This paper focuses on results from a content analysis of foundational engineering documents with respect to characterizations of the relationship between engineering and “the public.” Fourteen documents were examined, including National Academy of Engineering reports, ABET accreditation criteria, disciplinary “Bodies of Knowledge,” engineering codes of ethics, and organizational/programmatic brochures of leading entities in Learning Through Service. These documents were selected as repositories of the engineering profession’s identity, vision, ambition, and perceived relationship with society. The purpose of the analysis was to identify manifest and latent messages about the engineering profession’s institutionally sanctioned imaginaries of “the public.”
Guided by a theoretical framework of social imaginaries, three reviewers used qualitative data analysis to identify prevalent themes in how engineers tend to conceptualize “the public.” One hundred codes were developed and were broadly characterized into six themes (number of codes within each theme shown in parentheses): Characterizations of “the public” (15); Professional duties related to “the public” (46); Relationship between engineers and “the public” (11), Societal problems or issues in need of engineering solutions (25), Engineers’ social footprint over time (2), and Vision or mission statements (1). In addition to thematic coding, frequency counts for specific words, such as “globalization” and shaping the “future” were examined.
All reviewers initially coded three documents, which were used to create consensus on codes and code meanings. Each of the remaining 11 documents were coded independently by two reviewers. Interrater reliability was examined using Cohen Kappa values. Codes with a Kappa value lower than 0.6 were examined further. Two of the reviewers went back through the documents, re-evaluating coded segments for each of these codes. If a code did not seem appropriate for a given segment, that code was removed, the segment was recorded, and then verified by the other reviewer to ensure that the code was appropriately removed. This three-part coding process was done to build confidence in the coded segments while still allowing the research team to use a large code book and code lengthy documents.
The most prevalent message identified overall characterized engineers as benefitting “the public” (347 coded segments in 13 documents). The importance of building or sustaining engineers’ professional image in the eye of “the public” was commonly referenced as well (241 coded segments in 12 documents). The most dominant ways in which “the public” was characterized were as members of “developing” countries (e.g., economically, technologically, in terms of industrial capacity and/or sustainable engagement with the environment) (22 coded segments in 4 documents) and as “lacking information” (e.g., about engineers or what engineers do) (18 coded segments in 3 documents). Seven different documents characterized the public (or a portion thereof) as “poor.” Solving problems (283 coded segments in 11 documents) and ensuring sustainability (201 coded segments in 12 documents) were common codes with respect to professional duties related to “the public.” Social infrastructure (110 coded segments in 7 documents), natural resource (104 coded segments in 8 documents) and physical infrastructure (60 coded segments in 7 documents) stresses were the most common societal issues discussed as requiring engineering solutions. There were 72 references to the social footprint of engineering increasing over time.
These results are part of a larger study about engineers’ imaginaries of “the public” and how these imaginaries might influence the ways engineers see themselves and approach their work, the problems they attempt to solve, and the diverse publics that are affected by these problems. The interaction between the engineering profession and “the public” is one element of the larger engineering identity and culture, which, if ignored, can lead to erroneous assumptions, partial or ineffective interventions, and even failures that perpetuate injustice and/or cause catastrophic harm. By examining dominant messages in these documents, as well as noticing missing narratives, we can begin to understand the ideologies that inform the critical and challenging boundary that engineers raise between their profession and society. As such, our analysis constitutes a first step toward deeper insight into how these ideologies enhance or weaken engineering practice and, ultimately, how they support or undermine the profession’s aspiration to promote the social good.
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