Skip to main content

The (Mis)Framing of Social Justice: Why Ideologies of Depoliticization and Meritocracy Hinder Engineers’ Ability to Think About Social Injustices

Part of the Philosophy of Engineering and Technology book series (POET,volume 10)

Abstract

Engineers will incorporate considerations of social justice issues into their work only to the extent that they see such issues as relevant to the practice of their profession. This chapter argues that two prominent ideologies within the culture of engineering—depoliticization and meritocracy—frame social justice issues in such a way that they seem irrelevant to engineering practice. Depoliticization is the belief that engineering is a “technical” space where “social” or “political” issues such as inequality are tangential to engineers’ work. The meritocratic ideology—the belief that inequalities are the result of a properly-functioning social system that rewards the most talented and hard-working—legitimates social injustices and undermines the motivation to rectify such inequalities. These ideologies are built into engineering culture and are deeply embedded in the professional socialization of engineering students. I argue that it is not enough for engineering educators to introduce social justice topics into the classroom; they must also directly confront ideologies of meritocracy and depoliticization. In other words, cultural space must be made before students, faculty and practitioners can begin to think deeply about the role of their profession in the promotion of social justice.

Keywords

  • Depoliticization
  • Meritocracy
  • Culture of engineering
  • Framing of social justice

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

Chapter
USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-6350-0_4
  • Chapter length: 18 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
eBook
USD   109.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-94-007-6350-0
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   139.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   179.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)

Notes

  1. 1.

    Schneider and Munakata Marr (Chap. 8, this volume) offer a useful “flexible” definition of working toward social justice as an “attempt to redress the unequal distribution of goods, rights, or opportunities, or to challenge policies or practices that exacerbate inequalities among groups of people” (p. 19).

  2. 2.

    Engineering cultures differ by national context, variation that is partly contingent on the origin of engineering as a profession in each country (Downey and Lucena 2004).

  3. 3.

    It is also possible that students who enter college believing in the meritocratic ideology are more likely to select into some majors (i.e. science and engineering) than others. This consideration is beyond the scope of this chapter, however.

  4. 4.

    In the 1920s, for example, Robert Moses and his engineers intentionally designed hundreds of New York City bridges too low for city busses (which were typically used by poor and African-American New Yorkers) to pass underneath. This effectively prevented these groups from accessing the Long Island beaches, maintaining the beaches as white, middle-class spaces (Winner 1980).

  5. 5.

    This is in contrast other professions such as law, where a certain level of pro-bono work is encouraged or expected.

  6. 6.

    The National Coalition for the Homeless provides easily-accessible fact sheets on the prevalence and causes of homelessness in the United States (­www.nationalhomeless.org)

References

  • Abbott, A. (1988). The systems of professions: An essay on the division of expert labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Arrow, K., Bowles, S., & Durlauf, S. (2000). Introduction. In K. Arrow, S. Bowles, & S. Durlauf (Eds.), Meritocracy and economic inequality (pp. ix–xv). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Barley, S. R., & Tolbert, P. S. (1997). Institutionalization and structuration: Studying the links between action and institution. Organization Studies, 18(1), 93–117.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • British Broadcasting Company [BBC]. (2009). In Pictures: Auschwitz Blueprints. BBC News. August 27, 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8224666.stm. Accessed 5 Jan 2012.

  • Becker, H., Geer, B., Hughes, E., & Strauss, A. (1961). Boys in white: Student culture in medical school. New Brunswick: Transactional Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brickman, P., Folger, R., Goode, E., & Schul, Y. (1981). Microjustice and macrojustice. In M. J. Lerner & S. C. Lerner (Eds.), The justice motive in social behavior (pp. 175–189). New York: Plenum Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cech, E. A. (2010, June). Trained to disengage? A Longitudinal study of social consciousness and public engagement among engineering students. In Proceedings of the 2010 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) National Conference. Austin, TX.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cech, E. A., & Blair-Loy, M. (2010). Perceiving glass ceilings? Meritocratic versus structural explanations of gender inequality among women in science and technology. Social Problems, 57(3), 371–397.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Cech, E. A., & Waidzunas, T. J. (2011). Navigating the heteronormativity of engineering: The experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. Engineering Studies, 3(1), 1–24.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Downey, G. L., & Lucena, J. C. (2004). Knowledge and professional identity in engineering. History and Technology, 20(4), 393–420.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Dryburgh, H. (1999). Work hard, play hard: Women and professionalization in engineering—Adapting to the culture. Gender and Society, 13(5), 664–682.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Faulkner, W. (2000). Dualism, hierarchies and gender in engineering. Social Studies of Science, 30, 759–792.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Faulkner, W. (2009). Doing gender in engineering workplace cultures: Gender in/authenticity and the in/visibility paradox. Engineering Studies, 1, 3–18.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Fischer, C. S., Hout, M., Jankowski, M. S., Lucas, S. R., Swidler, A., & Voss, K. (1996). Inequality by design: Cracking the bell curve myth. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Florman, S. C. (1994). The existential pleasures of engineering. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fox, M. F. (2006). Participation, performance, and advancement of women in academic science and engineering: What is at issues and why. The Journal of Technology Transfer, 31, 377–386.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Friedson, E. (1971). The professions and their prospects. Beverly Hills: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grusky, D. B. (2005). Foundations of a neo-Durkheimian class analysis. In E. O. Write (Ed.), Approaches to class analysis (pp. 51–81). New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grusky, D. B., & Sørensen, J. B. (1998). Can class analysis be salvaged? The American Journal of Sociology, 103, 1187–1234.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Haas, J., & Shaffir, W. (1991). Becoming doctors: The adoption of a cloak of confidence. Greenwich: JAI.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hattery, A. (2003). Sleeping in the box, thinking outside the box: Student reflections on innovative pedagogical tools for teaching about and promoting a greater understanding of social class inequality among undergraduates. Teaching Sociology, 31(4), 412–427.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Hochschild, J. L. (1995). Facing up to the American dream. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hughes, T. P. (2005). American genesis: A century of invention and technological enthusiasm, 1870–1970. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jackman, M. R., & Muha, M. J. (1984). Education and intergroup attitudes: Moral enlightenment, superficial democratic commitment, or ideological refinement. American Sociological Review, 49(6), 751–769.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Jencks, C. (1994). The homeless. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Johnston, S., Lee, A., & McGregor, H. (1996). Engineering as captive discourse. Society for Philosophy and Technology Quarterly, 1(3/4), 1–14.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jordan, J. M. (1994). Machine-age ideology: Social engineering and American liberalism, 1911–1939. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jorgenson, J. (2002). Engineering selves: Negotiating gender and identity in technical work. Management Communications Quarterly, 15(3), 350–380.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Kane, E. W. (1995). Education and beliefs about gender inequality. Social Problems, 42(1), 74–90.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Kane, E. W., & Kyyro, E. (2001). For whom does education enlighten? Race, gender, education, and beliefs about social inequality. Gender and Society, 15(5), 710–733.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Khurana, R. (2007). From higher aims to hired hands: The social transformation of American business schools and the unfulfilled promise of management as a profession. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Klee, R. (1997). Introduction to the Philosophy of science: Cutting nature at its seams. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kluegel, J. R., & Smith, E. R. (1986). Beliefs about inequality: Americans’ views of what is and what ought to be. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  • Knorr-Cetina, K. (1999). Epistemic cultures: How the sciences make knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kozol, J. (1991). Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools. New York: Crown.

    Google Scholar 

  • Latour, B. (1992). Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.), Shaping technology, building society: Studies in sociotechnical change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Latour, B. (1999). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lemann, N. (1999). The big test: The secret history of the American meritocracy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lerner, M. J. (1980). The belief in a just world: A fundamental delusion. New York: Plenum Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Liebow, E. (1993). Tell them who I am: The lives of homeless women. New York: Viking Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lynch, W. T., & Kline, R. (2000). Engineering practice and engineering ethics. Science, Technology and Human Values, 25(2), 195–225.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • MacKenzie, D. A. (1990). Inventing accuracy: An historical sociology of nuclear missile guidance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Major, B., & Schmader, T. (2001). Legitimacy and the construal of social disadvantage. In J. T. Jost & B. Major (Eds.), The psychology of legitimacy: Emerging perspectives on ideology, justice, and intergroup relations (pp. 176–204). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • National Academy of Engineering. (2004). The engineer of 2020: Visions of engineering in the new century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nye, D. E. (1994). American technological sublime. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nye, D. E. (2006). Technology matters: Questions to live with. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Olson, J. M., & Hafer, C. L. (2001). Tolerance of personal deprivation. In J. T. Jost & B. Major (Eds.), The psychology of legitimacy: Emerging perspectives on ideology, justice, and intergroup relations (pp. 157–175). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Padavic, I., & Reskin, B. R. (2002). Women and men at work (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rhoton, L. A. (2011). Distancing as a gendered barrier: Understanding women scientists’ gender practices. Gender and Society, 25(6), 696–716.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rossi, P. (1989). Down and out in America: The origins of homelessness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schleef, D. J. (2006). Managing elites: Professional socialization in law and business schools. Oxford: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  • Seron, C., Cech, E., Silbey, S., & Rubineau, B. (2011, June). “I am not a feminist, but…:” making meanings of being a woman in engineering. In Proceedings of the 2011 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) National Conference. Vancouver, British Columbia.

    Google Scholar 

  • Seron, C., Cech, E., Silbey, S., & Rubineau, B. (2012). The gendered development of professional role confidence (Working Paper). Irvine: University of California, Irvine.

    Google Scholar 

  • Traweek, S. (1988). Beamtimes and lifetimes: The world of high energy physics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Trice, H. M. (1993). Occupational subcultures in the workplace. Ithaca: ILR Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Weeden, K. A., & Grusky, D. B. (2005). The case for a new class map. The American Journal of Sociology, 111, 141–212.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Winner, L. (1980). Do artifacts have politics? Daedalus, 109(1), 121–136.

    Google Scholar 

  • Young, M. (1994). The rise of meritocracy. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Erin A. Cech .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2013 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Cech, E.A. (2013). The (Mis)Framing of Social Justice: Why Ideologies of Depoliticization and Meritocracy Hinder Engineers’ Ability to Think About Social Injustices. In: Lucena, J. (eds) Engineering Education for Social Justice. Philosophy of Engineering and Technology, vol 10. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6350-0_4

Download citation