Defining a technician

Introduction

I’ve spent a few years now writing about technicians both recent and historic. There have been science technicians, engineering technicians, and art technicians; technicians from many fields of activity. I’ve written about their their lives, their work, their disappointments, and their successes. Despite the variety of fields these technicians come from I have seen many similarities in their stories. These similarities are what bind technicians together and as organisations like Technicians Make it Happen try to promote technicians in all their plethora of forms it is important to identify these similarities as they will allow us define what technicians are and how the role of a technician fits in besides that of the engineer, artist, etc.

In this blog post I am going to look at a variety of definitions for technicians. I’m going to look how they are similar and how they differ and look at what we can learn from this. It is an entirely unscientific selection of definitions but I have tried to get a reasonable balance between dictionary, academic and campaign definitions.

When I say “technician” obviously, not all roles that are technicians have the word ‘technician’ in their job title. For example:

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

These, and many more (see this Taxonomy of Technicians diagram and these Occupational Maps) are included under the term ‘technician’ for this post.

History of a word

In his seminal paper “The Invisible Technician” Steven Shapin tells us that 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.

In fact, the word technician is relatively recent in common usage. It 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 practicing, 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

Key to this 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 is one that runs through the history of the title ‘technician’. Here is another more modern example, again from the OED, of the same idea from 1962. I think the piece is talking about the drummer Ginger Baker but I have not been able to get hold of a copy of the original article:

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)

The OED takes this usage into account with its first definition (OED1) of technician with the statement “a corresponding lack of creativity”. However, the OED has a second definition (OED2) that focuses on a person being “practical aspects of one of the sciences or mechanical arts”.

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 equipment.

“Home : Oxford English Dictionary”. http://www.oed.com. Retrieved 2019-08-06.

The quote from 1896 shows the OED2:

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

St Louis Clinique 9 395/1 (1896)

While these early uses of the word technician are very recognisable today the word technician was not in common usage until the mid-20th century. Even in the early twentieth century technicians were often referred to as lab boys. According to Barley and Orr it wasn’t until WW2 that it came into general usage. They quote this Funk and Wagnall 1947 definition to show this:

1. One skilled in the handling of instruments or in the performance of tasks requiring specialized training

2. A rating in the armed services including those qualified for technical work; also, one having such a rating.

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.

Since then, in many fields – particularly science and engineering – the word technician has become the common term for a group of people who share certain attributes. What those attributes are is more difficult to describe.

Modern definitions

I have collected various definitions for this piece from a selection of different dictionaries, from campaign websites such as Technicians Make it Happen (TMiH), organisations like the Science Council, and from the academic literature. Interestingly, not all organisation that work with technicians have a definition of technician. For example, the Institute of Technology (IST) does not seem to have a specific definition for technicians. They seem to favour an inclusive system that a technician is someone who self-identifies as a technician.

To give an overview of all these definitions I have generated the following word frequency diagram to show the key words used across these (unscientifically selected) definitions.

Wordle showing frequency of words used in definitions.
Wordle showing frequency of words used in definitions. Showing all words used more than once (n>1). Common and functional words have been removed for clarity. Also, some variations of words have been combined, for example. skill, skills, and skilled become skill.

This highlights the key words across the definitions. The high frequency of words like ‘science’ and ‘engineering’ may be due to the origin of definitions I have found or due to the fact that technicians are so often thought of as coming from these fields. The frequency of the word ‘technical’ when defining ‘technicians’ doesn’t seem very helpful in clarifying what technicians do and shows just how opaque many definitions are.

Below I am going to take a selection of the most frequent words used and discuss them in relation to the various definitions of technician.

Skill

An organisation that clearly sees skills as important to the role of technicians is the Technicians Make it Happen campaign. They give this simplified definition of a technician in their prospectus.

The best technicians… share a certain set of skills and attributes. Most technicians work in teams, so good teamwork and communication skills are key. They’ll also often have particular science, technology, engineering, or maths knowledge…
This prospectus sets out what we believe are the ten most common
attributes of a good technician, regardless of their field of expertise.

  • Analytical
  • Attention to detail
  • Communicating complex ideas
  • Critical thinking
  • Decisive
  • Instructing others
  • Practical application
  • Precise
  • Problem-solving
  • Technologically-minded

Make it Happen“, Prospectus from Technicians Make it Happen, Retrieved 2019-09-08.

This definition is all about skills and puts skills at the forefront of what a technician is. Another organisation dedicated to the professional development of technicians is the Science Council. Their definition is aimed at scientists and clearly focuses on technical skills. Interestingly, it does not mention knowledge but does bring in the idea of creativity which other definitions generally do not except OED1 which suggests technicians tend not to poses creativity.

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.

The Higher Education and Technician’s Educational Development (HEaTED) definition highlights both skill and knowledge. HEaTED is a provider of professional development and networking opportunities in the technical workforce. As such, the idea of knowledge and increasing knowledge is key to what they do.

A person who is trained and or skilled in the techniques, tools, and technology of their subject, who provides 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”. http://www.stem.org.uk. Retrieved 2019-08-06.

Knowledge

The Gatsby Foundation commissioned Prof. 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 Lewis uses the same definition as the Science Council (see above). However, he adds more to this by splitting 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.

Lewis, P.A.; Gospel H. TECHNICIANS UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: A STUDY OF THE SKILLS AND TRAINING OF UNIVERSITY LABORATORY AND ENGINEERING WORKSHOP TECHNICIANS, Gatsby Charitable Foundation, May 2013

In another of Paul Lewis’s reports he gives this definition. Here he brings together both skills and knowledge.

Technicians are workers occupying roles that require ‘intermediate’ – that is, level 3-5 – skills in science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics. Technicians use their knowledge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to solve practical problems arising in research and development, production, and maintenance.

Lewis, P.A., TECHNICIANS AND INNOVATION: A LITERATURE REVIEW, Gatsby Charitable Foundation, 2019

Specialisation

Specialisation appears in many of the definitions including the Science Council’s definition above and in these Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions:

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

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

“Definition of TECHNICIAN”. http://www.merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 2019-08-06.

Experience

Experience is a key term used in many of the definitions for technician. This example from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) looks more at research technicians but clearly rates experience on a similar level to skills.

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.

Technology

In 1994 Barley and Bechky published a fascinating paper on the sociology of the science technician called “In the Backrooms of Science: The Work of Technicians in Science Labs”. Although they do not present a specific definition of a technician there is a passage and a diagram that sum up nicely their view of what a technician does. At the heart of these is the idea that technicians work with “complex technologies”.

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 generally perceive the technician’s knowledge to be esoteric. (p.88)

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.

A wide ranging and interesting edited volume called “Between craft and sciencebrings together leading scholars from sociology, anthropology, industrial relations, management, and engineering to consider issues surrounding technical work. There is no specific definition proposed by any of the authors in this edited volume. However, in the introduction to the volume Barley and Orr do list four attributes that they believe signal technical work:

(a) the centrality of complex technology to the work,

(b) the importance of contextual knowledge and skill,

(c) the importance of theories or abstract representations of phenomena, and

(d) the existence of a community of practice that serves as a distributed repository for knowledge of relevance to practitioners.

Between Craft and Science: Technical Work in the United States. Cornell University Press. 1997. doi:10.7591/j.ctv75d65m. ISBN 978-0-8014-8366-0.

Practical

The word practical is present in almost all the above definitions. Clearly technicians are thought of as practical people. The definitions tell us that technicians are expert in or qualified in the practical aspects of their work, they provide a practical application of knowledge,  they solve practical problems with their practical experience, and the knowledge they have is practical.

Creativity

There are only two definitions that include explicitly the idea of creativity. The first I have included is the OED1 definition which states, “with implications of a corresponding lack of creativity.” The other is the Science Council definition which includes the phrase, “often in ways that require considerable ingenuity and creativity.” These are obviously at odds. What other definitions do include is the idea of problem solving which is, in itself, could be argued to be a creative process.

Summary

From all of this, what is the best definition of a technician? I don’t feel qualified to answer that question, but I know it needs to celebrate their practical skills and knowledge gained through their experience. Whether the role of problem solving needs to be stated explicitly I am not sure.

I’ll leave you with my favourite expression of the role of technicians which comes in Barley and Bechky (1994) and certainly reminds me of my time as a technician.

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

If you have any comments or thoughts about anything you have read here please get in touch I’d love to hear from you. Either leave a comment below or drop me a message.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s