Phenomenology and Engineering Education Research

Moving towards methods defined as feminist requires moving beyond only considering the experience of the individual to further include context of the external forces which act upon the body.

An unpublished paper I wrote regarding phenomenology – its many flavors and its applications within engineering education research. “Qualitative and phenomenological methods are increasingly employed which use experience and narrative of individuals to shape emergent theoretical findings. I wish to open up this ‘black box’ and explore how phenomenology – in particular feminist and queer theory informed phenomenology – can complement dominant research methods within engineering education.”

Towards Feminist Engineering Phenomenology

Investigations into the experiences of marginalized and underrepresented groups in engineering spaces has increased in scope and depth over several decades. National and local efforts towards increasing the number of women and people of color in engineering have not created significant changes in demographics. Some posit that the slight increase in women’s participation may be attributed to women’s increasing resilience to sexism, not due to any shift in engineering’s male- centered culture (Baxter 2010). Changes in education have not translated to shifts in workforce demographics either. Recent data show that the field is predominantly white and that 90% of working professionals are men, with half of the women who enter engineering leaving the field within 5 years (BLS 2016, Fouad 2011). Research on concepts such as gender in engineering largely exist in a ‘black box’ untouched by advances in feminist research and social theories from the 1970’s to present (Phipps 2007). Qualitative and phenomenological methods are increasingly employed which use experience and narrative of individuals to shape emergent theoretical findings. I wish to open up this ‘black box’ and explore how phenomenology – in particular feminist and queer theory informed phenomenology – can complement dominant research methods within engineering education.

Towards Feminist Engineering Phenomenology

I find differing methodologies and epistemological underpinnings between the disciplines which inform my dissertation research. The fields I am drawing from include queer theory, feminist theory, critical trans and race theories, as well as sociology of professions and engineering education research. Engineering research is almost entirely performed by those with engineering degrees – a product of engineering being one of the most walled off disciplines in the academy. Engineering graduates teach engineering students in an engineering program accredited by other engineers. Few engineers teach outside of engineering classrooms, and few students outside of engineering take engineering classes. Accreditation requirements leave very little room for academic study in other fields as well. This “pillar” of engineering yields engineering education researchers with several engineering degrees grounded in positivist scientific calculations and very little exposure with qualitative methods, epistemology, and human subject research (Bernhard 2016). This creates perceptions that the objective quality and “rigor” of research should be assessed by the application of quantitative, statistical, and mathematical methods. Fields outside of engineering such as sociology often continue to study its culture within these acceptable patterns at risk of being invalidated by the engineers they seek to inform. The following are what I find to be most prevalent methods within engineering education:

Towards Feminist Engineering Phenomenology

This is the most epistemologically valued basis of intellectual merit in engineering research. There little room for the affective in a field which encultures faculty for decades to produce mathematical and technical work. The underlying epistemology is that this research utilizing quantitative methods are empirical, reliable, logical, systematic, and exhaustive (Bernhard 2016). Examples of quantitative method approaches to engineering experiences are web surveys scored and ranked and ordered by Mann-Whitney U-tests to evaluate support for underrepresented students in engineering programs (Haden 2007), email survey responses interpreted through independent-group t-tests to assess girls’ engineering summer camp impacts (McCormick 2014), cluster and factor analysis of 1,154 questionnaire responses yielding a multinomial model of gender impact on engineering mentorship (Fox 2006), calculative engineering problem performance plotted against 124 mean-averaged survey responses through logistic regression to explore gender differences in context approaches (Kilgore 2007), analysis of 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey for LGBT experiences in engineering (Cech 2015), measuring engineering identity through the given survey responses emailed to undergraduates (Meyers 2012), and survey question comparisons between two gender categories to analyze reasons for exiting engineering degree programs (Morgan 2000). These do not offer any explanation or insight from participants, significantly impacting the ability to give deep meaningful insight.

Qualitative and Mixed Methods in Engineering Ed. Research

Increasingly the standard in engineering education is mixed method approaches which oft include the descriptive statistics and modeling described above. Bodies of survey data are seemingly validated with a varied number of interviews and analyzed transcripts. Many consider these methods to be phenomenological, which is fair as they investigate through experience and narrative as opposed to numerical methods. Examples of qualitative and mixed approaches are inductive coding and researcher comparison of 73 transcribed interviews and focus groups against their surveyed social identities but with no note of larger systems of oppression which create gendered racialized disparities (Tran 2011), data from 41 male and female academic diaries across institutions coded through Atlas.Ti software for themes of belonging and gender essentialism by students but not reflecting on the researcher’s identical use of the exact same binary gender essentialism in research formation (Seron 2018), and 69 in-depth interviews with women undergraduate students exploring their experiences of spotlighting without reflexing on the underlying epistemologies of the researcher and their framing of women (McLoughlin 2005). Combining these approaches with surveys is becoming a standard approach in engineering education such as with our own project at Oregon State University comparing student, faculty, and alumni survey data with semi-structured focus groups and interview transcripts. Although phenomenological in nature, I believe this falls short of what is possible with feminist phenomenological models. A core element missing from these methods where I distinguish them apart from feminist and queer theory informed phenomenology is that they do not involve the body’s experience in the physical and social power structures which distribute life outcomes in society. I believe another missing component when compared to phenomenological methods is the lack of a critical theory informed reflexivity in the interpretation of data.

Feminist Phenomenological Methods

Feminist phenomenology begins to critique most of the described qualitative approaches employed due to their formulation by dominant white men who distanced the corporeal, relational, and affective experiences in place of an “objective consciousness” which can analyze society’s condition (Oksala 2006). Moving towards methods defined as feminist requires moving beyond only considering the experience of the individual to further include context of the external forces which act upon the body (theories of power and oppression). The research must include a critically reflexive researcher who reflects on themselves as well, and the methods and approaches thus lose rigidity and emerge from the research itself (Borrego 2009). The researcher and participants are partners and any definition of truth is under question. Interviews are typically not structured nor clinical in nature. If phenomenology can be broadly described as exploration into a human’s embodied life experience to include judgements, perceptions, and emotions (Connelly 2010), a feminist phenomenology considers the structures of power and subject positionality which shape those judgements, perceptions, and embodiments. Thus “embodiment [is] not the same as the personal narratives” as the former is understood through the context of societal conditions (Oksala 2011).

Phenomenology of Gender and Sexuality

The framing of gender as a dichotomous experience (i.e. men all experience manhood this way, women live a woman’s life in that way) permeates scientific and engineering studies. This logic is associated with value-based binaries between girls/boys, social/technical, and feminine/masculine. Foucauldian discourse analysis of research on women in science, engineering, and technology reveal a culture which assumes that girls have an uncomplicated relationship with femininity and constructs “boys as synonymous with technical and girls as synonymous with social interests and pursuits” (Phipps 2007). Emphasis on an essentialized binary gender hierarchy avoids acknowledging the complex co-construction of gender with categories of sexuality, race, culture, and ability amongst others. Further analysis finds biologically constructed essentialist gender categories reproduced and reinforced through this STEM discourse while disregarding any impact of race or ethnicity (Hughes 2010).

Feminist phenomenologists have critiqued many qualitative methods that exist within engineering and STEM which normalize gender difference to a single binary, noting that gender is a “complex cultural learning process intertwined with the acquisition of language” and that “bodies themselves are also culturally molded in more and less violent ways to conform to the normative expectations of gender” (Oksala 2006). A phenomenological study of gender in engineering therefore cannot be limited to an assumed singular lived difference between two types of living bodies. It must encompass the ontological schemas in which those bodies gain value and meaning. A radical revision of common phenomenological methods of gender in engineering would bring particular attention to the construction of gender and the embodied violence felt by those who fall outside racialized gender norms. The sheer number of qualitative studies on women’s experiences in engineering reflects the objectification of women and their existence as a dominated “other” within STEM phenomenological practices (Manen 2016, p. 124-126). This can answer the question of why there are so little studies on the experiences of men who enact the homophobia and sexism in engineering – they are the elite norm.

The experiences of gay, lesbian, and bisexual engineers have become increasingly in vogue and descriptive statistics or interviews with engineers will fall short of capturing experiences of sexuality in engineering. Phenomenology of sexuality moves beyond the mind-body separation and explores the pain, emotion, pleasure, social perception, group alienation, and learning inscribed upon the body which permeates sexual identity. Heteronormative and body-normative tendencies must be actively worked against in this approach – for example, in the paper “Phenomenological Research and Adolescent Female Sexuality” the researchers assumed heterosexuality and framed women as either anticipating or experiencing pregnancy (Morrissey 2006). This essentialized the female body itself and discounted the bodies of intersex, transgender, and women with disabilities in addition to omitting bisexual or lesbian women. This displayed a lack of sufficient reflexivity by the researchers, despite their heterosexual participant subset. Feminist phenomenology approaches sexuality actively aware of homonormative or

heteronormative reduction “in order to reveal something about the ontological schemas underlying our ways of thinking, perceiving and acting” (Oksala 2006).

Queer Phenomenology & Phenomenology of Whiteness

The notion of a sexual orientation is complicated and unsettled by the emergence of queer phenomenology. This seeks to not only ask about the concept of an orientation within phenomenology, but the orientation of phenomenology itself (Ahmed 2006a). She places people as located in physical space and given trajectory by gender, sexuality, race, ability, and culture. She implicates physical spaces of having orientations – trajectories – such that a space like an engineering classroom could be given an orientation towards masculinity, able bodiedness, or heterosexuality. To be oriented is to have direction and motion. One’s dwelling place may share a comfortable orientation, but they may be disoriented when leaving this space. A sexual orientation is then conceptualized as a path one is directed towards or against certain social and physical locations of desire, privilege, feeling, and normalcy. There is a resistance to certain embodied trajectories which throw one off course of one orientation and towards another by social or physical force. To be straight indicates a normalized linear orientation to which queer subjects divert from or are disoriented from. Ahmed is concerned with interrogating how queer subjects are kept in line through force and the effects of nonalignment, noting that compulsory heterosexuality can permeate social interactions due to norms of familial formation.

“Subjects are (socially) required to tend toward some objects and not others, as a condition of familial as well as social love. For the boy, to follow the family line, he “must” orient himself toward women as loved objects. For the girl, to follow the family line, she “must” take men as loved objects. It is the presumption that the child must inherit the life of the parent that requires the child to follow the heterosexual line… in directing one’s desire toward some others, and not other others, bodies in turn acquire their shapes”

Queer phenomenology additionally involves itself with approaching whiteness as an orientation which society and dwellings have, which bodies have. It explores how non-white bodies ‘take up’ space in a white space and what they ‘can do’ (Ahmed 2007). Whiteness becomes a habit and an overlaying action, not a demographic checkbox. Racial categories become inscribed upon bodies by physical spaces and by other bodies within a colonially constructed global society of whiteness. White bodies do not become stressed by encounters with other white objects or feel embodiment of being pushed out of space due to whiteness. White subjects do not call attention to themselves. At the core of queer phenomenology is how through physical conditions of colonialism have shaped the society’s sexual and racial orientation and how bodies are affected by this trajectory (Ruchti 2008). Certain options and spaces are made accessible or inaccessible in ones lived experience – “The lines that allow us to find our way, those that are ‘in front’ of us also make certain things, and not others, available… When we follow specific lines, some things become reachable and others remain or even become out of reach” (Ahmed 2006b, p. 14)


An oft overlooked axis of difference in engineering is racialized indigeneity and the spiritual, religious, cultural practices embedded within. There is very little information on the native or indigenous experience within engineering classroom, workplace, or interactions of these with the outside community. Indigenous research practice centralize what Western Colonial culture would qualify as phenomenological methods – particularly because this tends to root itself within indigenous ways of knowing and oral history. This transfer of knowledge and stories is sacred, ceremonial, and precious – requiring the researcher to engage in a deep questioning of their own epistemological practices (Kovach 2009). This is a radically different approach than the sciences employ. An example of these methods are practices of native knowledge sharing for the Ojibway, Agonquin, and Cree nations which are ceremonial sharing circles and Anishnaabe symbol-based reflections (Lavallée 2009). Another example are Afrocentric methods which place African indigenous culture as the philosophical and theoretical foundation (Mkabela 2005). This posits that “cultural and social immersion as opposed to scientific distance as the best approach to understand African phenomena” and that the research cannot be reduced to “the collection and production of value-free scientific knowledge” which continue to perpetuate myths about indigenous African society. Traditional indigenous religions and thought systems in traditional Western phenomenology were rendered primitive and at worst, dismissed as non- existent” (Mutema 2003). Within decolonial methods such as these the focus is pointed at improving the lived reality for participants, as the practices of life are inseparable from the production of research (Wulff 2010). Relationality between all those involved is paramount.

Next Steps

A paper on textbook use in engineering by Lee, McNeil, and Douglas et. al. defined their methodology as phenomenology. They explicitly stated that “any historical, political, or other influences that may account for the meanings of the experiences were left out of the analysis,” (Lee 2013) even though 9 of the 10 students were white and 8 of the 10 were men.This was published in what is regarded as the most premier journal in our field, the Journal of Engineering Education. What would a feminist phenomenological investigation of text book usage look like?

Within environmental engineering, feminist theory informed methods would consider the embodiment of human existence and challenge positivist notions that humans exist separate from air, water, land, and the constructed objects (Paul 2017). Experiences with engineered technologies would expand to include the aesthetic, erotic desire, emotion, and gendering of the objects (Manen 2016, p. 309).

Feminist phenomenology must be applied within engineering to reveal the cultural conditions which move, shape, and impact bodies – while simultaneously shedding light on the way systems of colonialism, whiteness, heterosexism, and gender essentialism positively impact the spatial trajectory of other bodies. Engineering culture and our physical spaces would be implicated as areas of phenomenological investigation, expanding our scope. These theories should become broadly integrated within engineering education social research as we dig deeper into kyriarchal power structures of domination and its human-social-cultural dynamics in the profession.

Works Cited

Ahmed, S. (2006a). Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 12(4), 543-574.

Ahmed, S. (2006b). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press. Durham, NC.

Ahmed, S. (2007). A phenomenology of whiteness. Feminist Theory. 8, 149-168.
Bernhard, J., Baillie, C. (2016). Standards for Quality of Research in Engineering Education*.

International Journal of Engineering Education, 32(6), 2378-2394.
Borrego, M., Douglas, E., Amelink, C. (2009). Quantitative, Qualitative, and Mixed Research

Methods in Engineering Education. Journal of Engineering Education, 98(1), 53-66.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2016). “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey,”

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Report.
Cech, E. (2015). LGBT Professionals’ Workplace Experiences in STEM-related Federal

Agencies. 122nd ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, June 2015.
Connelly, L. (2010). What is Phenomenology? MEDSURG Nursing, 19(2), 127-128.

Fouad, N., Singh, R. (2011). Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering. University of Wisconsin Milwaukeee. Report.

Fox, M., Fonseca, C. (2006). Gender and mentoring of faculty in science and engineering: individual and organizational factors. International Journal of Learning and Change, 1(4), 460- 483.

Haden, C. (2007). Evaluating Support for Underrepresented Students in Engineering Degree Programs. 114th Annual American Society for Engineering Educaton Conference & Exposition, June 24-27 2007. Conference paper.

Kilgore, D., Atman, C., Yasuhara, K., Barker, T., Morozov, A. (2007). Considering Context: A Study of First-Year Engineering Students. Journal of Engineering Education, 96(4), 321-334.

Kovach, M. (2009). Indigenous methodologies: Characteristics, conversations, and contexts. The Canadian Geographer, 56(2), 292-294.

Hughes, G. (2010). Exploring the Availability of Student Scientist Identities within Curriculum

Discourse: An anti-essentialist approach to gender-inclusive science. Gender and

Education, (13)3, 275-290.


Lavalée, L. (2009). Practical Application of an Indigenous Research Framework and Two Qualitative Indigenous Research Methods: Sharing Circles and Anishnaabe Symbol-Based Reflection. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 8(1), 21-40.

Lee, C., McNeil, N., Douglas, E., Koro-Ljung, Therriault, D. (2013). Indispensable Resource? A Phenomenological Study of Textbook Use in Engineering Problem Solving. Journal of Engineering Education, 102(2), 269-268.

Manen, M. (2016). Phenomenology of Practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

McCormick, J., Talbert-Hatch, T., Feldhaus, C. (2014). Increasing Participation in Engineering: Evaluating *CAMP NAME* Summer Camp. 121st ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, June 15-18, 2014. Conference paper.

McLoughlin, L. (2005). Spotlighting: Emergent Gender Bias in Undergraduate Engineering Education. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(4), 373-381.

Meyers, K. (2012). Factors Relating to Engineering Identity. Global Journal of Engineering Education, 14(1).

Mkabela, Q. (2005). Using the Afrocentric Method in Researching Indigenous African Culture. The Qualitative Report, 10(1), 178-179.

Morgan, L. (2000). Is Engineering Hostile to Women? An Analysis of Data from the 1993 National Survey of College Graduates. American Sociological Review, 65(2), 316-321.

Morrissey, G., Higgs, J. (2006). Phenomenological Research and Adolescent Female Sexuality: Discoveries and Applications. The Qualitative Report, 11(1), 161-181.

Mutema, G. (2003). Phenomenology, Hermeneutics and the study of indigenous knowledge systems. Indiliga: African Journal of Indigenous Knowledge Systems, 2(1).

Oksala, J. (2006). A phenomenology of gender. Continental Philosophy Review. 39, 229-224.

Oksala, J. (2011). Sexual Experience: Foucault, Phenomenology, and Feminist Theory. Hypatia, 26(1), 207-223.

Paul, K. (2017). Introducing Interpretive Approach of Phenomenological Research Methodology in Environmental Philosophy: A Mode of Engaged Philosophy in the Anthropocene. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. 16, 1-10.

Phipps, A. (2007). Re-inscribing gender binaries: Deconstructing the dominant discourse around women’s equality in science, engineering, and technology. The Sociological Review, 55(4), 768- 787.

Ruchti, E. (2008). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (review). College Literature, 35(3), 192-195.

Seron, C., Silbey, S., Cech, E., Rubineau, B. (2018). “I am Not a Feminist but…”: Hegemony of a Meritocratic Ideology and the Limits of Critique Among Women in Engineering. Work and Occupations, 0(0), 1-37.

Tran, M. (2011). How Can Students Be Scientists And Still Be Themselves: Understanding the Intersectionality of Science Identity and Multiple Social Identities and Multiple Social Identites Through Graduate Student Experiences. University of California. Dissertation.

Wulff, D. (2010). Unquestioned Answers: A Review of Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. The Qualitative Report, (15)5, 1290-1295.

Author: Andrea

Doctoral student exploring environmental justice, critical feminist theories, and engineering education at Oregon State University.

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