Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Book review: "Everyday Engineering" edited by Dominique Vinck

Ok, time for another book review. This time it is "Everyday Engineering -- An Ethnography of Design and Innovation" edited by Dominique Vinck (MIT Press). First of all, I find the study of practice to be one of the most exciting forms of research in design. So, this book has a promising title and the introduction also lives up to my expectations--it does aim at studying and describing practice without being prescriptive.

The book is written by a group of French engineering researchers and sociologists. The idea of the book is wonderful, it sets out to explore the complexity of 'real' engineering practice in relation to the 'simplistic' form of understanding that dominates engineering education and textbook based prescriptive models and methods.

The book also delivers, at least here and there, and is an interesting read. For instance, I liked the first chapter about the experience of a young and newly graduated engineer in his first job at CERN. The story is quite well told and shows how the young engineer slowly starts to understand that the complexity of his task is not an inherent quality of the engineering task itself but a consequence of social and organizational aspect, and in the end all about communication. There are also some other chapters that in a similar way reveals a kind of practice complexity that is not a result of the engineering task but of the surrounding situational organizational environment.

However, overall the chapters do not deliver what I had hoped for. The approach is fine, the purpose is great, the assumptions are also reasonable and interesting, but I find the overall analysis to be a bit repetitive and the theoretical reasoning is not as insightful as I hoped for. Each chapter ends with an 'operational summary' that mostly takes the form of ethnographic findings, that is, statements and descriptions of interesting observations grounded in the case that the chapter has examined. But, these summaries do not elevate from the level of observations and I really miss any form of theorizing that could have lead to some emerging  theoretical framing and formulations, to explanations and statements of more general scope. This unfortunately means that what I get out of the book is less intersting and useful than it could have been. But the book and its chapters do have value (and for some I guess even a lot of value) as a repository of stories describing the complex everyday reality of engineering.


Frederick van Amstel said...

I didn't read the book, but maybe the authors adopt an ethnomethodological approach where theorization about field observations are considered uncautious generalizations. Thick Descriptions try to minize ethnocentric biases towards interpretation.

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