Anthropology of Engineering
August 25, 2010 6:00 AM   Subscribe

Anthropology and/or evolutionary psychology/neurology of engineering. Does that exist?

I'm interested in learning more about whatever innate "powers" and tendencies humans have for engineering, from identification of (usually physical) problems to visualization of potential solutions to implementation of actual solutions across cultures and throughout time. Does this exist as a discipline? And does that discipline have a well-written set of popularizations in book form?

There are a lot of history of engineering/technology books, but I'm looking more for something human-centered rather than timeline-centered.
posted by DU to Science & Nature (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Henry Petroski's books and columns in American Scientist would be a good start - too obvious?
posted by Mapes at 6:07 AM on August 25, 2010

It sounds like searching within the field of science and technology studies would be a good step, although I don't know of specific works that would be helpful.
posted by dreamyshade at 6:26 AM on August 25, 2010

Check out work in the History of Science field, especially writing by Donna Haraway at the UC, Santa Cruz History of Consciousness program. Especially "Primate Visions". This is where you'll find very human-centered examinations of the construction of science as a discipline and the relationship of that to human 'biology.'
posted by jardinier at 6:31 AM on August 25, 2010

It's not exactly what you're talking about, but I've come across anthropology being used as a way to study the culture of the people the engineered artifact (program, widget, etc.) is intended for in order to better design the artifact. Google "anthropology hci" without the quotes to learn about that.
posted by callmejay at 6:46 AM on August 25, 2010

It's a bit of a stretch from your question, but you might be interested in learning about cognitive development - a lot of recent work in this field has focused on how babies and toddlers form 'naive theories' of physics and biology. For instance, even young infants have expectations about how balls should move around the world, how gravity works, etc. "The Scientist in the Crib" is a pretty reasonable introduction to this area.
posted by heyforfour at 6:51 AM on August 25, 2010

Response by poster: That's not really a stretch, since I am in fact talking about built-in assumptions about how the world works. It's certainly less of one than Petroski (mainly history of and he's completely unreadable anyway AFAIC) and Haraway (who seems to be about social construction of engineering, which is exactly the opposite of what I'm talking about). Anthropology of HCI could be a good place to start too.
posted by DU at 7:05 AM on August 25, 2010

Response by poster: I guess I mean the cognitive science OF engineering.
posted by DU at 7:14 AM on August 25, 2010

Sorry, I guess I didn't understand your question. If you're looking for an 'anthropology of' and you're talking about cultural variation over time, how are you not talking about the social construction of X? I see that you used the word 'innate' which does suggest you wouldn't be looking at anthropology at all, but then again, you also used the word 'anthropology.' Can you clarify?
posted by jardinier at 7:17 AM on August 25, 2010

Response by poster: you're talking about cultural variation over time

No, I'm talking about constants across both culture and time.

As for why I used "anthropology": I guess I used it in a different way than it is now commonly used, if biology, neurology and evolution are no longer captured in a halo effect. I just mean "the study of human(s) culture/behavior".
posted by DU at 7:20 AM on August 25, 2010

Ah, ok. I'm an anthropologist and I do research on technology. I'd argue there are no constants across culture and time and I wouldn't separate the mind/body/technology from the culture and behavior. That said, you might find this text by Vygotsky useful "Mind In Society: The Development Of Higher Psychological Processes."
posted by jardinier at 7:25 AM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

You might be interested in the work done Charles M. Keller and Janet Dixon Keller on cognitive modelling of task organisation and problem solving -- they specifically use blacksmithing as a case study. It's been 20 years since I've read this set of work (there's a book and a few articles, all listed in Janet Keller's selected bibliography. This work is not very recent, but by following the "cited by" links in Google Scholar you can trace this approach forward in time and see who has found it relevant more recently (including a number of scholars working on the problem of abstracting cognitive abilities of early humans and human ancestors based on sketchy archaeological evidence, such as tools and tool making).

More recently, you might take a look at Harvey Whitehead's edited volume "The Debated Mind". As the subtitle--"Evolutionary Psychology vs. Ethnography" indicates, the approach or goal of many cognitive anthropologists in the cultural subfield differs from that of researchers approaching it from other angles (as you can see by jardinier's reaction to the suggestion of constants across culture and time). Among cultural anthropologists interested in questions of cognition, I suspect you'll find the greatest sympathy toward ideas of "innate" cognitive abilities among those coming from an anthropological linguistics background, where the whole idea of innate patterning (Chomsky and "deep grammar") can at least be entertained.

I wish I had more for you, but I abandoned my keen interest in cognitive anthropology back in the early 1990s. My suspicion is that you'll have little luck finding good quality research in this field in the format of a book written for the educated masses.
posted by drlith at 8:25 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some of the sociology of science literature may in fact be up your alley. I'm not so familiar with this part of the field, but at least it will give you another literature set to check.
posted by kch at 8:34 AM on August 25, 2010

Psychological research in the area of "folk physics" might be related to this. From another approach, Edwin Hutchins has researched the cognitive aspects of ocean navigation (not engineering) across cultures. Lastly, I'll suggest Edward Tenner, who writes about the interactions between technology development and human behavior.
posted by neutralmojo at 9:58 AM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

"Among cultural anthropologists interested in questions of cognition, I suspect you'll find the greatest sympathy toward ideas of "innate" cognitive abilities among those coming from an anthropological linguistics background, where the whole idea of innate patterning (Chomsky and "deep grammar") can at least be entertained."

This is a great point - I'd just add that in Linguistic Anthropology today, Chomsky's ideas about deep structure are mostly out of fashion and usually taught as historical followed by "and now we believe..." - though they're entertained by some researchers in other areas of Linguistics, especially the work of 'empirical cognitive linguists.'
posted by jardinier at 10:21 AM on August 25, 2010

This isn't exactly what you're looking for, but Stanislas Dehaene's The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics is an excellent book on the cognitive neuropsychology of math, which is at least connected with engineering.
posted by tdismukes at 11:07 AM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yes, it sounds like Dehaene's book is a mathematical version of what I'm looking for. The "engineering" I mean isn't the mathematical part, I'm more looking for the physical problem-solving aspects (e.g. "what if we jammed a stick under THERE and then it would tip like THIS so we could reach the banana") but I've added this book to my reading list anyway. As well as a few others from this thread.
posted by DU at 12:01 PM on August 25, 2010

Response by poster: Aha, this might be a goldmine. Searching for tags "cognitive science" and "engineering" on LibraryThing finds quite a list. Seems to be more on the user end (Donald Norman/HCI stuff is prominent) but maybe there will be some other hits.
posted by DU at 12:11 PM on August 25, 2010

Herbert Simon's The Sciences of the Artificial (definitely read the 3rd edition) gets into this. The book covers a LOT of territory for its small size.
posted by neuron at 1:17 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

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