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1 Introduction: Sociology and

Engineering

Although the reasons are very different in each case, neither engineers
nor sociologists have received much appreciation and recognition in
Britain in the last third of the twentieth century. Nordo they appearto
have had much respect for each other. Many engineers feel that
sociology is politically motivated and unscientific; while sociologists
impute blame to 'technologists' for many of the evils of industria liz a-
tion such as the destruction of craft skills, exploitation, conspicuous
waste, pollution, high levels of military spending, and for being
servants of the irresponsibly powerful. This book is written in the
belief that the majority of the criticisms, from both sides, are unfair or
wrong, and in the hope that practitioners and teachers of engineering
will come to see that the study of sociology has something to offer
their students.
Sociology ought to be useful to engineers. A popular American
definition of an engineer is 'someone who can make for one dollar
what any bloody fool can make for two'. This suggests that engineers
should be concerned with the value of their output and not only with
whether their artefacts and machines work. Further, in the Finniston
report on the engineering profession and its problems it was argued
that engineers would increasingly need to equip themselves with
knowledge of economic and 'social and political considerations and
constraints' (Finniston, 1980). As a subject which explicitly sets out to
help people to understand such things, sociology should be of direct
use to the engineer. Indeed we would argue that there is little value in a
sociology that does not help people to understand their world better.
The particular world we wish to help people to understand is the
world of the engineer in Britain. We suggest that the relatively low
status of British engineers and their work is one of the most important
and interesting features of contemporary British society compared
with other industrial ones. It is a sociological analysis of this issue and
the reasons for it which constitute the major focus of this book.
The kind ofsociology which we use for our analysis follows Berger
and Kellner (1982). We are interested in social institutions as they are,
I. A. Glover et al., Engineers in Britain
© I. A. Glover and M. P. Kelly 1987
4 Engineers in Britain
not as we would like them to be. Our attitudes towards general
theories ofsociety are eclectic. We see elements both ofcontinuity and
change, and of consensus and conflict in the social world, and we
regard people as being both makers and victims ofhistory. We find the
idea that there are final answers to questions about human behaviour
dangerous and naive. We have more respect for sociological
arguments which are informed by evidence rather than for self-
perpetuating scholastic debates. In short we believe that sociology
must first and foremost be concerned with society, not only with the
study of ideas, and that sociological theories themselves can only
develop properly if they are testable and grounded in real life events
(Glaser and Strauss, 1968).
The sense in which we use the term sociology is as follows. At the
most general level we, as sociologists, are interested in the study of
people living and working in human societies. This does not nor is it
intended to mean that sociology is some kind of superior mixture of
history, politics, economics, geography, anthropology and
psychology (although in our experience some professional socio-
logists do seem to hold this view and are rightly ridiculed by other
academics for doing so) but rather that as sociologists we are
concerned with four principal questions. What is society? That is to
say what is the distinctive nature of the collectivities, large and small,
which human beings inhabit? What is the nature of the relationships
between the various parts or elements in the collectivities such as
individuals, groups, families and institutions? How, and perhaps
more ambitiously why, do societies change? And how, given the
apparently never-ending flux of human behaviour, is continuity and
order possible in social relationships? (Useful introductions to
sociology and sociological ideas, where various aspects of these
questions are explored in detail, can be found in the following texts:
Broom and Selznick, 1977; Cotgrove, 1978; Haralambos, 1980; and
Hurd, 1986.)
Yet stating a series ofgeneral questions is still not sufficient for a full
appreciation of what sociology is about. The sociologist assumes that
there are certain regularities and patterns in human conduct and that
these tend to repeat themselves. Therefore sociology articulates and
analyses sometimes unsuspected continuities and regularities in
human affairs. In other words, while everyday experience may not
support this view, the world of human behaviour does not simply
consist of random events: human behaviour has both purpose and
structure.
The assumption of purpose and structure (which in fact is rather
more than an assumption, since it is documented with evidence