Have you considered how your individuality influences your design decisions?
All decision-makers imbue their individuality into their work, whether they know it or not. This activity aims to help you get to know yourself a little bit more through a concept called reflexivity.
Reflexivity is a widely-used practice that is applicable in any circumstance where we acknowledge that our subjectivity plays a role in the way we interact with a situation or group. As we ponder what it means to engineer in a socially just manner, we must think critically about assumptions regarding our own objectivity.
Before we dive in further, let's consider these key definitions:
Subjective, adjective, (1) characteristic of or belonging to one’s perceived reality (Merriam-Webster)
Objective, adjective, (1) “expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations” (Merriam-Webster). It is not realistic to expect 100% objectivity, but awareness of our subjectivity can help us strive for objectivity.
Positionality, noun, (1) “the notion that personal values, views, and location in time and space influence how one understands the world. In this context, gender, race, class, and other aspects of identities are indicators of social and spatial positions and are not fixed, given qualities” (SagePub), (2) “refers to how differences in social position and power shape identities and access in society” (CTLT Indigenous Initiatives).
Reflexivity, noun, (1) “examination of one’s own beliefs, judgments and practices during the [design] process and how these may have influenced [decision making]”. (Warwick)
In this activity, you will be guided through writing a positionality statement for your personal reference or pertaining to a particular project in your professional career.
Your identity is multifaceted and continuously evolving and intersecting - contributing to the wholeness of you.
To start this exercise of reflexivity, you will make a "personal identity molecule."
What makes us who we are? What defines you?
Get as creative as you like in the creation of your molecule! See the example below of a personal identity molecule to help get you started. Add your own elements so you can capture the essence of what makes you, you. Some examples include abilities, strengths, basic needs, and values. You do not have to share this molecule with anyone else. This is simply for you to begin your process of reflection.
This exercise, created by the Anti-Defamation League, can be found in its entirety in the Institute Training Manual “A World of Difference” (1994).
Read and Reflect
Reading and reflecting on these papers
will better help you:
(1) understand what reflexivity can look like in practice and
(2) brainstorm how your identities mix with your practice of engineering.
The first article shares the experience of a professional who reflects on their practice.
The second piece provides a tutorial for writing a reflexivity statement.
Social Identity Wheel
In the first step, you identified a few facets of your identity. Now, let's dig a little deeper.
Your identities interact with your environment all the time, and may help or hinder your understanding.
For instance, one study showed that American Black female engineers working with a community in Belize were perceived to be warm and competent, characteristics that Black women are often not perceived to have in majority-white settings (cite). In this context, the perceptions of Black female engineers’ identities were positively correlated with how the community felt about working with the team on a waste management project in their community.
Identities are complex and it is important to reflect on how your positionality -- your similarities, differences, and power -- relative to the communities you are serving affect what decisions are made.
The Identity Wheel will help guide you through common identity categories and consider the ways your identities intersect and position you for your unique viewpoint.
(Direct Link to worksheet: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1w7yo6ljyS0pnvEO-BOrE7Aohmaa9n5Jf/view).
Social identity groups are based on the physical, social, and mental characteristics of individuals. They are sometimes obvious and clear, sometimes not obvious and unclear, often self claimed and frequently ascribed by others. For example, racial groupings are often ascribed as well as self-claimed. Government, schools, and employers often ask an individual to claim a racial identity group or simply ascribe one to an individual based on visual perception. Other social identities are personally claimed but not often announced or easily visually ascribed such as sexual orientation, religion, or disability status.
For the purpose of this self-examination please identify the memberships you claim or those ascribed to you. Below are examples of social identity groupings. Since issues of social identity often are the basis of much social conflict, it is reasonable to expect that even the terms we use to describe them may cause disagreement. So feel free to use your own preferred terms for the material below.
Examples (Feel free to use your own language for your identities.)
Gender: Woman, Man, Transgender, Post-Gender
Sex: Intersex, Female, Male
Race: Asian Pacific Islander, Native American, Latin@, Black, White, Bi/Multiracial
Ethnicity: Irish, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Italian, Mohawk, Jewish, Guatemalan,
Sexual Orientation: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Pan-Attractional, Heterosexual, Queer,
Religion/Spirituality: Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Pagan, Agnostic,
Faith/Meaning, Atheist, Secular Humanist
Social Class: Poor, Working Class, Lower-Middle Class, Upper-Middle Class, Owning Class, Ruling Class
Age: Child, Young Adult, Middle-Age Adult, Senior
(Dis)Ability: People with disabilities (cognitive, physical, emotional, etc.), Temporarily able-bodied, Temporarily disabled
Nation(s) of Origin and/or Citizenship: United States, Nigeria, Korea, Turkey, Argentina
Tribal or Indigenous Affiliation: Mohawk, Aboriginal, Navajo, Santal
Body Size/ Type: Fat, Person of Size, Thin
Marginalized Group: social identity groups that are disenfranchised and exploited
Privileged Group: social identity groups that hold unearned privileged in society
Now let’s consider how your identity might help you realize issues of justice in engineering.
Justice in engineering is about continuously evaluating how distribution of resources and processes of decision-making can be more inclusive and equitable.
In order to gain these perspectives, you should always seek out perspectives of those that are not part of traditional decision-making practices.
Your identities may help you to connect with and listen to these voices or to recognize what you might not be able to understand and should ask for further clarification on.
How are your personal characteristics sources of power and privilege, or, alternatively, marginalization and disadvantage?
What does the recognition of the power that you have mean for your work?
Which identities help you to realize issues of justice in engineering?
Are there ways your identities may keep you from realizing issues of justice in engineering?
Now that you have thought about some of your core identities, please move on to the next step of this activity, which will help you write a reflexivity statement.
Write your statement
Please read one of the examples of reflexivity statements by engineering students and engineering practitioners who are reflecting on race and social justice in their reflexivity statements.
I am a white, cis male from Virginia. English is my primary language, but I understand basic Spanish. I am working on a bachelor's degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of Florida. In addition to my educational experience I was an intern at a global engineering consulting company. Accordingly, my educational and professional experience makes it easy to relate to a wide range of engineering practice, but at times it can be challenging to think about the social aspects of what I do. I have a lot of compassion for those with less power and can relate to how frustrating it can be to not be in a position of power. I recognize in my future job as civil engineer, I will be in situations where there are social justice issues that I may not recognize because of my privilege. I also recognize that I will not always be in a position of power at work. Due to these two factors, I need work to center voices from the community, especially those that seem to go unheard and to encourage those around me to do the same. Activism on social equity and justice is of great personal importance to me, but I often have struggled with ways to engage with it in my professional work due to systemic structures. As a result of this, I have often felt isolated in my roles and have always sought out alternatives in which I would be able to be more open in opinions and actionable through my work. Due to this, I feel that I can be more revealing of my opinions than some, in my expressions and voice, which will be something that I need to keep in check.
I am a Black woman who grew up in the southern United States. I have a degree in civil and environmental engineering from a predominately white institution. My current job, as a civil engineer, has afforded me a certain level of socio-economic privilege and a job that comes with decision-making power. However, I am still a Black woman working in a field that primarily comprises cis white men. I often do not talk about race with people who have any level of institutional power over me, however I do have a history of asking questions and challenging norms within my office that have been labeled as “too political” in the past. As I work on a stormwater infrastructure project in a predominantly Black community, I am able to connect more easily with some community members, who feel more comfortable opening up to me. I must balance my responsibility to this community with the institutional pressures of being the only woman or person of color on the team and needing to have my own voice heard. This is a balance I continue to work on and a constraint that I plan to bring up within my organization.
I am a white woman who has an American accent, only speaks English, and grew up in a white suburb. I now work as an engineer in a city that is predominantly Black. Growing up, I learned a version of US history that largely erased racism from the discussion, which I think is a common experience in the US. In my job, I have become more comfortable with discussing equity and racial inequality, but also recognize I have more to improve. My goal is to find a balance between highlighting community voices in the work that I do without placing additional demands of pressure and time on marginalized communities. I learned that this was a problem after getting to know some community members, and it was something that I was not able to see because of my privilege. I will continue to listen and to act accordingly when I can.
If you have a project in mind, the following prompts can help you draft a reflexive statement. If you do not have a project in mind, think about the last time you were working on a team project and use that context.
Think back to the components of your identity that you selected using the Identity Wheel.
Do your primary identities overlap with the people you’re designing for/with?
Have you previously considered that there may be limitations to your is a barrier?
How might this complexity cause you to make assumptions that are inaccurate?
What are some of the ways you can center the perspectives and voices of people with the least power?
How can your experiences help you to give voice to those whose voices are typically not represented in decision making?
How does your individual experience seem to converge and diverge from the people you’re designing with/for?
How might this complexity cause you to make assumptions that are inaccurate?
Write a more detailed version for your personal reflection and edit a public-facing version that only includes the information you feel comfortable sharing.
Yet, one person cannot completely capture the complexity of addressing justice. We need each other. Who can you team up with to identify and address issues of social justice? How will you share power as you design and engineer?
If you have feedback about how to improve this module, please contact us!
Reflexivity statements are often context-specific.