“This is How we Debate”: Engineers’ Use of Stories to Reason through Disaster Causation

Sarah Maslen, Jan Hayes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


This article contributes to inquiry on storytelling practice through analysis of the strategies that engineers adopt when reasoning through a disaster scenario. In hazardous industries, engineering work is closely linked to disaster prevention, and analysis of past cases is a key learning strategy. Natural gas pipeline project personnel were presented with the case of the Überlingen mid-air aircraft collision—an incident outside their sector that they were mostly unfamiliar with. Two techniques were used to make sense of the disaster causation and its implications for participants’ work. First, participants reasoned through applying abstract principles to the case, and specifically their knowledge of safety management underpinned by engineering risk management and organizational safety approaches. Second, participants sought to appreciate the events through stories. Where previous narrative research has suggested that narrative reasoning is better suited to values-oriented judgments, we found that participants also used stories to make sense of technical issues. Stories were principally used analogically, as the engineers sought to clarify what the events at Überlingen were a “case of” and so how they might be relevant to their professional practice. This analogical reasoning served to resolve narrative ambiguity. Stories were used by most participants to debate points with peers, though tellers of longer accounts tended to be those with more experience and organizational seniority.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)191-212
Number of pages22
JournalQualitative Sociology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2020


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