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An ethnographic justification for establishment of a contextual engineering discipline

Ann-Perry Witmer (Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA)

Journal of Engineering, Design and Technology

ISSN: 1726-0531

Article publication date: 23 September 2019

Issue publication date: 9 March 2020




The purpose of this paper is to provide an ethnographic analysis of the infrastructure intervention process in rural, non-industrialized countries, providing justification for a new approach to technical design. The new approach, Contextual Engineering, merges engineering with sociology to identify place-based conditions that may influence adoption of technological interventions.


A survey of international engineering practitioners, combined with the author's personal journals from 18 international project experiences are qualitatively analyzed using nVivo software to develop a stronger understanding of what motivates stakeholders to undertake humanitarian engineering work, how they incorporate place-based conditions and how their decision-making affects intervention outcomes.


Critical findings include the need for practitioner self-reflection to recognize motivations and beliefs; recognition that industrialized-world technology may not function effectively if it doesn’t acknowledge the client’s societal standards; identification of local context to determine practices, knowledge and beliefs that reside uniquely within the client community; resistance to application of practitioner standards that may not correspond with client conditions, understandings and needs; analysis of power dynamics within the client community, between client and neighboring communities, and among project stakeholders; and incorporation of innovative self-sufficiency in technical infrastructure design.


This paper follows upon previous published research by the author regarding the origin and application of her new approach to rural international infrastructure design, Contextual Engineering, and uses ethnographic qualitative analysis to identify key conditions that justify the Contextual Engineering discipline to more effectively serve rural clients from alternately developed societies.



Conflicts of Interest: “The authors declare no conflict of interest.”


Witmer, A.-P. (2020), "An ethnographic justification for establishment of a contextual engineering discipline", Journal of Engineering, Design and Technology, Vol. 18 No. 2, pp. 389-413.



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