Defining a technician

This piece is a work in progress so appologies for spelling, typos, etc. I’ll keep adding stuff when I get chance. Anything you think should be added please let me know.


There are similarities between the roles of technicians across all fields from the arts and theatre to engineering and science. So, it should be possible to create one definition to cover all technicians. This piece is the hunt for that definition.

Why is this important to me? Well, at one level it will help me find technicians to write about on this blog! This can sometimes difficult as not all technicians have the word ‘technician’ in their job title – especially for technicians from the early 20th century and before. For some 21st century examples:

  • Lighting Operator in the theatre
  • Analyst in the laboratory
  • Animal Care Specialist in agriculture
  • Artists Assistant in the art world

To help me I  prepared a Taxonomy of Technicians diagram (see below) on which I identified lots of technician roles – some of which have titles other than technician. The campaign Technicians Make it Happen use the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education Occupational Maps to identify their technicians.

On a more philosophical level I am interested in a universal definition of technician to help understand what it is that binds technicians together as a profession.

To begin this search, I want to talk briefly about the history of the word technician.

A Taxonomy of Technicians by @andyjconnelly

A Taxonomy of Technicians by @andyjconnelly


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) the noun technician means, at its root, ‘of or belonging to the arts or sciences’. However, as is so often the case the everyday use of the word does not always follow this logic. The word technician appears to have originated in French as technicien which described an author who wrote on the methods of an art (1836) or later a person qualified in, and practising, the practical aspects of one of the sciences (1907).

In English the first recorded use of the word that the OED records is from an 1833 translation of the work of Geothe,

“And as the poet is deeply convinced of the value of a determinate and perfect form, of which he has now obtained complete mastery, he turns these newly recognized demands against his own earlier poems, and corrects and finishes them according to the laws of his late matured perfection.

“Grammarians and technicians are bound especially to acknowledge these his efforts: it only remains for us to add a few touches to the task we undertook; i.e. to discover the poet from his song, the song from the poet.

Austin, Sarah (1833). Characteristics of Goethe. E. Wilson. Page 216

What is key about this early usage is the suggestion that technicians would appreciate the work for its technical qualities but miss out on some more creative aspect of the work. This implication – see OED definitions below – is one that runs through the history of the title technician and gives us this example of the word in context from 1962 referencing Baker:

Unexcelled as a technician and swinger, Baker is said by some to lack a musical heart and personality of his own.

Sunday Times 10 June (Colour Suppl.) 3 (1962)

Most other dictionary definitions, and uses, of the word technician are more positive – or at least more neutral – such as this early use dating back to 1896.

It [sc. a therapeutic property] is now totally abandoned by the advanced laboratory technicians.

St Louis Clinique 9 395/1 (1896)

Before this, in the 17th and 18th century chemical laboratory technicians or assistants were…

…commonly referred to as “laborants”; those enaged to tend and maintain mechanical contrivances were “operators,” and the builders of such instruments were “artificers”; and all of these might also be designated by the generic title assistants.” Commonly, however a blanket term was used to refer to the support personnel so employed: “servants” or, as times specifically, “chemical servants.”

Shapin, Steven (1989). “The Invisible Technician”. American Scientist. 77 (6): 554–563.

Into the twentieth century technicians were often referred to as lab boys. In fact it wasn’t until the Second World War that the word technician gained popularity.

Tansey, E.M (2008-03-20). “Keeping the culture alive: the laboratory technician in mid-twentieth-century British medical research”. Notes and Records of the Royal Society. 62 (1): 77–95.


To help in my search for a universal definition I have compiled a survey of the various definitions of technicians used by technician organisations and in the literature. I have grouped them to make analysis more straight forward.

  1. Dictionary definitions
  2. Campaign/organisational definitions
  3. Literature definitions
  4. Implied definitions

1. Dictionary definitions

Oxford English Dictionary

1. A person knowledgeable or skilled in the technicalities of a particular field; esp. an expert in the formal or practical aspect of an art, sometimes with implications of a corresponding lack of creativity.

2. A person qualified in the practical aspects of one of the sciences or mechanical arts; (in later use) esp. a person whose job is to carry out practical work in a laboratory or to give assistance with technical technician: see the first element.

“Home : Oxford English Dictionary”. Retrieved 2019-08-06.


1. A specialist in the technical details of a subject or occupation a computer technician

2. Ane who has acquired the technique of an art or other area of specialization

“Definition of TECHNICIAN”. Retrieved 2019-08-06.

2. Campaign/organisational definitions


A person who is trained and or skilled in the techniques, tools, and technology of their subject, who provide the practical application of knowledge, including hands-on support in directly contributing to teaching and learning, research and enterprise activities.

“Definition of ‘technician’ in higher education: a suggestion | STEM”. Retrieved 2019-08-06.

Science Council

A technician is a person who is skilled in the use of particular techniques and procedures to solve practical problems, often in ways that require considerable ingenuity and creativity. Technicians typically work with complex instruments and equipment, and require specialised training, as well as considerable practical experience, in order to do their job effectively.

“Our definition of a science technician”. The Science Council. Retrieved 2019-08-06.

Institute of Technology (IST)

The IST does not seem to be a specific definition for technicians, and so it’s membership. They seem to favour an inclusive system that a technician is someone who self-identifies as a technician.

3. Literature

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

Technicians and equivalent staff are persons whose main tasks
require technical knowledge and experience in one or more fields
of engineering, physical and life sciences or social sciences and
humanities. They participate in R&D by performing scientific and
technical tasks involving the application of concepts and
operational methods, normally under the supervision of
researchers. Equivalent staff perform the corresponding R&D
tasks under the supervision of researchers in the social sciences
and humanities.

The measurement of scientific and technological activities : proposed standard practice for surveys on research and experimental development : Frascati manual 2002. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development., Source OECD (Online service). Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2002.

In the Backrooms of Science: The Work of Technicians in Science Labs

In 1994 Barley and Bechky published a fascinating peer reviewed paper on the sociology of the science technician. Although they do not present a specific definition of a technician there are two passages and a diagram that sum up nicely their view of what a technician does.

Persons formally employed as “technicians” usually work on, with, or through reputedly complex technologies or techniques. Most technicians manage the interface between a larger work process and the materials on which the process depends. As a result, technicians usually enable the work of other occupations, especially professional and managerial occupations. Finally, people who are not technicians genally percieve the technicians’ knowledge to be esoteric. (p.88)

Science technicians should likewise experience their work largely as the management of trouble. (p.91)

The articulation of technicians' work in a laboartory division of labor (Barley 1994)
The articulation of technicians’ work in a laboartory division of labor (Barley 1994)

BARLEY, STEPHEN R.; BECHKY, BETH A. (1994-02). “In the Backrooms of Science”. Work and Occupations. 21 (1): 85–126.


Between craft and science

To come…

Between craft and science : technical work in U.S. settings. Barley, Stephen R., Orr, Julian E. (Julian Edgerton), 1945-. Ithaca, N.Y.: IRL Press. 1997.

Technicians under the microscope

Gatsby commissioned Dr Paul Lewis to write a series of reports studying the roles of technicians in various industries across the UK. In the first of these reports Professor Paul Lewis. He uses the same definition as the Science Council (see above). As he is primarily looking at university technicians in his first report it is interesting to note that he splits technicians into various groups that are nicely summarised by this section:

…the term ‘technician’ is used to refer to a variety of different roles, only some of which involve the provision of specialised support for research… …Other technicians support teaching, a task that may also demand that they possess significant practical knowledge of the experimental techniques and instruments upon which students are being trained. A third set of technicians provide more general support for research and teaching by helping to sustain the infrastructure within which those
activities take place.


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