Engineers engineering an engineering culture?

Engineers engineering an engineering culture?

Waking up early in the morning with the desire to go to work, spending most of the waking hours in the office developing complex technologies and thinking of possible solutions even in dreams – A complete merging of professional and private life and the job as a crucial part of one’s identity can, according to Gideon Kunda, be the result of normative control.

In “Engineering Culture” Kunda examines High Technologies, an engineering company, describing employees and managers on selected mornings in their routines of coming into the office, talking to colleagues and attending different kinds of meetings. Kunda sees the observed culture as a mechanism of control which “claims the employee’s self in the name of the corporate interest”. To my mind his assessment is rather one-sided and does not take into consideration the active part of the employees, does not look at the organization’s past and development and might not be abstractable to yield knowledge for all organizations.

Culture engineered at Tech

Gideon Kunda examines the use of ideological or cultural power in a study of managers and professionals in a computer company and comes to the conclusion that this normative control of culture can be successful, thus resulting in Role Embracement, producing loyalty, commitment and the pleasure of work or on the other hand, when refused by the members, can result in Role Distancing, employees thus “maintaining a controllable distance from the beliefs and feelings prescribed by the member role”.

By visiting the engineering and corporate headquarters of Tech, talking to the organizational members, participating in various meetings and conducting document analysis of material created by the organization itself, Kunda examines the culture, the ideology, the rituals and the relation of the self to the organization. To aid and enrich his interpretation of the observed situations and ongoings in the organization, Kunda refers to managerial press and other organizational researchers such as Amitai Etzioni and Reinhard Bendix.

Gideon Kunda makes a very compelling case with his nearly novelistic descriptions of the workplace and the different characters in the organization. He creates a story that sucks the readers in, almost wanting them to become a ‘Techie’ themselves, and brings the company’s culture alive, to the point that the described discursive influence can be felt by the reader.

His line of thoughts is well understandable, but I believe that Kunda gives only a one-sided view of the situation. From his observations and interpretations, three questions arise. Firstly: What roles do the employees play in this power game? Kunda briefly mentions that employees do have the chance to react to management’s demand and refers to Erving Goffman, who points out that “members are never passive objects of control”, but I believe that he does not give enough thought to the employees’ capacity to act consciously. Secondly: How did the organization develop? Kunda gives only a momentary glimpse into organizational life but does not take the past or history of Tech into consideration. Knowing that the Tech employees constitute a rather homogenous group, shared past experiences might already be a key to unlocking the repeated story, the same language and the present feeling of group identity. And thirdly: Can these observations and findings of Tech be generalized to all employees, managers and organizations? I would like to ask whether this phenomenon of using culture as a “vehicle through which [..] to influence the behavior and experience of others”, is part of the specific individuals shaping the Tech organization or whether this observation is valid for other organizations as well.

What roles do the employees play in this power game?

If employees, as E. Goffman points out, are not passive objects of control but rather free to react and thus accept, deny or even reshape the demands of management, what then is their role in this situation? Even though Kunda interviews and follows different organizational members and highlights that some do not conform to their role but rather try to create distance, I believe that a sense of agency in the role embracing employees is missing. Are these high-qualified and intelligent engineers being manipulated by managers to behave according to set norms and to feel predefined experiences? Goffman, who sees employees as active members, and Roberto Unger, to whom an individual has the capacity to accept, refuse and transcend the context, are much closer in my view of the power of the employees.

How was Tech founded, how did it recruit and how did it grow?

Even though the founder Sam Miller is often mentioned, little is known about his past, his expertise and his motivation to build Tech. Similarly, Kunda mentions that Tech went through many management changes and is a tough, competitive environment; yet we know little about how the organization has changed over time and came to constitute many hundreds of people at the time of study.

Kunda observes that the organization resembles a rather homogenous group with white male engineers in their late twenties to mid thirties, who take pride in their chosen technology. Knowing that most come from an upscale social status and hold technical college degrees in electrical engineering and computer science – disciplines that at the time of study were not yet well represented in many universities – the question arises whether this group inherently already had a sense of belonging, shared commitment to the advancement of this technology and spoke the same language. Is it surprising that people with the same love for a certain technology, with a similar background and shared experiences develop a group cohesion, a strong sense of commitment and loyalty?

To better understand the Tech culture I would have liked Kunda to include the past of the organization, its origin and its growth. How were new engineers recruited? Did existing engineers call on their peers to join the company? If so, could a similar effect of rituals that maintain an institution as Dacin analyzed at Cambridge, be playing out at Tech as well? Dacin assesses that rituals such as dining ceremonies serve to maintain institutions, socialize participants and have a “powerful bearing [..] beyond the confines of the rituals themselves”.

Can these observations be generalized?

Gideon Kunda builds his conclusions mainly on the observation of one single company and various textworks to aid his analysis. However, in order for his work to be useable or abstractable it needs a certain scope. Can the knowledge gained from observing Tech be applied to other organizations? Is the use of culture as a means to “influence the behavior and experience of others” only displayed at Tech and maybe thus an inherent character trait of the founder Sam Miller or one of the managers such as Dave Carpenter or rather is this a practice that can be observed in various organizations?

I find Kunda’s observation of the underlying culture and its ramifications extremely interesting but I think he does not sufficiently explore the generalizability of his statements. David Whetten assesses that only few theorists consider their observed phenomenon in other than the familiar surroundings and thus proposes an additional block of ‘Who, Where and When’ to theory building in order to set the boundaries of generalizability. I find this block of theory building to be an interesting addition to ‘Engineering Culture’.

Concluding thoughts

Gideon Kunda’s rich description and analysis of the influence of engineering culture at Tech deeply struck a chord with me: I was fascinated yet very intrigued by his study. I, myself, am highly biased in my reading and analysis, as, according to Kunda, I can be found guilty of manipulating and controlling through rhetoric and rituals and since I feel very much at home and part of the technological organization he describes.

Kunda’s ethnographic article is very compelling, he possesses great storytelling skills and is able to convey a sense of being there: The reader can almost feel the power that management exercises through speeches, presentations and written material. At the same time, I perceive flaws in his methodological approach: A lack of focus on the agency of the employees, missing considerations for the past and the development of the organization and lastly, the scope or applicability of Kunda’s theoretical contribution.

Can engineers engineer an own engineering culture?

Building on Gideon Kunda’s research at Tech and his findings of the power of discourses and rituals in organizations (as normative power), I would like to gain a deeper understanding of the individual’s role in this play of power, of the history and development of the organization and of the comparability to other organizations, in- and outside of the technological domain.

Past experiences in similar organizational settings tell me that employees play a strong part in creating this sense of goal-orientation, their responsibility and hard work and company loyalty. In order to take a closer look at the employees’ role and activism, I would like to extend Kunda’s research, taking a similar but broader and longitudinal approach to ethnographic research. Further research in a similar field, such as the Ruby on Rails community – a growing group of engineers who pride themselves of being the only ones using an elegant and efficient programming language – could also shed light on the influence of the past experiences in the present organization.

Lastly, I would like to add the thought whether a corporate culture has to be something negative: Does culture not bind people together, commit them to a cause and bring them to greater results? Is all organizational culture purely a tool for control of management over the employees? Can a corporate culture emerge organically or must it always be created consciously and intentively?



Colquitt, Jason & George, Gerard: From the Editors: Publishing in Academy of Management Journal, Part 1 Topic choice, Academy of Management Journal Volume 54, 2011

Dacin, Tina, Munir, Kamal & Tracey, Paul: Formal Dining at Cambridge Colleges – Linking ritual performance and institutional maintenance, Academy of Management Journal Volume 53, 2010

Goffman, Erving: The presentation of self in everyday life, University of Edinburgh, 1956

Handel, Michael: The sociology of Organizations: Classic, contemporary, and critical readings. Thousand Oaks, Ca: Sage, 2003

Kunda, Gideon: Engineering Culture, Temple University, 1992 (as seen in Handel, Michael)

Unger, Roberto: False Necessity: Anti-necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy : from Politics, a Work in Constructive Social Theory, 2004

Whetten, David: What constitutes a theoretical contribution?, Academy of Management Review Volume 14, 1989