Asee peer logo

From 'Empathic Design' to 'Empathic Engineering': Toward a Genealogy of Empathy in Engineering Education

Download Paper |


2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Communicating Across Cultural and Epistemological Boundaries

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Xiaofeng Tang Ohio State University Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Xiaofeng Tang is an Assistant Professor of Practice in the Department of Engineering Education at the Ohio State University. He worked as a postdoctoral fellow in engineering ethics at Penn State University. He received his Ph.D. in Science and Technology Studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

visit author page

Download Paper |


In philosophy and psychology literature, empathy in general refers to 1) the ability to understand another person’s ideas and feelings; and 2) the inclination to feel emotionally responsive to, and act to alleviate, another person’s distressful experience. Until recently, however, discourses of “empathy” in engineering education are inspired primarily by the literature on “empathic design,” a concept that originated from market research and first gained popularity in the business world. As this paper will argue, the discourse of “empathic design” inadvertently advances an instrumentalist interpretation of empathy, one that ignores the depth and breadth of philosophical and psychological studies of the same concept. The adoption of this instrumentalist, product-oriented conception of empathy exacerbates some persistent problems confronting engineering education, including a tendency to objectify the users of engineering products. Seeking to reconstruct empathy on the ground of philosophical and psychological literature, in this paper I begin to develop a genealogy of empathy in engineering education. The paper does this by tracing the discursive history of empathy in different sub-communities of engineering education (e.g., design, ethics, entrepreneurship, and liberal education). In particular, this genealogical survey will carefully examine recent scholars’ efforts toward redefining empathy as an engineering competency, which lays the groundwork for envisioning “empathic engineering.” Champions of empathic engineering define empathy broadly and link it to engineering students’ moral development, communication skills, as well as using engineering to meet objectives related to community needs, sustainability, and social justice. I assess the implications of the discursive migration from “empathic design” to “empathic engineering” for the identity formation of the engineering profession. Furthermore, I argue that the movement toward “empathic engineering” provides the potential for overcoming a narrowly-defined, instrumentalist, and product-oriented conception of empathy. As an example, I suggest two alternative conceptions of empathy in engineering: 1) empathy as a commitment to communicating and understanding across different cultural and epistemic communities; and 2) empathy as a professional excellence for engineers.

Tang, X. (2018, June), From 'Empathic Design' to 'Empathic Engineering': Toward a Genealogy of Empathy in Engineering Education Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30538

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2018 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015