The Mismatch between History and Engineering
Note to readers: This post is a classic post about what I actually do for work.
I often spend my time thinking about how engineers can be better engineers. To me, engineering is not strictly about particularly refined use of a technical tool as the technical tools come and go. Engineering is not about a specific discipline as disciplinary domains shift over time. Moreover, engineers need to find ways to work effectively across the engineering disciplines all of the time. It is not uncommon to have mechanical, electrical, industrial, and chemical engineers working alongside of each other. To me, engineering is about solving problems that have their roots in the material world.
But I have been spending a ton of time lately researching wastewater irrigation systems in a development context. I’m interested and intrigued by the idea of creating holistic water management scenarios at the household level in a way that honors human dignity. As I read, I’m convinced that engineers and historians have very different ways of looking at problems.
I know a little bit about being both an engineer and a historian. I majored in the former and minored in the latter in college. It’s hard to think about getting a history job so mostly I keep at the historical studies as a hobby.
When you are looking to piece together a story in history, there is a distinct bias towards choosing the simplest and most elegant story you can construct given the information that you have at hand. My work situates me predominantly in the middle medieval area (Europe between AD900 and 1300). This period of history has been widely popularized, and there is a lot of commentary to sort. The more voices you try to add to the conversation (looking for instance at popular sources for military history, imperial records, and traces of grassroots movements), the more likely you will find a compelling and nuanced story. Yet you come to distrust the likelihood of an impressive cover-up spanning all sorts of characters when you lack compelling evidence. The goal is a simple, compelling narrative that accounts for the evidence you have.
Yet engineers seem to lack an appreciation for the simple. As I try to parse through various recommendations for irrigation systems, I see documents that value the large scale. I have been working my way through scholarly papers and a few rather good books. One thing remains that quaint household solutions are generally disregarded. It boggles my mind against a backdrop of failed centralized attempts and known governmental corruption. The story simply doesn’t make sense in that it is only an engineering solution if it is rooted in some large-scale enterprise or enables a large-scale enterprise. But as I am doing my own research, I see a rather compelling case for how small-scale systems require some significant engineering work.
It has me thinking about engineers and their tools. And it will also be interesting to see how development conversations unfold around a different sort of academic.