Art, Science and Engineering — Should Anthropologists Be Engineers?

The question is a metaphorical one, inspired by Heesun Hwang's remark that she is attracted by "an engineering approach." Now what could that mean? 

I instantly thought of Henry Petroski's classic To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design. There, right at the beginning of chapter 4 "Engineering as Hypothesis" (1985:40), I found what I was looking for. Try substituting "anthropologist" for "engineer" in the following text. 


Every issue of The Structural Engineer, the official journal of the British Institution of Structural Engineers carries prominently displayed in a box on its contents page this definition of its subject: 


Structural engineering is the science and art of designing and making, with economy and elegance, buildings, bridges, frameworks, and other similar structures so that they can safely resist the forces to which they may be subjected.


Since some engineers deny that engineering is either science or art, it is encouraging to see this somewhat official declaration that it is both. And indeed it is, for the conception of a design for a new structure can involve as much a leap of the imagination and as much a synthesis of experience and knowledge as any artist is required to bring to his canvas or paper. And once that design is articulated by the engineer as artist, it must be analyzed by the engineer as scientist in as rigorous an application of the scientific method as any scientist must make. 




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Comment by John McCreery on February 23, 2011 at 5:51am
Delete CommentI am a bit reluctant to endorse "social engineering," a Modernist idea that still reeks of technocrats, whether party cadres or capitalist tools, manipulating the masses. What I like about engineering as a model is the limited goals, constructing something that satisfices, i.e., is good enough for the purpose at hand, even if not the absolutely best possible solution from an omniscient God's-eye perspective, and the engagement with material realities that breaks the purely semiotic chains.
Comment by M Izabel on February 23, 2011 at 3:33am
I wonder, John, if you can stretch your idea by not just treating "engineering" as an approach but an application where culture is engineered the way society is by "social engineers."  Maybe concepts in physics such as stress and strain in Material Science and physical laws in Thermodynamics can be cultural models in engineering a culture where the goal of an anthropologist is to study a cultural problem inside-out and solve them the way reverse engineers do.  In this way, maybe reversed culture change is possible in a succeeding generation.
Comment by John McCreery on February 23, 2011 at 3:05am
On a personal note, when I look back on my education what I regret most is never  learning to draw. My subsequent brief encounters with programs like Drawing on the Right Hand Side of the Brain have convinced me that training hand and eye to work together is far more enlightening that any amount of purely verbal description. It would also have been great if I had taken a couple of studio art courses or be involved backstage in theater, constructing and decorating sets.  I could have been a much more useful apprentice to my Daoist master and learned a lot more about the stagecraft involved in his rituals than I did. I also wonder what it would have been like to bring an architect's hand and eye, aware of things like strength of materials and construction techniques to my appreciation of Chinese temples. I now suppose that if there is any way to break out of those self-referential semiotic chains you mention, it would involve more direct contact with material reality than the eye, even the eye extended with all the clever digital devices we now enjoy, can provide.
Comment by John McCreery on February 22, 2011 at 4:01pm
Not bad. Like you, I think that finding the equivalent of structural engineering is the toughest piece of the puzzle. Though, of course, we might also consider that what architecture students learn about urban environments is a lot more concrete (pun not intended but still pretty funny) than just debating the issues. At the end of the day, it may be the studios even more than the courses per se that make the difference. I keep trying to imagine what it would have been like if, instead of just reading and then writing essays, I had been taught and compelled to produce diagrams, drawings, physical models and be able to explain the mechanisms required for the ideas to work.
Comment by John McCreery on February 21, 2011 at 5:16am
Tommy, what engineering do you think I have in mind? And who are the individuals to whom it would be morally unacceptable? Just curious how you are drawing your conclusions.
Comment by Tommy Pettiti on February 21, 2011 at 4:53am



My assumption is that it would all depend on the individual anthropologist and where their moral interests are taking them at this time, although personally I would have to be inclined to assume that if there were more individuals whether that of the anthropological world or that of the metaphysical world, utilization of structure in this engineering field in which you speak would change dramatically, but who knows what can happen in today's world of these aesthetics John. I can say from the individuals I know personally in the anthropological field that your engineering would be in good hands but possibly not morally acceptable by these individuals without further details.

Comment by John McCreery on February 21, 2011 at 3:56am

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This is, of course, an idealized depiction of the school. Still the combination of practical skills, historical and aesthetic awareness, involvement with social and environmental issues, real-world engagement and serious science and engineering sounds like a winning recipe to me. What would an anthropology curriculum that included all these elements look like? 

Any ideas?

Comment by John McCreery on February 21, 2011 at 3:51am

Nice point. It might be worth observing, however, that structural engineering has moved on quite a bit since Petroski wrote his book. Serendipitously, a small but substantial amount of our workflow at The Work Works is translating material related to architecture and urban planning. Since we are in Japan, earthquakes are a major concern and the state of the art in seismic damping could be described in the terms you use, as equipping structures to "engage with and adapt in response to the effects of forces which act upon them."


Just this week, we have been translating some material for a brochure about the Yokohama National University's School of Architecture, and I've been thinking about it as a possible model for education in other fields. The program is divided into four divisions: Architectural Design, a foundation course which includes the design and drawing skills required by work in the other divisions; Architectural Theory, which includes a review of historic and contemporary buildings from historical and aesthetic perspectives; Urban Environment, which addresses water, waste disposal, power and transportation issues in relation to contemporary concerns about the need for energy-saving, environment friendly sustainable cities; and Structural Engineering, where the focus is materials, structures, safety and legal and regulatory issues. The latter three all include studio courses in which students work on real-world redevelopment projects in Yokohama. The master's course includes a mandatory thesis/project proposal that demonstrates not only relevant knowledge and research skills but also proactive thinking about architectural and urban planning issues. Also, given that architects never get to build what they design without the cooperation of lots of other people, the presentation of the graduation thesis/project must demonstrate presentation skills as well. 


This is, of course, an idealized depiction of the school. Still, th


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