24 March 2016

No Other Discipline Produces as Many Terrorists...Is quite a headline

Rhiannon and I recently came upon a news article about the link between education, namely the discipline of Engineering, and Terrorism (see our previous post on the Anthropology of Terrorism).

What most of you likely don't know is that I'm a cultural anthropologist teaching for a Bachelor of Technology program in a School of Engineer Practice and Technology. My students would be lumped into the larger category of 'engineering students' referred to in this article and therefore, this article is of particular interest to me as an anthropologist and an instructor.

In the article, Does Engineering Education Breed Terrorists?, by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the author details the work of two social scientists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog who sought to understand why there are a disproportional number of terrorists who have been educated as engineers. Note, the article, and unfortunately this post, mentions but does not go into enough detail concerning the inherent issues, bias, and geo-politics that are involved when labeling of any individual a 'terrorist'.

The author describes the notable pattern determined through Gambetta and Hertog's research: [Of the 207 viable subjects], 93 of them, nearly 45 percent, had studied engineering. This frequency far exceeded what would be predicted statistically; among male college students from the 19 countries represented in the sample, fewer than 12 percent studied engineering.

Gambetta and Hertog point to the following sociological and psychological reasons as to why engineering students & graduates may be over-represented in this group:
1. Sociological reason: Relative Deprivation. Individuals who 'feel denied their due' when graduates do not receive the lucrative career and status they have come to expect upon graduation.
2. Psychological reasons: Cognitive closure: described as a preference for order and distaste for ambiguity (and also a need for closure and/or related to a systematic thinking that would allow one to compartmentalize the outcome of their actions, and may be accompanied by traits such as self-aggrandizement and low levels of empathy) which, in turn, is related to two factors: (1) the prevalence to accepting prevailing hierarchies and (2) to experience high levels of disgust.
See the article for a more detailed description of these factors.

What the research says: the authors DO NOT argue that engineering education causes tendencies or proclivities toward acts of violence or extremism (and advocate not to profile engineers at airports). The authors belief the chief reason so many violent extremists are engineers is that these programs appeal to a certain kind of mind.

In my opinion, an important take away from the article is the questioning of how students learn in engineering. Other scholars interviewed for the article discuss the apolitical nature of teaching and content in engineering courses as well as the divestment of nontechnical factors as irrelevant to the work of "real" engineering. (...) Engineering education fosters a culture of disengagement that defines public welfare concerns as tangential to what it means to practice engineering. The article also includes rebuttals to these points with scholars noting the introductory (what I teach) and capstone courses that engage with open-ended questions that foster tolerance for ambiguity as well as communication and teamwork skills.

At the heart of this discussion is whether or not there is a causal link between education and violent, extremist attitudes and although the answer is absolutely not...that finding doesn't make for as good a headline.

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