Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to provide an ethnographic analysis of the infrastructure intervention process in rural, non-industrialized countries, providing justification for a new approach to technical design. The new approach, Contextual Engineering, merges engineering with sociology to identify place-based conditions that may influence adoption of technological interventions. Design/methodology/approach: A survey of international engineering practitioners, combined with the author's personal journals from 18 international project experiences are qualitatively analyzed using nVivo software to develop a stronger understanding of what motivates stakeholders to undertake humanitarian engineering work, how they incorporate place-based conditions and how their decision-making affects intervention outcomes. Findings: Critical findings include the need for practitioner self-reflection to recognize motivations and beliefs; recognition that industrialized-world technology may not function effectively if it doesn’t acknowledge the client’s societal standards; identification of local context to determine practices, knowledge and beliefs that reside uniquely within the client community; resistance to application of practitioner standards that may not correspond with client conditions, understandings and needs; analysis of power dynamics within the client community, between client and neighboring communities, and among project stakeholders; and incorporation of innovative self-sufficiency in technical infrastructure design. Originality/value: This paper follows upon previous published research by the author regarding the origin and application of her new approach to rural international infrastructure design, Contextual Engineering, and uses ethnographic qualitative analysis to identify key conditions that justify the Contextual Engineering discipline to more effectively serve rural clients from alternately developed societies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)389-413
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Engineering, Design and Technology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 9 2020


  • Contextual
  • Contextual engineering
  • Development
  • Engineering
  • Humanitarian engineering
  • Infrastructure
  • Infrastructure design
  • Rural
  • Rural development
  • Sustainable
  • Sustainable construction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Engineering


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