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An Anthropology of Engineering

Ewart, I. ORCID: (2011) An Anthropology of Engineering. DPhil thesis, University of Oxford

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This dissertation considers the place in anthropology of ‘production’ generally, and ‘engineering’ specifically, by asking the simple question: How do people make things? Scholars of material culture have until recently focused on issues of consumption, especially the consumption of commodities (Miller), and considered production only in the abstract. Other theoretical approaches are therefore drawn upon to act as a framework for the thesis, including network theory (Law and Latour), and environmental relationism (Ingold). A methodology of ‘parallel fieldwork’ was developed (from Bourdieu), to situate myself as an experienced engineer carrying out anthropological fieldwork. Work in a ‘familiar’ environment (the Didcot Railway Centre, UK) was used to provoke thoughts about engineering in my primary fieldsite (the Kelabit highlands, Borneo). Data from the UK thus helped frame my analysis of Kelabit engineering, presented here in four parts. First, using the construction of two bridges as a case study, I suggest that a design can be seen as the revelation of a potential future, rather than a complete plan, as is suggested by design researchers such as Lawson and Norman. Then, by looking at changing traditions of house-building, I demonstrate the intimate relationship between materials and environment, even as the environment becomes more industrialised (Tsing), and consider this example in the light of debates about materiality (Miller; Ingold). Personal involvement in the conception and building of a new suspension bridge allowed me to investigate in some depth the act of construction. As a communal project, this incorporated aspects of individual skill, in the way that Ingold has described, but also the organization of people, tools and materials, akin to Law’s ‘heterogenous engineering’. This leads me to conclude that a theory of engineering might come from due consideration of both these approaches to relational thinking. Finally, I describe an abandoned longhouse and trace its deconstruction, suggesting that this is an example of creative destruction (Colloredo-Mansfeld), and re-materialization (Gregson). The dissipation of the material parts of the building shows that engineered objects should be seen as an ongoing process of material creation and disposal, and not a unified whole. In conclusion, my hope is that this dissertation contributes to ideas about the place and nature of material culture, and advocates a more prominent place for ‘production’ within anthropology.

Item Type:Thesis (DPhil)
Thesis Supervisor:Gosden, C. and Daniels, I.
Thesis/Report Department:Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Science > School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science > Human Environments
Science > School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science > Social Archaeology
Science > School of the Built Environment > Organisation, People and Technology group
ID Code:93007

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