms to assist corporations in co-opting activists. Stauber related a story about
Ron Duchin, a PR executive, explaining how to accomplish this co-optation: isolate and marginalize those in the group who seek fundamental structural change (radicals) by characterizing them
as dangerous extremists, then convince realists in the group to go along with a corporate plan for
incremental change that looks winwin to outsiders but in fact benefits industry. As an example of
co-optation, he cites the U.S. environmental movement. Because so many people are lulled into doing no more than write checks (it is so much easier than the more difficult work of getting involved,
organizing people, etc.), several grassroots environmental groups grew into huge direct-mail operations, where the success of the organization itself became the goal. Specifically, he cites the campaign of grassroots groups against McDonalds, originally about a number of issues (deforestation,
inhumane animal farming, and waste production). Environmental Defense stepped in and worked
out a deal in which McDonalds got rid of Styrofoam containers; McDonalds looked green, Environmental Defense took credit (Figure 6.1), and the other groups were neutralized, their concerns
left unaddressed. Meanwhile, the corporate partnerships that have developed with the larger environmental groups have meant that their boards are filled with corporate executives and their coffers
with corporate donations. Some would say this is a positive development signifying social change
and the greening of mainstream culture; others would say this is corporate co-optation of activist
groups toward a massive green-washing effort that has simultaneously rendered the environmental
movement ineffective with regard to effecting legislative change.


FIGURE 6.1.: Green or green washing? McDonalds partnered with Environmental Defense to ditch
Styrofoam containers for recycled cardboard. Accessed March 2, 2008, from http://graphics8.nytimes.


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.

Wariness of co-optation should not prevent us from building coalitions. This is far more easily
said than done. History is littered with examples where coalitions were perhaps sought by some
but also resisted by many, and in hindsight people speculate about how much more could have
happened if coalitions were stronger. One such example is the role of labor in the Civil Rights
movement. On the one hand, labor historian Alan Draper [3] documents the furious resistance
to civil rights among many rank-and-file union members in the south, who saw the positions of
union leaders at the national level as being out of touch with Southern culture. Some of these
were active participants in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other groups who used violence against
civil rights activists. In some instances, this desperate clinging to white privilege even undermined
union members own goals; Blacks were kept out of some unions despite the fact that a competing
nonunion labor market would undercut unionized white workers economic interests.
On the other hand, labor historian and ethnic studies scholar Michael Honey [46] focuses
on a different aspect of the history of civil rights and union organizing. His work, centered on Memphis Tennessee, is consistent with Draper's in documenting ways that racism created divisions that
limited the success of the labor movement. But it also documents how Black members supported and

148 engineering and social justice

strengthened unions, how reaching across racial divisions, when it did occur, strengthened the labor
movement, and how Black participation in unions helped Black workers fight racial discrimination.
His most recent book on Martin Luther Kings last days [6] reminds us that Dr. King was in Memphis
supporting Black sanitation workers striking for union recognition, equal pay, and safer working
conditions. King clearly understood that racial justice and economic justice went hand in hand. He
also publicly opposed the Vietnam War because he knew war spending undercut the war on poverty,
and he knew the human toll the war took on the Black community.
More recently, organized labor supported extending marriage rights to same-sex couples in
Massachusetts by lobbying legislators [7]. While the list of supporting unions was long [it included
the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the National Association of Government Employees,
the Massachusetts Nurses Association, and locals of the Service Employees International Union
(SEIU), the United Auto Workers (UAW), and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)], other groups, including the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial
Organizations (AFL-CIO), did not come out in support in order not to alienate Catholic members.
One can focus on the positive or on the negative and characterize unions as pro-civil rights or anticivil rights, but the lesson of history is the same: that coalition building is essential for social justice
causes to move forward.
If we believe the stereotype, engineers are not good at talking to one another. The reasons
for this are many, embedded in the history and culture of engineering, the content and pedagogy
of engineering education, and the personalities of some of us. Coalition building requires not only
communication skills but also skills in critical thinking and analysis to identify allies and to distinguish coalition building from co-optation. Here is an instance where engineers have not even
done as much as throw some technology at the problemthe Internet has a lot to offer in terms of
blogs, wikis, discussion forums, and social networking sites. Why have so many engineers not yet
harnessed these tools effectively toward social justice ends? If we can take this first easier step,
maybe then we can also prove the stereotype wrong and make the interpersonal connections that
activism is all about.


You might be an engineer if . . . in college you thought Spring Break was metal fatigue
Engineers and social justice activists share a common stereotype: that neither group knows
how to have fun. Activists are often characterized as having no sense of humor; engineers are
characterized as being too busy or technically focused to enjoy life. In her memoir, Living my Life,


Emma Goldman [8] relates a story in which a boy pulls her aside at a dance where she is living it
up, telling her that it is inappropriate for a member of the movement to dance so enthusiastically
and that it would hurt the cause to be perceived as not serious. She took the boy to task, explaining that the joy and freedom of dancing should honor the ideals of anarchism, and she did not
want to be part of a cause that did not recognize this. She is commonly quoted as having said in
that moment, If I cant dance, its not my revolution.



I leave it to others to develop the agenda for engineering and social justice; indeed, the profiles in
the last chapter suggest that this is already taking place. There are countless directions this work
can take. As noted in the first chapter, our sense of engineering and social justice will necessarily
be shaped by our sense of what is unjust in and about engineering. Our work will take shape and
change shape over time. This book has hopefully provided some foundational concepts upon which
we can build into the future.
If we maintain Emma Goldmans spirit of fun and keep our sense of humor even when the
going gets tough, who would not want to join us? When it comes to engineering and social justice,
there is surely much work to be done, and many good times ahead. The opportunities are endless.
Come on along!


Ochs, P. (1978) The Complete Phil Ochs: Chords of Fame. Hollywood, CA: Almo Publications.
Jensen, D. (1999) The war on truth: The secret battle for the American mindAn interview with John Stauber, The Sun Magazine, Chapel Hill, NC, Issue 279, March 1999.
Draper, A. (1994) Conflict of Interests: Organized Labor and the Civil Rights Movement in the
South. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Honey, M. (1993) Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers. Urbana:
University of Illinois Press.
Honey, M. (1999) Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the
Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Honey, M. (2007) Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther Kings Last
Campaign. New York: W.W. Norton.
Lewis, D.E. (2004) Partnership forged in labors trenches: In unions, gay activists find a
partner in battle. Boston Globe, February 28, 2004.
Goldman, E. (1931) Living my Life. New York: A.A. Knopf.


Author Biography
Donna Riley is Associate Professor of Engineering and a founding faculty member in the Picker
Engineering Program at Smith College. She received her bachelors degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University and her doctorate in engineering and public policy from Carnegie
Mellon University. At Smith, she conducts research in the areas of risk analysis and engineering