Technically Speaking: a corpus linguistic study of the value of technicians

This blog post is adapted from a conference talk given by Andy Connelly and Rebecca Woods at the Science Museum Group Research Conference 2019.

Introduction

In 2020 the Science Museum in London will be opening a new exhibition all about technicians. One of the main aims of the exhibition is to attract young people to the new T-level qualifications. However, it also forms part of an ongoing campaign to improve the status and esteem of technicians in the UK. Campaigns like Technicians Make it Happen and the Technician Commitment have made real progress along this path already.

Various organisations, campaigns and qualifications aimed at technicians. Including
Various organisations, campaigns and qualifications aimed at technicians. Including

Part of this process is not only improving the status and esteem of technicians but also their self-perception. I (Andy) have worked with, or as, technical staff my whole career and I know that many technicians feel that their skills and experiences are not valued and that their roles are not seen as important. Technicians will refer to personal experience to illustrate this, but they will also refer to the use of phrases such as, “a mere technician” [1] and, “just a technician”[2] as examples where they perceive that language has been used to diminish their status as technicians.

Blog posts written by and for technicians that illustrate the perceived status of technicians.
Examples of blog posts written by and for technicians that illustrate the perceived status of technicians

The importance of the language that is used when describing technicians inspired the talk that this blog post is based on. If we want young people to aspire to careers in which they’ll be labelled “technicians”, we need to understand what that means to those (currently) outside the profession  and how best to describe technician roles to them. At the same time, if we want to help improve the status, esteem, and self-perception of technicians we need to make sure we describe and explain their role accurately and in such a way that the message we want to get out there is the one that lands.

This is not as straightforward at it sounds. The variety of roles undertaken by “technicians” is enormous. Technicians work in laboratories and theatres, in the military and in hospitals, up ladders and down in the earth. It is difficult to know where to start if we want to both encapsulate this variety AND draw distinctions between technicians and, for example, the academic scientist or engineer.

In order to start addressing this complex set of issues we started with three questions that we felt needed to be answered:

  1. How are technicians defined now? What do formal definitions tell us about the word technician and how it might be used?
  2. How are technicians talked about? How are technicians talked about? Is the perception that they are seen as low status correct?
  3. How do technicians define themselves? How do technicians actually think they are perceived and how would they like to be talked about?

From these questions we will draw some initial conclusions about how technicians are talked about, inside and outside the profession, and how we might want to change the language we use to discuss technicians in the future. However, this is only an initial investigation into a massive and complex issue – a lot more work is required.

How technicians are defined

There are lots of definitions of the word ‘technician’ available. Many are specific to technicians from a certain sector, particularly science, while others are more general. We chose one general and one specific definition to kickstart things – the Oxford English Dictionary and the Science Council. For more definitions and a discussion of them see this previous blog post.

OED definition

The OED contains two definitions of ‘technician’ [5]:

  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.

The second (OED2) of these definitions is a more familiar, or traditional, description of a technician, though it’s clearly a more recent usage. However, the definition of a technician as someone who works in a laboratory doing practical work is a very narrow and reductive one in the 21st century. As stated above, technicians work in many sectors and locations and it is a shame that this definition does not reflect that.

The first definition (OED1) is a little more subtle. It doesn’t so much suggest a job role as a person expert in a particular area such as politics, humanities, the arts, and so on. Rather controversially, this definition ends with a suggestion that a technician may lack creativity. This sense of the word technician can also be used in reference to scientific contexts; an example of this can been seen in this translation of a quote from Marie Curie.

Quote translated from a biography of Marie Curie.
An example of an OED1 usage where there is definitely a connotation of a lack of imagination. Quote translated from a biography of Marie Curie.

Science Council definition

The Science Council have introduced and promoted the Technician Commitment which is a campaign to improve technician visibility, recognition, career development, and sustainability. As part of this, they wrote a definition which has been widely circulated and taken up by other organisations [6].

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.

In a similar way to OED2, this definition is very narrow and only really refers to science technicians – as might be expected from the Science Council. But let’s take a closer look at how the three definitions compare:

OED Science Council
1 …a person qualified in the practical aspects of one of the sciences or mechanical arts. (OED1) …a person who is skilled in the use of particular techniques and procedures to solve practical problems.
2 …person whose job is to carry out practical work in a laboratory or to give assistance with technical equipment. (OED2) …work with complex instruments and equipment, and require specialised training… [and] considerable practical experience…
3 …implications of a corresponding lack of creativity. (OED1) …require considerable ingenuity and creativity.
  • In Section 1 it is clear that both definitions recognize that technicians are knowledgeable, skilled or have qualifications. However, the Science Council suggests this is in “particular techniques” whilst the OED definitions are more general. This might be expected given Science Council is looking more narrowly at just science technicians.
  • In Section 2, we see the OED states that technicians “give assistance”, implying that there is another, more senior, actor present in the workplace whom the technician is helping. This suggests that the problems to be solved are those identified by someone else – not the technician – for example a civil engineer or academic scientist. In contrast, the Science Council avoids defining technicians with reference to another person but puts the emphasis on the technician doing work, their own work, which requires training and skill.
  • It is interesting here, in Section 3, that the Science Council includes the idea that being a technician requires ingenuity and creativity. This is in stark contrast to the OED which says there may be a lack of these attributes. Bear in mind, of course, that the OED definitions predate the Science Council one, so this could be a direct attempt to claw back status on the part of the Science Council.

This comparison brings up many questions about the perception of technicians. Are technicians seen as creative by the general public? Do they see themselves as creative? Should technicians be defined relative to another group? If so, is this an issue for technicians? To investigate (some of) these questions, we decided to look at the language used to describe technicians by outside actors.

How technicians are talked about

To find out how technicians are talked about by the rest of the world (lexicographers excluded) various big datasets of language, called corpora, can be used. For this project, two corpora were used:

  • British National Corpus (BNC): a selection of written texts chosen by linguists to be representative of British English during the 1980s-early 1990s. It contains all sorts of written material from job adverts to fiction. This is the most recent available time period, as the updated BNC (running up to 2014) is still being prepared.
  • Hansard: The official record of the speeches and debates of the British parliament – these were taken for the same time period.
Summary of the two corpora used in this study.
Summary of the two corpora used in this study.

We searched for the term “technician*”. The use of the asterisk acts as a ‘wildcard’, returning technician, technicians, technician’s, etc. Interestingly, the frequency of usage of the word technician per million words is similar in both datasets.

Methodology

Searching these datasets results in lots of examples of the use of the word ‘technician’ along with the context in which is has been used. These results can then be viewed and sorted.

In this work we focused on terms directly modifying the noun ‘technician’ where technician is used to refer to the job role (i.e. an OED2 definition). Modification means describing or making more precise the type of technician at issue. Most of our results were nouns such as “trainee” and “instrument” and adjectives e.g. “wonderful” or, as in this example, “finest”.

Ex4

Where the word ‘technician’ was modified by a location or a job role these were recorded as they gave us an indication as to the types of technicians being talked about. In this example the technician is from the Soviet Union and works in the military.

Ex3

Where the word ‘technician’ referred to the name of an organisation or similar these examples were not included in the analysis. For example,

Ex1

Similarly, if ‘technician’ was not modified, or was itself the modifier, then it was not included. For example,

Ex2

Once we had picked out the modifiers, we grouped them by semantic field, e.g. grouping clever and intelligent together. This was vital as the wide range of different adjectives found in the texts would make comparison very difficult without such an approach and because some modifiers only appeared once or twice.

Results

It is useful to get an indication of the types of technicians talked about in the corpora. Where the word technician was modified to suggest a field or subject area these generally suggested a scientific or medical technician. There were also a significant number of military, engineering and theatrical/television technicians. Some mortuary and architectural technicians as well. The full data will be available in a second blog post.

Unfortunately, the nature of this type of search means that some technician roles will not be included in the results. For example, art technicians are often referred to as “artists’ assistants” so we would not capture them in this study. Similarly, computer programmers are counted as technicians by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (see these Occupational Maps for examples), but they are not generally given that job title and so we miss out on them here.

Below are two tables which show the terms that most often directly modified the noun ‘technician’ in each of the corpora.

Corpra_table 3

There is a higher frequency for the examples in the Hansard corpus mostly because it’s a much bigger corpus with more occurrences of the word ‘technician’. However, the BNC has a lot of examples where technicians are given more specific job titles (e.g. mortuary technician) but no other modifiers.

There are clear similarities between the two sets of data. In both corpora technicians are often described as trained, qualified and skilled. In the BNC data the word “former” is high up. It is not clear why this is but seems to be an artefact of the types of writings sampled.

In fact, the data show that technicians are almost always talked about in a positive manner. You have to go a long way down to find a negative term. In the Hansard data ‘disaffected’ gets one mention. In the BNC ‘dirty’ (3 uses), ‘inexperienced’ *#*, ‘mere’ (1), ‘disaffected’ (1), and similar are included but there are very few examples.

The lower number of negative terms in Hansard may be due to the type of text; namely political speeches. The politicians are often talking about the UK’s lack of technicians and suggesting we need more or saying how good the nation’s technicians are. As such, they use positive terms to describe them and to further their political arguments.

Note that all the modifiers discussed above modify OED2 uses of ‘technician’. In these cases the discussion is overwhelmingly positive. This is not the case for the OED1 uses of the term.

OED1 examples

There are 37 examples in the BNC of ‘technician’ being used in an OED1 sense. In Hansard there are only 17. Some examples are given here [7,8,9]:

  1. …grandeur and for all their necessary importance, our courts and judges are but narrow technicians: They are not legislators: It is not their job to talk, for…

  2. Is not one of the problems the fact that people think of judges as highly qualified and wise technicians whereas, unfortunately, the judges of the European Court of Justice are part-lawyers, part-politicians?

  3. …dancers vulgarised and exaggerated every step. Of course they are wonderful technicians, but this was turning dance into an athletics display…

In example 3 above there is a clear opposition set up between technical skill and style; just as OED1 suggests. In fact, around a third of the examples of OED1 directly convey a lack, be it of creativity, political astuteness, leadership, or some other form of je ne sais quoi. The rest of the examples suggest a sense of narrowness, or particularity, about the skill set under discussion. Whether having a narrow skill set is a negative is difficult to assess, but for more discussion of the OED1 type uses please see this earlier blog post.

Corpus data summary

To summarise the results from the corpus data:

  • Technicians are described as skilled, trained and qualified,
  • Technicians are generally described in positive terms,
  • There are exceptions to this in the OED1 usage of “technician”. In these examples it is used to suggest a narrow skill set and sometimes someone who lacks creativity or similar.

Are technicians hearing the positive terms seen in the corpora? If not, what are they hearing? To find out we surveyed technicians.

How technicians define themselves

Methodology

We created a survey designed to question the opinions of technicians. In the survey we asked some general questions about the background of the respondent and then five more detailed, free-text questions:

  1. What positive stereotypes about technicians have you heard others use?
  2. What negative stereotypes about technicians have you heard others use?
  3. What makes a good technician?
  4. What negative traits do you see in yourself and your technician colleagues?
  5. In an ideal world, how would people outside the profession describe technicians?

The survey was circulated on Twitter and completed by 203 people. The majority of the respondents were technicians who worked in science either in secondary or tertiary education. However, we captured answers from technicians in many different fields including technicians working in the medical sector, in art, or in engineering. On a general level there were no stand-out differences between the responses from the different groups.

Results

In this blog post we are only going to talk about three of the questions – the complete dataset will be available soon in a separate blog post. Example responses to each question are included below.

1. What positive stereotypes about technicians have you heard others use?

Expert knowledge. ‘Make it Happen’. Ability to problem solve.

The mention of the ‘Technicians Make it Happen’ campaign in this response is interesting as it shows that these campaigns are being seen and recognised by technicians. A few people put this exact phrase and even mentioned the campaign. One person mentioned an ITV dramatization about DNA fingerprinting which highlighted the importance of a technician’s role in its discovery. The cultural presence of technicians clearly has an impact as can be seen in the answers to Question 2.

2. What negative stereotypes about technicians have you heard others use?

Only a technician (academic staff), not a proper scientist (non-scientist opinion), does the washing up (outsiders).

There were some really heartfelt responses to this question, many of which were difficult to read. This is typical of the responses and highlights some key issues which are talked about below. Two other respondents included the term “minions”. Though Minions have become a recent cultural phenomenon popular with the under 10s, our respondents were clearly less happy to be referred to as such.

Two technicians said that they had been referred to as Minions in the survey.
Two technicians said that they had been referred to as minions in the survey.

5. In an ideal world, how would people outside the profession describe technicians?

Worth £1,000,000 pa salary.  Failing that I’d settle for professional and competent.

Some great responses to this question, many of which resembled the positive stereotypes answers from Question 1, but not all.

We took all these answers, took out the key words, and grouped them in the same way as was done for the corpus data – and using the same synonyms where appropriate.

Survey results Question 1 & 2

Here are the top results for Question 1 & 2. Whether each term was reported as positive or negative is indicated in the second column.

Q1&2 data

There is a relatively even split between the positive and negative terms – perhaps unsurprisingly, as we’d intentionally elicited both. However, in the data as a whole there was a greater consistency in the positive terms with larger variation in the negative terms used.

The most consistent terms, given by almost a quarter of the respondents, are “just a technician” and “invaluable.”  In the corpora, “just a technician” did not come up at all (we checked this, even though it wouldn’t have shown up in our original searches). The closest term we found was “mere” which turned up twice in the BNC data. However, “just a…” can be interpreted as implying a lack, for example a lack of higher skill or contribution, which is a similar implication to that contained in the OED1 sense of ‘technician’.

Of the 25 terms we have classed as “Make it Happen”, nine of them actually used the phrase “Make it happen”. Others used phrases such as “get things done” to express the same idea. The ‘Technicians Make it Happen’ campaign only started in 2016 and so was not in existence during the period covered by the corpora.

If we compare these data with those from the corpora, it is striking that the technicians themselves do not use the terms qualified, skilled, or trained. These were the key terms from the corpora but they are not words that technicians think people use to describe them. Are they words that they would like people to use about them?

Survey results question 5

The question of how technicians would like to be described in an ideal world proved a fascinating insight into technicians’ attitudes. The table below shows the top results for these questions.Q5 data

The most popular response was ‘invaluable’ with ‘professional’, ‘knowledgeable’ and ‘skilled’. If these data are compared with the positive stereotypes about technicians it clearly highlights a couple of key terms that technicians do not think people use about them. The technicians surveyed see themselves as professionals and as experts in what they do – these are qualities over and above being ‘skilled’, as both imply high levels of education in addition to experience and training in a broader sense. However, technicians want to be seen as ‘invaluable’ and ‘knowledgeable’ and also feel that others see them as such.

The importance of the word ‘professional’ to the technicians who responded to the survey is clear. However, do technicians want to be seen as professional because the alternative groupings that they more traditionally have fitted into, trades and crafts, are generally seen as low status in the UK? It is certainly true that technicians can become professionally registered. However, does this make being a technician a profession? This is a question for future work. The key thing as far as this work is concerned is that technicians feel they are professionals.

When the corpus data is added to this table it is clear that the only term that appears regularly in the corpora is ‘skilled’. This suggests that technicians are right to think people don’t talk about them as professional or respected. Also, it suggests that technicians are not hearing the positive terms they want because they are not being used.

What next?

This study has, in many ways, created more questions than it has answered. However, in listening to technicians and how they would like to be described it is possible to give some guidance about how to construct conversations around technicians and the profession in the future. To illustrate the results of this study we have selected two technician responses to our survey.

They [technicians] are hard-working, the “backbone” of the lab, the “go-to” person if you need help, the people who make the clever ideas come to life.

Professional, knowledgeable people who chose this career not because we are not clever enough to teach but because the hours and work suit our lifestyle better…

Numbering order of the vertebrae of the human spinal column
Numbering order of the vertebrae of the human spinal column. (Public Domain)

The first quote describes brilliantly the technicians’ desire to be invaluable – the backbone of the organization; the desire to help people and crucially make the creative ideas come alive. Interestingly, our technicians don’t express a desire to be thought of as creative – only two technician in 203 used that word in response to question 5 above.

From the survey data it is also clear that technicians want to be seen as skilled professionals, problem solvers, and as people who “Make it Happen.” However, they are not generally interested in generating ideas for or leading big projects. This is illustrated by the second quote above from a secondary school biology laboratory technician, who explains that it is not a lack of anything that leads them to being a technician but a choice.

It seems that the key to talking about technicians is to emphasise the positive nature of being the backbone, of being a skilled and professional member of a team. Writing about technicians as working in partnership with others – potentially those who come up with the big ideas be that scientific, artistic or theatrical – is a good way forward.

For us, this is highlights a problem with the Science Council definition described above. To include “creativity and ingenuity” in a definition of ‘technician’ seems tantamount to saying that “they are not just technically skilled but they are also creative”. There is no doubt that technicians do a lot of creative problem solving and that they feed into innovation [10] particularly through feedback. However, we would suggest that they do this by using their specialized skill and knowledge within a framework that is largely pre-determined. The other danger with suggesting that technicians are creative is that it becomes incredibly difficult to explain the difference between, for example, a science technician and an academic research scientist or a theatrical lighting technician and a lighting designer.

The new exhibitions need to celebrate technicians as the backbone of the workplace and as skilled and professional members of a team. Ideally, this will be done without explicitly or continuously defining technicians relative to other job roles, though as the last couple of paragraphs illustrate, this is not easy to do. If this fine balance can be achieved, we will avoid confusion in the young people who come to visit and will help the current crop of technicians celebrate all that is good about being a technician.

That the Science Museum is designing an exhibition specifically to highlight the work of technicians is a fantastic step forward. With careful use of language, we think it can really make a difference to how technicians are perceived by others and, possibly more importantly, how they perceive and value their own work.

References and acknowledgements

Thank you to Sarah Baines for inviting us to talk and Abi Wilson for organising the conference. Please get in touch if you want to see more of the data.

[1] Not “Mere Technicians”, the-scientist.com. Retrieved 2019-08-06
[2] “Not ‘just’ a technician”, rsc.org, Retrieved 2019-08-06.
[3] Not just a technician, technician.org.uk, Retrieved 2019-08-06.
[4] Not just a technician, The Science Council. Retrieved 2019-08-06.
[5] “Oxford English Dictionary”. http://www.oed.com. Retrieved 2019-08-06.
[6] “Our definition of a science technician”. The Science Council. Retrieved 2019-08-06.
[7] Extract from Hansard (24/3/1993) Mr Nicolas Budgen speaking in the House of Commons.
[8] Extract from Hansard (02/03/1992) Mr Nicolas Budgen speaking in the House of Commons.
[9] From the Daily Telegraph: Arts section (04/12/1992) British National Corpus AK4 units 1370-1371.
[10] Lewis, Paul A. (2019-06-17). “Technicians and Innovation: A Literature Review“. Rochester, NY.

Reading list

I (Andy) was asked at the conference who my favourite person writing about technicians was. Unfortunately, not many people do write about technicians. However, I thought I’d include a list of a few people who write really well about technicians. If you think I’ve missed any out I’d love to hear them.

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