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Contextualizing technology: Between gender pluralization and class reproduction

Journal article
Authors Andreas Ottemo
Maria Berge
Eva Silfver
Published in Science Education
Volume 104
Issue 4
Pages 693-713
ISSN 0036-8326
Publication year 2020
Published at Department of Education and Special Education
Pages 693-713
Language en
Keywords contextualization, curriculum, engineering education, gender, social class
Subject categories Pedagogy, Gender Studies, Technology and social change


A diverse body of feminist scholarship has addressed the masculine orientation of Western engineering education for at least four decades. Among critiques specifically targeting curriculum, a recurrent line of argumentation highlights its reductionist framing and narrow focus on mathematics and technology. The argument is that these traits represent a masculine orientation and that women would gain from a curriculum more oriented towards the context and applicability of technical knowledge. Simultaneously, researchers working in a Bernsteinian, social realist, educational tradition have suggested that, from a social-class perspective, it is important to provide all students with access to theoretical, abstract and context-independent knowledge. This article explores the resultant, theoretical tension between these two positions. Our empirical starting point is a recently completed ethnographic study of a male-dominated bachelor's degree engineering program in Sweden. This program's curriculum repeatedly emphasizes the value of experiential and contextually rooted knowledge over contextless and mathematically modeled knowledge. Borrowing Bernstein's terminology, we argue that such emphasis represents a privileging of horizontal discourse over vertical and that, as such, said curriculum potentially deprives the male, working-class students of access to powerful knowledge. We further highlight how the program represents a poor target for the line of feminist critique identified above, despite being strongly male dominated. We thereby shed light on challenges related to formulating (intersectional) critiques of the engineering curriculum simultaneously attentive to both class and gender. Conclusively, we argue that efforts directed at making the engineering curriculum more inclusive can learn from both feminist and social realist lines of argumentation.

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