An Unexpected Journey: From Autoethnography to a Bourdieusian Analysis of Engineering Education

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Who am I? I am a factory worker, who became a motor mechanic, an electronics technician, chartered engineer, project manager, university course director, associate dean and more recently a PhD student in education. I have a story to tell about lifelong learning from the perspective of the student, and a perspective on engineering education that is very different from many of my colleagues in academia. As my original research aim was to bring a different perspective to education, I also needed to take a different approach to research, and so I began my PhD with a grounded theory style approach, and a reflexive autoethnography of lifelong learning. Through my attempt to explore and justify my arguments for the autoethnographic method, I entered an epistemological rabbit hole that took me far away from the objective, quantitative world of engineering academia. However, through the autoethnographic process, I started to realise that my earlier experience of actually being a practising engineer was often qualitative and subjective, and seemed at odds with the quantitative, objective and theoretical world of engineering academia. I began to question why there was such an apparent disconnect between engineering education and practice, and this became the focus of part 2 of this thesis.

This PhD thesis is in two distinct parts. Part 1 contains the autoethnographic elements described above, that led unexpectedly to the focus on engineering education through a Bourdieusian lens, via a number of other possible themes including motivation, social class, and distance learning. I begin part 2 by connecting my autoethnographic description of the disconnect between engineering education and practice, to similar accounts in academic, industrial and institutional literature. My main contribution to knowledge is the application of Bourdieu’s theories of social reproduction to an exploration of how this disconnect has been maintained. As Bourdieu has positioned habitus as embodied history, I explore how the historic development of engineering has led to the separation of education and practice into distinct fields, which have in turn influenced the habitus of the agents within those fields. My main argument is that the habitus of the engineering academic is formed within a field where the valued forms of capital are based on scientific research and academic reputation, and this predisposes the academic to doxic beliefs about the nature of engineering that are not reflective of professional practice. However, I also contend that the engineering profession, in response to perceptions of societal attitudes to occupations and professions, also contributes to social reproduction through the cultural capital associated with academia and science.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Universty of Edinburgh
  • Kennedy, Aileen, Supervisor, External person
  • Robinson, Gillian , Supervisor, External person
Award date28 Nov 2018
Publication statusPublished - 28 Nov 2018


  • autoethnography
  • engineering academia
  • social reproduction


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