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Metrics of Marginality: How Studies of Minority Self-Efficacy Hide Structural Inequities

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Myths About Gender and Race

Tagged Divisions

Minorities in Engineering, Liberal Education/Engineering & Society, and Women in Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1061.1 - 22.1061.9



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Paper Authors


Amy E. Slaton Drexel University

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Amy E. Slaton is an Associate Professor of history at Drexel University and a visiting associate professor at Haverford College. She received her Ph.D. in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania and has written on the history of standards and instrumentation in materials science, engineering and the building trades. Her most recent book , Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line (Harvard University Press, 2010), traces American ideas about race and technical aptitude since 1940. Current projects include the blog, and a study, with sociologist Mary Ebeling, of economic equity in nanotechnology training and employment. She is also writing on distributions of blame between workers and materials for failures in contemporary building technologies, as economies of scale and automation continue their long incursion on the labor of commercial construction.

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Metrics of Marginality: How Studies of Minority Self-Efficacy Hide Structural InequitiesIn ongoing attempts to correct minority underrepresentation in the engineering disciplines,educational researchers, cognitive psychologists, and scholars in related fields have since the1980s developed many studies centered on the notion of student self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986;Concannon and Barrow, 2009; Ponton et al, 2001). These studies seek to measure the degree towhich minority or otherwise marginalized students experience a sense of confidence or feelingthat they are able to counter "barrier conditions." Those conditions might include discriminationor other challenging social and intellectual situations encountered in college. While such studiesare certainly preferable to a denial of differences between minority and majority experience, theyintentionally or otherwise support the notion that it is marginalized persons, not institutions andmajority conduct, that require change. They are "person-centered" rather than "situation-centered," to use the terms coined by reform-minded community psychologists (Rendon, Jalomo,and Nora, 2000).While the idea of self-efficacy has in a few cases been used by researchers to delineate thesituational difficulties encountered by marginalized populations, it is far more often used tomeasure and prescribe individual conduct. These studies commonly center on detecting whichclassroom or social behaviors on the parts of individual students seem to accompany significantself-efficacy. In this respect, researchers' focus on self-efficacy, however well intentioned,carries the potential to deter structural reform. Socio-cultural conditions (such as endemicracism, sexism or ageism), and the institutional practices that embody those inequities (such asmajority-focused pedagogical theory, or biased treatment of minority students by instructors andadministrators) remain invisible to the researchers and those who deploy their findings. What ismore, community psychologists have shown that person-centered inquiries focused onindividuals' self-efficacy routinely conflate subjects' sense of self-empowerment and theattainment of real social power or influence (Riger, 1993). Studies of this kind thus falselyconclude that where self-efficacy is detected, the problem of minority marginality has beensolved. What is more, older assimilationist ideologies, like those expressed in educationalinterventions of the 1960s and 1970s that sought to suppress minority students' ethnic self-awareness and sense of racial or gender collectivity, find new life through such conflations. Thispaper considers the potential of self-efficacy as a reformist tool in minority engineeringeducation, and the risks of its uncritical application.ReferencesBandura, A. 1986. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. W.H. Freeman and Company, NewYork, NY.Concannon, James P. and Lloyd H. Barrow. 2009. "A Cross-Sectional Study of EngineeringStudents' Self-Efficacy by Gender, Ethnicity, Year and Transfer Status." Journal of Science,Education and Technology v. 18, n. 2: 163-172.Ponton, Michael K., Julie Horine Edmister, Lawrence S. Ukeiley, and John M. Seiner. 2001."Understanding the Role of Self-Efficacy in Engineering Education." Journal of EngineeringEducation April 2001: 247-251.Rendon, Laura I., Romero E. Jalomo, and Amaury Nora. 2000. "Theoretical Considerations inteh Study of Minority Student Retention in Higher Education, " in John M. Braxton, Reworkingthe Student Departure Puzzle. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, TN: 127-156.Riger, Stephanie. 1993. "What's Wrong with Empowerment?" American Journal of CommunityPsychology v. 21, n. 3: 279-292

Slaton, A. E. (2011, June), Metrics of Marginality: How Studies of Minority Self-Efficacy Hide Structural Inequities Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18811

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