Right, I am hoping the internet will be able to help me put together a panel on this theme for the next BSHS meeting (York, 6-9 July 2017). I had already been emailing a few people before and after the break, but alas, they either can’t make the meeting or are overcommitted. SO! If you, or someone you know, might be interested in contributing a paper to such a session please get in touch with me firstname.lastname@example.org (Doesn’t matter if you’re early career or whatever.) You need to get in touch with me before 15th of Jan, in time for the final deadline of the 19th.
What follows is a draft abstract, just to give you all the gist. I’d be happy to revise it in collaboration with whomsoever fancies joining!
Engineers – practice, profession, and epistemology
If historians and philosophers of science have already revised the roles of instrumentation in experimentation and theory production, thoroughly historicized ideas of pure and applied science, and made the case for working across histories of science, technology, and medicine, then engineers – a largely untapped resource – ought to have been subject to a flourishing of research. The latter has yet to emerge. If this is simply because engineers have, by and large, operated in spheres distant from our scientific actors then how that distance is produced makes them all the more worthy of attention. If instead this is because engineers have been thought the preserve of historians of technology, then some very old prejudices are alive and well. Engineers are prime candidates for reimagining and rediscovering what we think we already know about the history of science and technology, and what that history means today.
Though our own papers only cover a narrow range of themes and periods, we can suggest what new histories will be produced by a wider reorientation around engineers. Civil and agricultural engineers have mattered hugely for changes to landscape, nation and empire. Hydraulic engineering has contributed to the same with further significances for industry and health. Mechanical engineers have likewise been instrumental for changing or maintaining production methods, the military, and so on. The range of professionalised engineers (to be defined how? dated from when?) has multiplied over time to include the electrical, chemical, medical, software, and perhaps also biological, all of whom may be ‘professionalised’ to a greater or lesser degree. This is to say nothing of how engineering epistemology is or is not significantly distinct from ways of knowing or notions of objectivity already attended to by historians of science and technology elsewhere.
Engineering can therefore help us to escape disciplinary storytelling in the sciences, provide new grounds for a synthesis of existing case studies over the longue durée, while changing the focus of our research to areas of intersection, be those social, political, geographical, economic or moral. Indeed, the value that engineering can bring to HPS is thanks in large part to the intersections occupied by engineers. On the terms of practice, profession and epistemology, engineering currently receives strikingly more attention in science and technology studies (which has been providing dedicated teaching to engineering students – as distinct from science students – for decades), and is gathering some momentum in philosophy. To put the panel a different way: why should philosophers and social scientists have all the fun?