Engineering to Care: Exploring Engineering in Humanitarian and Social Justice Contexts through a Lens of Care Ethics
Campbell, Ryan C.
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Engineering and technology have changed the lives of many on this planet. However, technical solutions are not the value-neutral panaceas we might imagine them to be. If we engineers are unaware of the values driving our efforts, we are unlikely to create lasting solutions to the problems we hope to address. In fact, engineers may have inadvertently helped create many of the problems that plague the world today, such as those associated with environmental pollution and anthropogenic climate change. Without examining our values and perhaps even adopting new ones, we may create as many problems as we solve for society. In this dissertation, I contribute to the thought and dialogue needed to create change in the value system of engineering by exploring an ethical framework that has received little attention in the engineering-related literature to date. Care ethics, also known as the ethics of care, is a normative ethical theory emphasizing care, compassion and context rather than impartiality and universal standards. As part of a pluralistic approach to ethics, it contributes important perspectives that are missed by other theories. By actively striving for equity rather than implicitly presuming equality, care ethics helps us to account for real-world differences in power and autonomy, and to give additional consideration to the vulnerable or disadvantaged. This work was guided by three overarching questions: one conceptual, one empirical, and one directed at implications. The conceptual question read “How might care ethics manifest in engineering?” In addressing it, the key outcomes were the identification of a suitable care ethics framework for use in the empirical work, and the demonstration of its applicability to engineering, especially in humanitarian and/or social justice contexts. The empirical question was “In terms of care ethics, how do students in traditional engineering programs respond to problems of humanitarian or social justice nature?” and was broken down into three, more specific sub-questions, each directed at a different engineering context and associated data set. The implications question read “What are the implications of the above (e.g., on course design, curricular change, educational policy, engineering practice)?” and was explored for each of the three sub-questions. The empirical research was conducted under an interpretive conceptual framework using qualitative methods of thematic analysis and comparative case study analysis; however, a more innovative approach to the analysis was also taken, one that involved using the empirical data to iteratively co-develop operationalizations of specific elements of the adopted care ethics framework, namely Attentiveness and Responsibility. Thus, the concepts from care ethics theory both constrained and were clarified by the findings over the course of analysis and writing. Consequently, the outcomes of the empirical analyses were comprised of multiple components, including (a) findings that were descriptive and ostensibly “close to the data”, (b) findings that were more interpretive, based on an evolving understanding of care ethics and how it applies in these engineering contexts, and (c) practical operationalizations of care-ethics that are useful for teaching, learning, assessment, and further research. An example of a descriptive outcome from the first data set (n = 73) was that most engineering students reported their knowledge of Hurricane Katrina as having affected their responses to a conceptually related design task (performed nine months after the hurricane); however, a large minority of the students said it had no effect. When it was a factor, students said it helped them consider people, the natural environment, and aspects of design approaches in addition to technical details. From an interpretive perspective, this suggests that doing design in a context that has humanitarian and/or social justice dimensions may result in better, more care-ethically attentive engineering work, but only if the necessary connections between the context and the task at hand are made. Educators will need to help students learn to make these connections. An example finding from the second data set (n = 30) was that most engineering students associated engineers with responsibility for the problem of “backyard” e-waste recycling in the “developing world” in some way, but some students seemed inclined to limit or deflect that responsibility toward others. This can be interpreted as a strength in some cases, where it demonstrates a realistic sense of the complexity of the problem and the many stakeholders that must necessarily be involved in its solution. However, it can also be interpreted as a weakness in other cases, where it may suggest notions of engineers as lacking a sense of agency to affect change in an area they clearly have influence. Key implications are that educators should raise awareness of the problems of backyard e-waste recycling in general and help students learn to consider a broader range of stakeholders so that important solution approaches are not missed. The third data set—a comparative case-study of two group design project reports—illustrated contrasting approaches to design in the developing world context. One group demonstrated care-ethical awareness, sensitivity, and appreciation of the expressed needs of the end user, while the other group adopted a more paternalistic approach suggestive of technological imperialism. The findings also revealed differences in the way responsibility was discussed, which may be indicative of varying levels of commitment and/or notions of agency. A key curricular implication is for educators to bring user-centered and participatory design approaches into more engineering disciplines, such as electrical engineering and civil engineering. An example of a useful operationalization of care-ethics that came out of the work was the idea to assess aspects of care-ethical attentiveness and responsibility with different measures of stakeholder identification. For example, to assess the care-ethical quality of one’s design considerations, one might look for indications of awareness of disadvantaged (i.e., vulnerable, powerless, and/or underprivileged) stakeholders and their needs. This work has provided some necessary first steps toward understanding the concepts and constructs needed for further investigations into the neglected area of care ethics in engineering. The simultaneously top-down and bottom-up approach used in this research has both facilitated a deeper understanding of the ethical responsibilities of engineers and provided a baseline for understanding the ethical thinking of engineering students, who are the next generation of engineers. This work has also shown how care ethics might be applied to engineering and suggested ways engineering might need to change to become more open to and consistent with the ideals of care ethics.
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