In This Issue
Fall Issue of The Bridge on Social Sciences and Engineering Practice
September 5, 2012 Volume 42 Issue 3

The Value of the Social Sciences for Maximizing the Public Benefits of Engineering

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Author: Jameson M. Wetmore

Three recent projects illustrate the benefits of bringing a social sciences perspective to engineering innovation.

Since the early 1900s, engineering professional societies have established codes of ethics to ensure that their members maintain a high level of professionalism (Pfatteicher, 2003). The premise is that because engineers are entrusted with special knowledge, they have a duty to use that knowledge in the public interest. In their codes, these societies outlined some of those duties and shared them with the world. Since those early efforts, a number of additional strategies for defining and propagating ethical engineering have been developed, such as textbooks, courses, and even a Division of the American Society for Engineering Education dedicated to the topic (Herkert, 2000).

Many of these later efforts have focused on ensuring that engineers do no harm by calling attention to specific temptations (e.g., cutting corners, skimming a little profit off the top, or passing the buck). Ethical issues are also often presented as dilemmas about balancing the good and the bad. For instance, is it ethical to forge data to justify a decision that one knows is the right thing to do? Should one ensure a level of safety higher than is legally required? If the only way of building a water purification system in a developing country is to abide by local customs and bribe officials, should one pull out the wallet or abandon the project? Issues like these, which have been called micro-ethical questions (Herkert, 2005), are often framed as arguments against lying, cheating, or stealing by engineers.

A Broad View of Ethics

Micro-ethics continue to be at the heart of most educational programs in engineering ethics, but considerable efforts are also being made to encourage engineers to consider macro-ethical issues—issues that an individual engineer alone cannot hope to address. Examples include how much of the U.S. federal research and development budget should be spent on defense, whether engineers should be rewarded more for researching new technologies to address problems in the developing world than for finding ways of adapting existing technologies to local contexts, and how engineers can ensure that their work produces genuine human good and not just a new technological toy that satisfies a desire for change.

Many of these questions are based on a somewhat radical idea in the engineering world—new technologies do not automatically make the world a better place. Therefore, one must first ask what is best for the world and then try to find a way to achieve that goal.

Macro-ethical questions are not new. In fact, most engineering codes of ethics call on engineers not only to avoid wronging others but also to actively pursue the good. For instance, the first clause of the first part of the IEEE code of ethics states that engineers must “accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health, and welfare of the public” ( html). The first fundamental principle in the ASCE code of ethics is that “engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor and dignity of the engineering profession by . . . using their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare and the environment” ( Ethics/).

Although professional codes of ethics implore engineers to consider the broad implications of their work and the implications of the engineering profession in general, integrating these principles into engineering ethics education has been difficult for at least three reasons. First, they raise very difficult questions to which there are no simple right or wrong answers. Indeed, the profession as a whole has not settled on best responses for many macro-ethical questions.

Second, although individuals may come to their own solutions to these questions, they cannot make them a reality on their own. Effecting change on the macro-ethical level requires the concerted efforts of many engineers, and sometimes many non-engineers as well. Making the shift from individual decisions to group decisions is not a simple process.

And third, engineering ethics has been based largely on a collaboration between two disciplines—engineering and philosophy—that are not always sufficient for analyzing the issues raised by macro-ethical questions. Philosophy is useful for defining social welfare, but to develop strategies to enhance social welfare one must also collect data to determine the potential effects of engineering projects.

Gaining Perspective with Social Sciences

The three challenges posed by macro-ethical questions have led a number of experts to argue for a larger role for social sciences in discussions about engineering ethics (Johnson and Wetmore, 2009). History, sociology, anthropology, political science, and science and technology studies can all be helpful in addressing macro-ethical engineering questions because they examine how change happens, provide tools to improve our understanding of the effects of technology on the world, and provide strategies for analyzing and balancing the pros and cons of different ways of addressing complex issues.

If engineers just built widgets, social science might not be very useful. But engineers are system builders, and new technologies are successful only when they are linked with existing technologies. In addition, new bigger technological systems work only if they mesh with social systems.

One scholar has gone so far as to argue that the best engineers are “heterogeneous engineers”—that is, engineers who understand both technical and social systems and can build the two simultaneously. Only heterogeneous engineers, who consider the social consequences of their actions, are well equipped to work for the public welfare (Law, 1987).

Many senior engineers have learned to balance technical and social issues through a lifetime of practice and have achieved their success because of it. But it is possible to accelerate the learning process for early-career engineers and, perhaps, teach more advanced engineers new tricks as well.

For instance, engineers can take workshops that introduce them to the basics of social science as it relates to their work. Although in most cases such workshops do not have enough time to go into much detail, even a basic understanding can provide some useful tools and, perhaps even more important, raise an engineer’s awareness of what a partnership with social scientists might contribute to an engineering project. Such partnerships can range from short-term consultations to long-term collaborations in which engineers and social scientists continually learn from each other.

The following examples illustrate some of the possible outcomes of pairing engineers and social scientists. These are by no means exhaustive, but they provide an idea of how, with even a small exposure to social sciences, engineers can increase the chances that their work will contribute directly to the public welfare.

Figure 1

Designing for the Blind

This first example demonstrates what graduate students can accomplish with just a little training in the social sciences. The Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC) at Arizona State University (ASU) (, headed by Sethuraman Panchanathan, focuses on developing technologies to assist people with disabilities. Sreekar Krishna, a new Ph.D. candidate in the CUbiC lab, was looking for a research project in which he could use his skills as a computer scientist to help blind people. Rather than focusing on a particular technology and looking for ways to use it, Krishna and his lab colleagues began by asking a simple question: “What is needed?” (Krishna et al., 2008, p. 2). To answer this question, they used time-tested social science techniques—they put together two focus groups and followed up with a web-based survey.

Because Krishna and his colleagues had a strong background in computer-assisted vision, their first instinct was to design a way to help blind people navigate through space. However, they learned from their focus groups that blind people were already pretty adept at moving safely. What was woefully lacking, however, was a technology that could help them navigate social situations.

The blind people they worked with noted that having access to social cues (especially nonverbal visual cues) could greatly advance their careers. For instance, glancing at a watch to signal that it is time to wrap up a meeting or making eye contact to clarify the person being addressed are important forms of communication in social situations. Without access to these signals, many blind people find it difficult to manage events or collaborate with sighted individuals.

Krishna and his colleagues ultimately developed a prototype system that included a camera, a face and facial expression recognition system, and haptic interfaces that indicate to a blind person whether someone in the room is smiling, nodding, making eye contact, or conveying other unspoken social signals (Krishna, 2011). This new technology can potentially meet a need that many sighted people have never recognized. Because Krishna took the time to familiarize himself with some basic social science tools, he was able to create a technology to help blind people improve their ability to manage others and take the lead in social and professional situations.

Regulating Emerging Technologies

A second example illustrates the benefits of a short-term collaboration between social scientists and engineers. In the summer of 2007, Troy Benn, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering at ASU, participated in “Science Outside the Lab,” a two-week program offered by the ASU Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, that uses U.S. federal science policy as a case study to introduce graduate students in science and engineering to the uses and social implications of technical knowledge ( During the program Benn met with funders, lobbyists, congressional staffers, museum curators, lawyers, and historians.

In addition to learning how the federal government develops regulations for emerging technologies, Benn was conducting research on how much nanosilver comes out of antibacterial clothing when washed (Benn and Westerhoff, 2008). In discussions of his project with an official from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Benn began to see how his research could help policy makers develop better regulations. He also got some training in translating technical information for non-experts. After the program ended, he kept in touch with staff at EPA and the Woodrow Wilson Center Project on Emerging Nanotechnology to keep them abreast of his latest research.

Ultimately, Benn’s publications were read by numerous policy makers, and his work was cited half a dozen times in one EPA working report (EPA, 2010). By learning how knowledge is transferred in the policy realm and developing the communication skills to share his information with policy makers, Benn was able to make a significant impact on regulations to protect American consumers.

Clean Cooking in Ghana

A third example illustrates the benefits of a long-term collaboration between a social scientist and engineers. GlobalResolve, a project of the ASU College of Technology and Innovation, works on developing sustainable technologies to provide clean water, energy, and economic development for rural communities in the developing world ( The first project by GlobalResolve was to improve the health of people in a small village in Ghana by developing an ethanol-gel fuel production facility and stoves that can run on that fuel. The early prototypes were smokeless, odorless, clean, and efficient, but the villagers were not very interested in using them.

By that time, Nalini Chhetri, a scholar who specializes in international development, had joined the program. She helped conduct a mapping exercise in the village to determine why people were not excited by the stoves (Chhetri, 2009). Through the mapping exercise, the team discovered that a number of their original assumptions—many of which had not been recognized as assumptions at the time—had made the devices unworkable.

For instance, each stove was designed for a family of five, but in the village 10 to 20 family members often lived together. In addition, the dietary staple was a very thick porridge that required vigorous stirring, but the original ethanol stoves were tall and skinny and could not stabilize the pots that were traditionally used. Finally, the villagers did not understand why anyone would put forth time and effort to brew ethanol as a fuel when there was plenty of free firewood just a short walk away.

Based on this new information, Chhetri facilitated a conversation between the villagers and engineers to get a better understanding of local customs, cuisine, and interpersonal relationships. Through these discussions, the team was able to look beyond the function of the technology and develop systems that fit with existing practices as much as possible. A subsequent technology, the Twig Light, which uses embers from the fire to power a small LED light, has generated significantly more excitement among the villagers.

Figure 2

Proactive Pursuit of Human Welfare

None of these projects quite fits the mold of a typical engineering ethics case study, because none of them focuses on a dilemma. However, they are positive examples of how some higher goals of engineering ethics and professionalism can be achieved. At the core of each project is a desire to “enhance human welfare.” By working with social scientists and using the tools they provide, engineers were able to link their technical work to positive social change.

These examples are not unique. In fact, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) also promotes these kinds of interactions. In a keynote talk before the 2000 NAE Annual Meeting, then NAE President Wm. A. Wulf cited the work of two social science scholars—sociologist Charles Perrow (1999) and historian Ed Tenner (1997)—for inspiring him to establish a program on engineering ethics, the NAE Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society (CEES) (Wulf, 2000). The underlying principle of the program is recognition of the need for “multi-disciplinary examinations” to address ethical and societal issues related to the development of new technologies ( CEES now hosts workshops and projects that bring together engineers, social scientists, and others on a regular basis.


Most people who pursue careers in engineering want to make the world a better place. They believe technologies can ease burdens, open up new possibilities, and even bring people together. To realize those goals, they must be able to understand the world in which they work, the ways in which their technologies will affect the world, and the ways in which people will respond to their products.

There is no precise, repeatable way to achieve this understanding, but social scientists have developed a number of tools and approaches that can help technology builders determine the effects of their work. Links between engineers and social scientists can go a long way toward developing an understanding of context, visualizing where certain paths might lead, and achieving the highest goal of engineering—contributing to human welfare.


Benn, T.M., and P. Westerhoff. 2008. Nanoparticle silver released into water from commercially available sock fabrics. Environmental Science and Technology 42(10): 4133–4139.

Chhetri, N. 2009. Lessons from Ghana: Why some technological fixes work and others don’t. CSPO Soapbox, August 27.

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Krishna, S., D. Colbry, J. Black, V. Balasubramanian, and S. Panchanathan. 2008. A Systematic Requirements Analysis and Development of an Assistive Device to Enhance the Social Interactions of People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired. Presentation at the Workshop on Computer Vision Applications for the Visually Impaired, Marseilles, France. Available online at

Krishna, S. 2011. Mediated Social Interpersonal Communication: Evidence-based Understanding of Multimedia Solutions for Enriching Social Situation. PhD dissertation. Arizona State University.

Law, J. 1987. Technology and Heterogeneous Engineering: The Case of Portuguese Expansion. Pp. 111–134 in The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology, edited by W.E. Bijker, T.P. Hughes, and T. Pinch. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Perrow, C. 1999. Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. Princeton University Press.

Pfatteicher, S.K.A. 2003. Depending on character: ASCE shapes its first code of ethics. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice 129(1): 21–31.

Tenner, E. 1997. Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. Vintage.

US EPA. 2010. Scientific, Technical, Research, Engineering and Modeling Support Final Report: State of the Science Literature Review: Everything Nanosilver and More, August.

Wulf, W.A. 2002. Great Achievements and Grand Challenges. The Bridge 30(3-4): 5–10.


About the Author:Jameson M. Wetmore, associate professor, Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University