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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access May 29, 2019

Toward a pragmatic and social engineering ethics

Ethnography as provocation

Jessica Sorenson EMAIL logo


This paper centers on a five-month ethnographic field study among engineers in a Danish collaborative industrial robotics project, to examine how the everyday work of engineers intersects with existing, formally-adopted engineering ethics approaches.Methods included a literature review of engineering ethics, participant observation in a technical research institute and in machine workshops, document and visual media analysis, object elicitation, and qualitative interviews. Empirical findings from this investigation are used to evaluate existing formalized engineering ethics in relation to engineering praxis. Juxtaposed with engineers’ everyday ethical decision-making practices, professional ethics approaches are shown to be based in deontological and virtue ethics, narrowly focused on the individual engineer as a professional, and thus inappropriate and insufficient for the very practical field of engineering. The author argues for an alternative direction toward a situated pragmatic and social ethics in engineering that disrupts the current social arrangement around robot development through ethnographic intervention in the engineers’ negotiation of values in the design process.


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Received: 2018-06-30
Accepted: 2019-05-07
Published Online: 2019-05-29

© 2019 Jessica Sorenson, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Public License.

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