In philosophy and psychology literature, empathy in general refers to 1) the ability to understand another person’s ideas and feelings; and 2) the inclination to feel emotionally responsive to, and act to alleviate, another person’s distressful experience. Until recently, however, discourses of “empathy” in engineering education are inspired primarily by the literature on “empathic design,” a concept that originated from market research and first gained popularity in the business world. As this paper will argue, the discourse of “empathic design” inadvertently advances an instrumentalist interpretation of empathy, one that ignores the depth and breadth of philosophical and psychological studies of the same concept. The adoption of this instrumentalist, product-oriented conception of empathy exacerbates some persistent problems confronting engineering education, including a tendency to objectify the users of engineering products.
Seeking to reconstruct empathy on the ground of philosophical and psychological literature, in this paper I begin to develop a genealogy of empathy in engineering education. The paper does this by tracing the discursive history of empathy in different sub-communities of engineering education (e.g., design, ethics, entrepreneurship, and liberal education). In particular, this genealogical survey will carefully examine recent scholars’ efforts toward redefining empathy as an engineering competency, which lays the groundwork for envisioning “empathic engineering.” Champions of empathic engineering define empathy broadly and link it to engineering students’ moral development, communication skills, as well as using engineering to meet objectives related to community needs, sustainability, and social justice. I assess the implications of the discursive migration from “empathic design” to “empathic engineering” for the identity formation of the engineering profession. Furthermore, I argue that the movement toward “empathic engineering” provides the potential for overcoming a narrowly-defined, instrumentalist, and product-oriented conception of empathy. As an example, I suggest two alternative conceptions of empathy in engineering: 1) empathy as a commitment to communicating and understanding across different cultural and epistemic communities; and 2) empathy as a professional excellence for engineers.
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