Exploring professional engineers' knowings-in-practice in an emerging industry: an actor-network theory approach

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This thesis presents a sociomaterial perspective on how everyday engineering work practices are being changed by the complexities and tensions prevalent in emerging industries. Presenting the wind energy industry, in the renewable energy sector, as a case, this study contends that current engineering education practices are not adequately preparing and supporting students and professionals for work in highly volatile, precarious industries. This study pays close attention to how engineers enact competent knowing and learning strategies to respond to, and navigate, these complexities and tensions.
Traditional engineering education practices tend to frame engineering work as a bounded, stable, rational, and technical endeavor, where knowledge is regarded as a commodity to be acquired. Rather than treating professional knowledge as an independent reality of the engineering field, this thesis argues that education practices can be informed by making visible mundane and taken-for-granted aspects of engineers’ everyday work, and reconfiguring conceptualisations of engineering knowledge as situated, collective, on-going, and materially-mediated performances. To do so, this study draws on concepts of knowing-in-practice and Actor-Network Theory, which position engineering work as heterogeneous assemblages of social and material relations.
An ethnographic methodology afforded the tracing of social and material relations between 13 participating engineers and the objects of their practice in a wind energy organisation located in a Scottish city. Following six months of observations and interviews, three activities that generated high intensity in the engineers' everyday work were analysed: securing a signature on a contract, the unfolding of a specific organising process, and implementing a new technology. Analysis revealed four tensions that needed to be constantly negotiated, which included balancing: commercial objectives and client needs with traditional engineering concerns; standardising practices with innovating practices; acceptable practice with allowable deviation; and visibility with invisibility.
Emerging from the findings were clear indications that the multiple knowings-in-practice enacted to negotiate these tensions were interdependent, yet partial, fluid and multiple, sociomaterial performances. This thesis offers recommendations for education practices based on these findings, which challenge dominant representational and individualistic conceptualisations of engineering education and workplace learning. Furthermore, a ‘dynamic stability’ sensibility is offered as a pedagogical approach that encourages attunement to the performance of fluid and informal infrastructuring practices, which tolerate volatility and high-change in work practices.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Stirling
  • Fenwick, Tara, Supervisor, External person
  • Thompson, Terrie Lynn, Supervisor, External person
Thesis sponsors
Award date13 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - 13 Jun 2018


  • actor-network theory, engineers, practice, knowing, learning, sociomaterial


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