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Teaching Guides

Energy Ethics


High, Mette M, and Jessica M Smith. “Introduction: The Ethical Constitution of Energy Dilemmas.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 25, no. S1 (2019): 9–28.

Smith, Jessica M. "The ethics of material provisioning: Insiders' views of work in the extractive industries." The Extractive Industries and Society 6 (2019): 807-814.

Lennon, Myles. “Decolonizing Energy: Black Lives Matter and Technoscientific Expertise Amid Solar Transitions.” Energy research & social science 30 (2017): 18–27.

Cross, Jamie. “The Solar Good: Energy Ethics in Poor Markets.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 25, no. S1 (2019): 47–66.​

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Engineering Ethics


Smith, Jessica M, and Nicole M Smith. “Engineering and the Politics of Commensuration in the Mining and Petroleum Industries.” Engaging science, technology, and society 4 (2018): 67–84.

Smith, Jessica M. “Boom to Bust, Ashes to (coal) Dust: The Contested Ethics of Energy Exchanges in a Declining US Coal Market.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 25, no. S1 (2019): 91–107.

Smith, Nicole M, Qin Zhu, Jessica M Smith, and Carl Mitcham. “Enhancing Engineering Ethics: Role Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility.” Science and engineering ethics 27, no. 3 (2021): 28–28.

Howe, Cymene. “Greater Goods: Ethics, Energy, and Other‐than‐human Speech.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 25, no. S1 (2019): 160–176.

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Extracting Accountability


Smith, Jessica M. 2021. Extracting Accountability: Engineering and Corporate Social Responsibility. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Available open access:

Chapter One

  1. What is corporate social responsibility? What are some of the strengths and limitations of its lacking a universal definition?

  2. Find a company for which you would like to work. Does it publish a CSR (or “sustainability” or “communities”) report? What are the main terms and sources of data in that report? How do they compare with the characterization of CSR in the chapter?

  3. Describe in your own words how engineers’ everyday work practices (not their volunteer activities!) play a role in a corporation’s CSR efforts.

  4. Smith writes, “One of the great paradoxes is that although the infrastructures they design, build, and maintain exert a great influence over the everyday lives and potential futures of people around the world, engineers themselves are also particularly situated actors, whose educational opportunities and work settings place constraints on what they learn, know, and do” (13). What features of your own undergraduate training have shaped how you have learned about the social responsibilities of engineers? For example, if you have participated in design projects, how have the features of the class or assignment shaped how you were able to learn from the people who will use or be affected by your project?


Chapter Two

  1. What are “everyday practices of accountability”? How have you been called to account for your choices of a major or career?

  2. Carl Mitcham argues that a “philosophical inadequacy” of engineering is that it holds an ideal of protecting public safety, health, and welfare, without training its practitioners to know what public safety, health, and welfare actually are (32). How was this evident in the geological engineer’s efforts to create good through his work (31-32)?

  3. The chapter proposes that the ethic of material provisioning and the social license to operate are both grounded in aspirations of harmony among corporations, their employees, and the public. Choose a case study from the EJ Atlas. How is this conflict rooted in different ideas of what a “good life” or “development” looks like? Under what conditions would a harmony exist between project proponents, workers, and local stakeholders?


Chapter Three

  1. One of the central arguments of Chapter Three is that the “public engagement” techniques that were devised by AMAX engineers-turned-lawyers and would go on to form the basis of environmental impact assessment ultimately channeled public participation in a way that supported industrial projects going forward. Explain in your own words how public participation was channeled to ask questions of resource production could be done responsibly rather than it should happen at all.

  2. Forty years after AMAX’s Minnamax project in Minnesota, the state approved the PolyMet mining project in the same region after much public controversy. Read about the controversy here and then go through the company’s own website. In what ways did the company’s language and activities echo what AMAX had done earlier? In what ways were they different?


Chapter Four

  1. Social theorists use the term agency to refer to the socioculturally mediated capacity to act (105). According to the chapter, what makes the agencies of engineers working for corporations “distributed” in nature (116-120)? What are the ethical dilemmas posed by such distributed agency?

  2. In what ways did the engineers profiled in the chapter enact the corporations employing them, intermingling their own “person” with the corporate “person”? How did they detach their own senses of self from those corporate forms? Why?

  3. Take the distinction between “Big R” responsibility and “little r” responsibility (125) and apply them to a company with which you are familiar. What is the key distinction between these two kinds of responsibility? Which form seems more prevalent for the company you are studying?


Chapter Five

  1. How did questions of accountability shape the engineers’ decisions to work as consultants?

  2. In your own words, describe the “liminal” position of consultants vis-à-vis the corporations contracting them.

  3. Provide examples from the chapter of how that liminality can be a source of professional autonomy as well as a source of alienation and frustration for consultants. How was that liminality a resource for the contracting corporations?

  4. In what ways was Scott able to “steer the ship” and shape how corporations practiced social responsibility? What are the limitations of taking this approach? For example, return to Chapter 3 and the distinction between asking “how” and “whether” questions. Was Scott able to ask “whether” questions?


Chapter Six

  1. What is engineering pragmatism (pg. 165)? Have you practiced this kind of pragmatism? In what ways did it maintain a status quo rather than question it? If you are having a hard time coming up with examples from your own life, find examples in the chapter of engineering pragmatism preserving the status quo.

  2. Go through the website of a company for which you have worked for or would like to work. Would you categorize their CSR efforts as being “old CSR” or “new CSR” or both (pg. 167)?

  3. How did the engineers in this chapter listen to the people affected by their work? Were they engaging in contextual listening or basic listening (pg. 168)? What structural barriers in the workplace made it difficult for them to engage in contextual listening?

  4. How can listening uphold a technical/social dualism (pg. 166) and why does Ottinger argue that this is problematic for corporate accountability? Provide examples from the chapter of engineers’ listening practicing dissolving that dualism.

  5. What kind of feedback did engineers find difficult to “make actionable”? Why? What does this suggest about the possibility of creating “win-wins”?


Chapter Seven

  1. The book argues that the agencies of engineers who work in corporate settings are and If the accountability of corporations is grounded in the agencies of the people who act in their name, what does this suggest as the key opportunities and limitations for meaningful corporate social responsibility?

  2. How might the proclivity to look for and celebrate “resistance” or “transformation” hinder our ability to grasp how engineers shape the corporate forms employing them?

  3. In trying to harmonize their industries with the people living in proximity to their operations, engineers often found themselves stepping out of their own expertise to seek insights and knowledge from others. Provide a successful and unsuccessful example of engineers learning from others, whether those are professionals trained in different disciplines or local residents. What distinguishes the successful and unsuccessful cases?

  4. Why does Smith argue for not “more” or “better” CSR but the “capacity for disagreement” (pg. 204) and an acknowledgement of “perplexity” (pg. 211-212)?

  5. What would more robust public participation look like beyond the currently dominant model (pg. 209)?

  6. Reanalyze one of the ethnographic vignettes from the book considering how the dilemma would have resolved differently if the engineers involved had served as a “loyal opposition” (pg. 216). Or, provide an example from the ethnography of an engineer serving as a loyal opposition.

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