Reflections on the Use of Theory in Engineering Education Research: Interdisciplinary Challenges and Comparisons

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Document Type

Contribution to a Book

Publication Title

Philosophy of Engineering and Technology





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Theory – what it means, how it functions, and why it is engaged – differs from one discipline to another. Theory use is inextricably bound up with what knowledge and methods are legitimized in any discipline. Such ontological and epistemological aspects of theory use are thus key to the sociology of scientific knowledge. Since the early days of the engineering education research (EER) movement, there have been efforts to increase the use of theory in the emergent field; however, the particularities of those efforts, and their effects, have received little critical attention. Where have those efforts gotten us, and what does theory use currently look like in EER? Why does it matter? In this chapter, I discuss the comparative use of theory in engineering education research by synthesizing findings and analysis from multiple studies and data sources spanning the past decade. Compared to many humanities and social science (HSS) fields, theory use in EER has dominantly been conceptualized, mobilized, and circumscribed in relatively narrow and limited ways. Three examples that highlight “failures in conversation” between other HSS fields and EER are drawn on to elucidate these issues. The first example pertains to feminist theories; the second to grounded theory; and the third to differences between what I term “Big-T Theory” and “little-t theory”. Through these examples, I raise and explore questions and implications related to the development of theory use in EER.

Funding Number

EEC 1929728

Funding Sponsor

National Science Foundation


Engineering education research, Feminist theory, Grounded theory, Theory development


General Engineering