Exploring the constitutive and social processes of ethics in multidisciplinary engineering design teams

Megan Kenny Feister, Purdue University


This study seeks to examine the communicative constitution of ethics in team-based design projects in an engineering education context. Engineering and design work involve complex social processes and ethical decision-making activities and collaboration (Bucciarelli, 2010). The understanding and development of ethics in future engineers is a primary concern for engineering educators, students, and the governing bodies that oversee this field (ABET, 2013; NAE, 2012). Specifically, given the highly fluid and subjective nature of ethics and the complications of the team-based context, challenges arise about how to move beyond codes and standards that are intended to guide ethical conduct (ASEE, 2012; NSPE, 2011) and encourage ethical orientations in future engineers that may help them guide themselves. This project contends that a communicative approach can help to unravel some of the social and communicative processes underlying ethical perceptions and relations in a team-based context. This dissertation contributes to a communicative understanding of ethics in student engineering design teams as a constitutive process in which project participants make sense of, discuss, and construct individually and in teams their understandings of design and the role of ethics in design considerations. Utilizing a mixed-methods approach combining social network analysis (Wasserman & Faust, 1994) and a discursive approach (Potter & Wetherell, 1987; Fairhurst & Putnam, 2004), this study probes how ethics are interwoven into design work. This study also highlights the social and relational factors underlying ethical team-based project work. By conceptualizing ethics through the “everyday ethics” approach (van de Poel & Verbeek, 2006), ethics is communicatively constituted and interwoven throughout the design process. The findings suggest that ethics is understood and handled distinctly in these teams from other design considerations. Students struggled to articulate or identify ethics in their own projects, and failed to recognize other team members as ethical resources on a large scale. However, while their explicit talk and organizing around ethics suggested that students did not recognize or understand it in great depth and related to their particular teams, analysis of team members’ discursive practices throughout their descriptions of their experiences on these teams showed a human-centered orientation toward design that directed them toward ethical considerations. These findings suggest that ethics is evaluated and handled very differently from other design-related considerations by the members of these project teams, and offer practical and theoretical implications to the fields of organizational communication and engineering education. As a result, the constitutive communication and everyday ethics lenses in project-based design work offers insight into the ongoing construction of design and ethical considerations, thus filling a gap in current engineering ethics approaches and in team communication scholarship.




Buzzanell, Purdue University.

Subject Area


Off-Campus Purdue Users:
To access this dissertation, please log in to our
proxy server