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College of Arts & Sciences
Linguistics Program

Constellations of identity in the universe of engineering: Emergent social memberships in the discourse of an undergraduate community of practice

Loralee Donath

[Full text of dissertation in ProQuest]

Committee Members: Jennifer Reynolds (Co-Director), Tracey Weldon (Co-Director), Anne Bezuidenhout, Janina Fenigsen, Louise Jennings


I examine an elite community of practice where groups of undergraduate students are socialized into disciplinary norms of professional presentation of self. A mechanistic study, the dissertation explores how engineering identity is socially constructed via micro interactional moves, and in mediation with macro ideologies. In the setting of an engineering writing and mentoring project for undergraduate researchers, engineering identities emerge in dialectic with global ideologies about gender and class. The participants in the project differently orient to a range of engineering practices, as well as to textual practices they construct as oppositional. In so doing, they co-construct multiple formations of engineering identities through shifting local alignments in relation to ethnicity, subdiscipline, institutional hierarchy, and other social groupings.

I adopt a qualitative approach to the data, employing three years of participant observation and tools such as surveys, writing prompts, and video recordings of interaction. The study is grounded in a theory of discursive social meaning making, and a critical perspective on political-economic practices, as well as a conceptualization of language variation that takes into account social practice. These theoretical lenses allow me to see not only the co-construction of shifting social alignments in crucial micro-moments of discourse, but also the interplay between those patterned synchronic points and historical traces of social organization. The analysis of linguistic form and social meaning offes a deeper understanding of how social identities emerge, and a novel view of the micro construction of global structure. The study demonstrates how, as much as content knowledge, social knowledge figures in the process of becoming an engineer. By recognizing the connections between micro interactional positionings and macro ideologies, the study contributes a nuanced understanding of how social identities emerge in discourse.

Moreover, whereas previous research has focused either on counter-cultural membership or perceived deficit among members of disadvantaged groups, this work begins at the opposite end of social stratification. The research explores how relatively socially privileged students discursively socialize one another to professional engineering identity. The study provides a counterpart to previous research on “nerds”, but takes up investigation in a new context: “nerds” on their own turf.