Engineers as Visionaries?, by Tim Büthe

by Guest Blogger — Monday, Oct. 7, 2019

Yates and Murphy’s Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting Since 1880 provides a fascinating account of almost a century and a half of standard setting; of many of the men – and the few women –who were the drivers of these rule-making processes and who in many fields took them to the international level as early as the 1880s; and of the organizations that enabled global standard setting and in many cases both empowered and constrained the standard setters.

The rich book – which at times is a work of economic or business history, at other times political and social history, is an important contribution to the multi- and by now truly inter-disciplinary literature on standards and standard-setting as a form of governance from the local to the global level.  It has much to offer to scholars of law, political science, sociology, economics and business, public policy, science & technology studies, as well as practitioners in the public and private sector alike.

Among the book’s most original contributions is its account of the early history global private standard setting, especially the early international orientation of key European and U.S. actors., also highlighted in Jorge Contreras’ contribution to this symposium.  This substantial first part of the 400+ page book is based a wealth of original sources, gathered during years of archival research, including in collections of professional associations, other nongovernmental bodies, and private individuals.  This original material allows the authors to make a compelling case for the importance of particular individuals, such as Johann Bauschinger, who pursued not only the local vision of transforming (as co-founder of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Technical University of Munich) the backwater agricultural economy of Bavaria into a support system for (and beneficiary of) a science and engineering-based modernity. He also pursued the “global” vision of developing procedures for testing new building materials (for strength, safety, etc.) that would be internationally agreed thanks to reliance on universal scientific principles and procedures.  This made him a strong advocate of transatlantic cooperation and an important, if largely accidental, contributor to the founding of the American Society for Testing Materials, one of the most important U.S. standard setting bodies to this day (Yates and Murphy 2019:40-48).  Even in parts of the book that cover better-known parts of the history of global standard setting, the book offer insightful details thanks to the careful underlying research, including close consideration of primary sources (discussed in a brief “Essay on Primary Sources” (2019:339-341), which students of methodology will be sure to appreciate).

While I genuinely appreciate the rich history presented in the book, which I find very valuable, I approach the book primarily as a social scientist who initially became interested in “technical” standards some twenty years ago, because cross-national differences in such standards had by the 1990s become a far more important barrier to trade in manufactured goods than tariffs and similar traditional trade barriers (at least among advanced industrialized countries).  This realization led to an exciting collaboration with Walter Mattli to understand the politics and political economy of standards in international product and financial markets (culminating in our book The New Global Rulers), as well as further work on the role of standards in fields such as food safety and technology governance, for instance in the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) – which resulted inter alia in my Business and Politics article “Engineering Uncontestedness?”, for which the question mark in the title was no accident.

From that point of view, it is puzzling that the book has the tendency to briefly acknowledge (2019: esp. 12f, 333f) – but then only, at most, fleetingly engage – the wealth of social science scholarship on standard setting and especially the differing analytical approaches to understanding the specific standard setting institutions and issues discussed in the book.  This tendency leaves to the reader much of the work required to figure out how the book’s account of standard setting relates to previous analyses.

In one of the most striking passages of the introduction (2019:13), Yates and Murphy suggest that we should think about private consensus-oriented standard setting in organizations as “an entirely different realm with a very different logic from either commerce or politics” rooted in engineers’ commitment to “serving the public good.”  Does the book thus return us to the view of Loya and Boli in their 1999 chapter “Standardization in the World Polity: Technical Rationality over Power”?  There, overcoming conflicts of interest in the process of setting international standards was portrayed as easy because the – carefully socially constructed but therefore among the engineering participants nearly uniformly shared – culture of scientific and engineering rationality is expected to yield a single optimal solution for any issue that might warrant standardization.

Such beliefs are not what I encounter among my engineering colleagues at the Technical University of Munich (TUM, which U.S. readers might want to think of as Germany’s MIT or CalTech) nor among practicing engineers.  In the admittedly decidedly unscientific sample of colleagues from mechanical, electrical, computer and other engineering fields, with whom I’ve had the opportunity to speak in the three years since I joined TUM to help build up a political science and public policy unit, approximately half view standards primarily as an unwelcome constraint on their freedom to develop off-the-beaten-path technologies (see also Bridget Dooling’s symposium contribution on the often perceived tension between innovation and standardization).  Those colleagues generally emphatically state their unwillingness to get involved in explicit standard setting processes at any level (when, out of curiosity, I ask whether they would consider it).  The other half generally see standardization as valuable, and several have personally served on technical committees of standards bodies or been otherwise quite directly involved in standard setting processes at the national, European regional, and/or international level.  They generally see pros and cons in private rule-making but two concerns are prevalent.

One concern is that civil society stakeholders are mostly absent from the process (as also noted by Yates and Murphy in their conclusion (2019:338); see also Sam Halabi’s and Nina Mendelson’s contributions to this symposium).  As a consequence, even those whose “public” interest a given standard was supposed and expected to serve can only object afterwards, when it turns out that their preferences and concerns have been misunderstood by the technical experts during the standards-development process.  The other is that young engineers, when they first gain experience with standard setting, tend to expect a purely technical optimization process – and then often turn away in frustration when they realize that commercial interests, coalition building and occasionally also clashes of personality play a significant role – in addition to, but not always secondary to, engineering expertise.

Standard setting, in other words, is not just an engineering optimization process but also a political and social process, often overlaid with massive commercial stakes.  The careful reader will get a sense of this multi-faceted and often conflictual character of standard setting throughout the book, for instance in numerous quotes from participants featured in Yates and Murphy’s accounts of particular episodes of setting global standards, especially but not only in the later chapters covering more recent years.  For much of the book, however, this complex nature of standard setting – which is what makes it such an interesting and promising area for multi- and interdisciplinary research – remains largely implicit and between the lines.  Only in the conclusion do the authors explicitly modify their strong optimism from the introduction to suggest that we ought not to think of standard setting “as a realm governed solely by the logic of the market [n]or as simply a struggle for power” (2019:333, emphasis added) but also as governed by science and engineering norms and frequently driven forward by highly public spirited individuals with a commitment to indeed make the world a better place – even today, when they recognizing to a far greater extent than their predecessors appear to have done in the late 19th century just how difficult and complex it is to “make the world a better place” and that it will take more than just engineering expertise to do so.

In the end, the uplifting lesson from Engineering Rules is not that the engineers at the heart of global standard setting are selfless optimists, driven by a charmingly naïve and fortunately mostly harmless conviction that their engineering expertise allows them to contribute to global prosperity, international peace, and making the world a better place – as the publisher’s advertisement for the book might lead us to believe.  Rather, the lesson may be that genuine cooperation (as distinct from collusion!) is possible, even in the face of strong commercial interests and conflicting social preferences, but requires at least some belief in the possibility of a public interest (and a certain commitment to advancing it).  The problem-solving spirit of engineering might not generally lend itself to producing visionaries, but Yates and Murphy suggest convincingly that it has been – and might well remain – an important component of the successes of global standard setting.


This post is part of a symposium reviewing JoAnne Yates and Craig N. Murphy‘s Engineering Rules: Global Standard Setting since 1880 (John Hopkins University Press). Previous posts in the symposium can be viewed here.

Tim Büthe is professor of political science and public policy.  He holds the Chair for International Relations at the Hochschule für Politik/School of Governance and School of Management at the Technical University of Munich (TUM).  He also is a senior fellow of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, where he was a founding member of the Rethinking Regulation Initiative.


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