Sociologist Richard Sennett explains how working with our hands enhances critical thinking, radicalizes labor, and makes us proud
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.
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?
This is a project about material culture in the broadest sense. The Craftsman was about making things well; the second volume, The Workshop, focuses on developing social skills and cooperation; and the third, The Foreigner, will be about environmental design and crafting cities.
The question that ties them all together is: How do we develop skills in the course of making things, whether they are physical objects, social relations, or environments? Underlying this study is a theory I called “situated cognition,” which is the way human beings develop their capacities through craftwork.
One of the key issues you’ve identified is “how paying attention is organized.”
Attention is something that gets organized by others, as well as us. When we focus on making a physical object, or on playing a musical instrument, our concentration level is mainly self-directed. In a social context, focusing on the concrete and particular is shaped by our interactions with other people. They situate us.
That is why cooperation and collaboration are so important. Our social relations can help us pay attention to what we are doing without arousing anxiety or defensiveness, or they can interfere with our ability to attend to the concrete world. That is what this whole idea of situated cognition is about.
Your definition of craftsmanship is “the desire to do a job well for its own sake.” You posit this desire as a basic human impulse to do good work. So your theory rests on the assumption of an innate human drive?
The premise is very simple. Human beings are form makers, and as such seek a sense of closure, or what others would call wholeness. Craftwork, in developmental terms, enacts that impulse with physical objects, satisfying a psychological desire for closure and tangible results.
There is no real full human development without this process. That is partly what I mean when I say “there is a craftsman in everyone.” I don’t think the quest for good work only applies to the maker of a Stradivarius. I think it is a capacity that exists in most human beings.
For a long time we have known that this is how people develop language and cognitive powers, but we haven’t appreciated that this same developmental path occurs in our dealings with the physical environment. The lack of research on the mental activity involved in making physical things has important social repercussions. People who are competent in verbal symbols are thought to be more gifted than those whose development occurs through physical or manual experience.
There is a terrible blindness in modern society to people who work with their hands, and this leads to class differentiation and even contempt for manual work.
You tie craftsmanship to a number of other behaviors, principles, and values including commitment, pride, discipline, and upholding objective standards. Pride seems to be an especially potent reward of craftwork.
I don’t use the term pride in the sense of trumpeting oneself. It’s more a sense of self-respect. We usually get incomplete rewards from other people, particularly if one is low in the social pecking order. So we have to look for other available sources of self-worth. Enacting this process of completion, of making something that is separate from us and stands on its own like an object is a way of saying, “I made this. I exist.”
We could twist Descartes’ well-known phrase from “I think, therefore I am” to “I make, therefore I am.”
Absolutely. And there is a great emotional reward in physical production. It gives you a sense of place in the world and a sense that it matters that you’re here.
Another reward of the craft experience that you identify is anchoring in tangible reality. Today, more than ever, we need tangible anchors.
The modern economy privileges pure profit, momentary transactions, and rapid fluidity. Part of craft’s anchoring role is that it helps to slow down labor. It is not about quick transactions or easy victories. That slow tempo of craftwork, of taking the time you need to do something well, is profoundly stabilizing to individuals.
When people are forced to do things quickly it becomes a type of triage. In the process of working very fast, we don’t have the time for reflection and being self-critical. We tend to go into autopilot and mistakes increase. Self-critical faculties decrease with speed, and the brain does a better job of processing when it goes slowly than when it goes rapidly.
The capitalist economy sacrifices the logic of craft, which results in poorly made objects and a degraded physical environment. This capitalist model of productivity then feeds back into the schools, so the very training of people becomes industrialized. The craft model of education—slow, concentrated, repetitive—is seen as dysfunctional and irrelevant in the modern world.
This trickle-down effect into education is crucial and connects to the question of organizing attention and the ability to focus.
That is a very important issue. Pedagogically, we teach people that the moment they learn to do something, they can move on to something else rather than dwell on that lesson. When musicians practice something over and over again, they get deeper into the music, expanding it from within, exploring problems, and so forth.
Our pedagogy doesn’t tend to that. We go by the notion that once you’ve solved something, the actual experience of doing it is secondary. That whittles down attention. This is a terrible problem in the teaching of music in schools, where the length of time that children can practice becomes reduced. We disable the actual experience of repetition, and that eventually cuts down on our capacity to concentrate.
In the beginning, when someone is learning a manual skill like playing the piano, teachers try hard to entice students because they think they’ll get bored. But after a while students come to concentrate on the process of learning through doing a thing again and again. They become interested in the actual skill development. The real challenge is getting people to that point where they’ll do it without the carrot of outside motivation.
I found it interesting that The Craftsman ends on a down note, with your suggestion that a craftsman’s life is often marked by “bitterness and regret.” Is that because our culture has scant regard for craft values and practice?
Hopefully people who do good work and take pride in the thing itself can sustain hardships, even though they aren’t given much social or economic recognition. Some can, and others still want that external reward.
We tend to think that self-respect within our work is a garnish on top of economic reward. Although that notion doesn’t agree with much social science, it is ingrained within American culture, which holds that first and foremost people believe the most important thing about work is making as much money as possible.
Which is capitalism. In your 2005 book The Culture of the New Capitalism, you claim that craftsmanship represents the most radical challenge to the new capitalism. So is capitalism’s strongest opponent craft?
Nobody believes in revolution anymore, and nobody wants to go back to the guilds. So this is not a brief for returning to the old-fashioned guild system. The most radical thing that could happen in the modern workplace is for workers to say, “Let us do a better job. This is not good enough, we could do better.”
This would be profoundly destabilizing to the way most work is organized. So, in that sense, it is a very powerful proposal. We are beginning to see this in companies that are committed to employee enrichment and developing the craft powers of their employees, like Toyota and BMW. This is a real change for the future—how can we produce a nation of craftspeople?
In some ways we’re beginning to see an increase of the craft ethos throughout our culture. We are in an age that is inventing new crafts all the time. A lot of craftspeople I meet are focused on the traditional craft media and don’t realize how what they do is related to advances in technology, medicine, and politics. The principles of making physical objects and the skill sets involved have expanded to all sorts of other domains.
I’d like to see people in the craft world get rid of their neurosis about justifying whether they’re artists or not. Instead, they should be looking at their practice as something that is really important. So it doesn’t matter whether [artist] Damien Hirst thinks they are artists or not. What matters is that the surgeon or the computer programmer sees that they are all engaged in the same kind of activity.
You’ve offered a complex diagnosis of our culture, but I’m curious about your prescriptions. If you could pass legislation that would help make people more engaged and competent citizens, what would it be?
I’d ban all multiple-choice questions in tests, which encourage people to get to the quickest answer possible rather than to dwell on the problem. This may sound frivolous, but it is quite serious. On a more practical matter, I think that craftsmanship flourishes in small-scale business and I’d like to see our government, like the British government, invest more in small-production businesses. That’s an absolute necessity. To support craftsmanship you have to support enterprise on the small-scale level.
Also in the United States we don’t put enough money into mentoring and have very poor mentoring programs. We don’t pay master craftsmen to take on and train young people. We don’t see that as a social good. This is the single policy we could enact in the United States to get people engaged in the transfer of physical knowledge from master to apprentice. So they can learn skills directly from those actually practicing their craft. I would really like to see this happen.
When you speak about building a nation of craftspeople, do you have in mind an ideal cultural model or movement, either historical or contemporary?
There are a lot of small examples, but nothing represents a huge alternative. In the beginning of The Craftsman I describe the community of Linux programmers and their chat rooms, which involve highly focused work on a concrete project. It is very interactive and very cooperative. Another small example in the U.K. is the organic farm movement, which is also quite cooperative, and where people are always discussing the skills of actually growing food. That isn’t going to change the powers of the supermarket, but it is a strong movement. There are lots of small initiatives like this.
In traditional crafts the same sort of thing is going on, with the return of people doing skilled physical work like weaving, knitting, and sewing. Parts of those economic sectors are coming back to life and they are much more collaborative. The idea of this is twofold: one is small-scale and face-to-face, and the other is web-based. I think the web is a fantastic medium for craftsmen. It is a means for mutual support, skill sharing, and problem solving. There is something inherently workshop-like that dwells on the web; it is a great technology for craft.
Reprinted from American Craft (Oct.-Nov. 2009), a vivid bimonthly that celebrates “the modern makers who shape the world around us,” published by the American Craft Council, a nonprofit educational organization.