Crafting a New World

Sociologist Richard Sennett explains how working with our hands enhances critical thinking, radicalizes labor, and makes us proud


| January-February 2010



Crafting 1

image by Margaret Cusack / www.margaretcusack.com

There is a craftsperson in everyone, according to Richard Sennett. But don’t spend too much time plumbing your psyche for a latent woodworker, quilter, or metalsmith. Craftsmanship, according to Sennett, a sociologist at New York University and the London School of Economics, both includes and eclipses the endeavors that might jump to mind. It is an “enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake,” he writes. It’s also an impulse that contemporary culture, with its obsessive embrace of efficiency, financial reward, and the bottom line, has devalued—to its own detriment.

Since the 1990s, Sennett has worked to dissect and illuminate how capitalism affects us. His latest book, The Craftsman (Yale University Press), explores how “making is thinking,” and what is lost in a society that fails to recognize craftsmanship and what is learned through using our hands.

The author sees in craft and craftsmanship the development of critical thinking, imagination, the ability to play, a source of pride, even validation of our existence. And there may be no better time than now, as people are engaged in a broad discussion of “what next,” to take heed of his ideas. One emerging theme of the post-financial-meltdown world is that many of us do not wish to return to the way work was.

In this interview, reprinted from American Craft, Sennett speaks with Suzanne Ramljak, a writer, art historian, and editor of Metalsmith magazine. They discuss his work, his diagnosis of American culture, and a craft-based prescription for change.

The Editors

Your most recent book, The Craftsman, is the first in a trilogy devoted to what you call “techniques for conducting a particular way of life.” Can you elaborate on this project?

Jjohn
1/13/2014 8:30:18 AM

As a craftsman, I'm a glass bead amer and wood sculptor, I agree totally with your article on the lack of importance regarding handwork.The thrill of taking raw materials, and creating something useful or beautiful is a pleasure unknown to most. As an aside, the Tamarack studios and sales area in West Virginia is a great model of what can be done to insure that hand skills are not only appreciated but are not lost. I highly recommend the model to anyone, individual or organization who wishes to further the concept of handwork!