February 2009 Issue Volume 37 Issue 2

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A Sociologist in a College of Engineering: Stranger in a
Strange Land?

by Don Winiecki, Boise State University, College of Engineering

In Robert Heinlein’s famous novel Stranger in a Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith paid a heavy price for figuring out and influencing members of the culture that surrounded him. As a sociologist in the Boise State University, College of Engineering, one might call me a stranger in a strange land too.

How did I land here? In many ways, like Smith’s links through genealogy, I belong here. I earned my slot and my tenure in the Instructional & Performance Technology department in the College of Engineering with a doctorate in instructional technology and a specialty in designing and implementing workplace systems—training and non-training methods to facilitate higher performance from workers. I have long been interested in technology; my bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in industrial arts and technology education. However, as I taught the use of technologies to deliver and regulate workplace productivity and instructional communication with the aim of providing my students with insight into how to design instructional and workplace systems, I grew steadily less comfortable with the doings made possible by technologies in organizations. This discomfort lead me to earn a second doctorate in sociology with a focus on post-structural analysis of technologies in contemporary workplaces.

In this research, the mundane everyday things interest me—how we produce our social apparatuses in and with technology and how we then convince ourselves that our creations and their products are somehow natural and even true. I have managed to do research worthy of a published book and a fair number of refereed publications. I also established a course on ethnographic research in organizations, which is now cross-listed with a sociology graduate course. I guide students to understand the "doings of doings" with an aim of identifying the effects and affects of technologies and systems. I have also turned my research and publishing program toward technology and engineering, studying things such as the confluence (or collision!) of legal and scientific disciplines and most recently, open source software development as a social phenomenon that is both influenced by and influences economics, the flow of knowledge and even state regulation of populations.

While my engineering and technologically inclined colleagues are not always certain what I am doing, they continue to be the type of colleagues any faculty member would want. They know of my interest in the sociological analysis of science and engineering and some have invited me to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in their research labs.

Teaching Future Engineers

My colleagues in the sociology department across campus have been supportive as well and more than willing to listen when my own unusual position leaves me feeling like an outsider. But perhaps the strangest feeling of all is when I try to teach my students how to apply sociological concepts to their own work as developers of workplace systems.

I have found that the trick is to help them see past the contemporary discourse emphasizing economy, efficiency, predictability, and control in organizations (Ritzer’s now famous McDonalization ideal type). Some are willing, but virtually all come from labor experiences and surrounding societies that normalize the workplace so that questioning institutional systems appears as ignorance or a rejection of important ideals

Successes come gradually and most often when I appeal to an element common to both sociology and technology/engineering/science—the notion that any complex entity (e.g., society, lab research, gendered structures or mechanics, organizational processes) is made up of many systems with which we have an incomplete and roughly understood set of interrelations. Regardless of our goals or the nature of a problem, improvements are not something that occur at a particular place, a time, or with particular people, but rather throughout the social system. In the same way, comparative sociological analysis allows for the introduction of social science concepts to account for and objectify means for addressing social issues within any construct.

Some of my best students had an engineering or physical science orientation. Too often, their curricula are so focused on professional credentials that the study of their impact as engineers and scientists on their own social systems is a casualty. Many students, however, realize the links between their chosen pursuit and the more closely felt inequalities that occur across categories such as class, gender, ethnicity, race. I can use all the help I can get!

Linking the Hard Sciences with the Social Sciences

Where many students struggle is with the ideas of material and immaterial social facts and the power of those forms compared to the abstracted logic of the hard sciences, which are surprisingly easy for many. However, the superstructures of society can be named and picked apart and the unintentional consequences of corporate activity rarely slip past them—especially with so many reports of environmental tragedy, job losses, radical shifts in economic power, and so on, in contemporary news. These issues are in their face and, with only a little imagination, in their futures. They see the problems as part of systems, and technologically oriented students are people preparing for lives as actors in and sometimes developers or controllers of systems. It is just that they—as students in the "hard" sciences—have not normally had school experiences that help them connect their chosen field with sociology.

Some still do not connect. We know that it is too much to expect to reach everyone. These are unconventional ideas, especially for technologists and engineers. What is heartening is that so many students not only seem to get it, but also accept it—at least for now. How they will act when they are embedded in the organizations we study is unknown. (It has been said that if you put a good person in a bad system, the system will win every time.) But there is hope that they have the skills to mount a better argument.

I may be a stranger in this land, but rather than discovering that my colleagues and students are wary of my moves, I have found a mixed blessing—many are open but not all. Yet, it only takes a few to start the process of change. With a sociological perspective and without the selfish interest present in so many of Heinlein’s characters, I find that things can be quite different. I’m looking forward to learning how my students make use of this perspective in their futures. With a blending of sociology and sciences of other kinds, there is clear hope that they can—and maybe even will—create a more welcoming environment for the social scientist. logo_small

The author can be contacted at dwiniecki@boisestate.edu.


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