Socialization through stories of disaster in engineering laboratories

Author:Wylie, Caitlin, EN-Engineering and SocietyUniversity of Virginia ORCID icon

The initiation of novices into research communities relies on the communication of tacit knowledge, behavioral norms and moral values. Much of this instruction happens informally, as messages subtly embedded in everyday interactions. This study uses participant-observation and interviews to investigate how engineers socialize future engineers by studying how undergraduate students who work in an engineering laboratory learn their research community’s social and technical norms. I found that a key method of conveying knowledge about social behavior and technical practices is the narration of the experience of mistakes and failures. As a powerful tool of socialization, these ‘disaster stories’ contain messages of self-deprecation, humility, teamwork, and mutual learning. They are most often told by the principal investigator or a graduate student to an undergraduate student and thus generously offer novices the opportunity to learn vicariously through more experienced engineers’ errors. Disaster stories can reduce hierarchy, normalize learning through mistakes, and build relationships among workers through the sharing of humbling personal struggles. The stories promote collaboration, a sense of belonging, and the value of continuous learning for all the community’s members. They demonstrate the power of storytelling in the acquisition of tacit social and technical knowledge.

Source Citation:

Wylie, C.D. (2019). Socialization through stories of disaster in engineering laboratories. Social Studies of Science, 49(6), 817-838.

University of Virginia
Published Date:
December 21, 2020