The cognitive riches of artisanship and craft labor

29.October 2009

Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. 2009: Penguin Books.

If the regard that many people now have for the wider ramifications of their food choices could be brought to our relationships to our own automobiles, it could sustain pockets of mindful labor… [102]

This is the book I wanted to write, to try to get at the fulfillments of artisanship, and what this suggests for how we should organize the economy. I am thrilled that Crawford has already done it, and so well. My own experience –and what I keep hearing from artisans I talk to– is beautifully captured in the introduction:

As a motorcycle mechanic…The wad of cash in my pants feels different…as executive director of a Washington “think tank” I was always tired…This sense of uselessness was dispiriting…I offer my own story here not because I think it is extraordinary, but rather because I suspect it is fairly common. I want to do justice to intuitions that many people have, but which enjoy little public credit. This book grows out of an attempt to understand the greater sense of agency and competence I have always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as “knowledge work.” Perhaps most surprisingly, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually. This book is an attempt to understand why this should be so. [5]

Crawford is not on about artisan level craftsmen, but about “tradesmen” who build and repair everyday objects. Their work is “meaningful because it is genuinely useful” [6]. He mobilizes the sociological concept of “agency” which he and others see as a central struggle of modern life. He views the common dialogues about “meaningful work”, frugality, and “self-reliance” as manifestations of this struggle. [7-8].

“Spiritedness is an assertion of one’s own dignity, and to fix one’s own car is not merely to use up time [in an irrational opportunity cost], it is to have a different experience of time, of one’s car, and of oneself.” [55]

Crawford’s scholarship is excellent, and the book is a pleasurable read due to his regular and articulate reference to his own experiences and the perspectives of other tradesmen he has known. He summarizes and critiques the shift to a service and information economy as

…a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy [3]…This stance toward ‘established reality’ which can only be called psychadelic, is best not indulged around a table saw. [19]….I quickly realized there was more thinking going on in the bike shop than in my previous job at the think tank. [27]

His succinct history of work shows that the de-intellectualization/degradation of the trades (by the assembly line and computerization of appliances) is now followed by the degradation of white-collar work as well. This shift has been embraced by high schools and colleges which now fail to provide any real training.

Much of the "jobs of the future" rhetoric surrounding the eagerness to end shop class and get every warm body into college, thence into a cubicle, implicitly assumes that we are heading to a postindustrial economy in which everyone will deal only in abstractions. Yet trafficking in abstractions is not the same as thinking. White-collar professions, too are subject to routinization and degradation, proceeding by the same logic that hit annual fabrication a hundred years ago: the cognitive elements of the job are appropriated...If genuine knowledge work is not growing but actually shrinking, because it is coming to be concentrated in an ever-smaller elite, this has implications for the vocational advice that students ought to receive. If they want to use their brains at work...they should be helped to find work that somehow thwarts the Taylorist logic, and is therefore safe from it. [44-5]

Crawford's history includes the results of the introduction of the first assembly lines. Experienced craftsmen, accustomed to cognitively-rich working environment, walked out. [41]

What is it that we really want for a young person when we give him or her vocational advice? The only creditable answer, it seems to me...work that engages the human capacities as fully as possible...The physical circumstances of the jobs performed by carpenters, plumbers, and auto mechanics...require circumspection and adaptability. One feels like a man, not a cog in a machine. The trades are then a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction but also of the insidious hopes and rising and insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life...Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You're likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level "creative". To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable [52-3]

Crawford is a PhD in political philosophy, and had a successful professional career in a think-tank. But his previous work as an electrician and mechanic drew him back to the trades. He argues for the cognitive satisfactions of the manual trades and the sense of agency and competence of engagement with things and the communities that use them. He writes beautifully, and the book is a delight to read.  He tells his own biography with machines and mechanics, using detailed descriptions of mechanics' projects to develop insights into the often-overlooked intellectual dimensions of these engagements.

Those who seek meaningful work often face two oft-repeated dichotomous possibilities: {1} work at something you hate that pays well so you can afford to express yourself in your hobbies, or {2} turn your passion into a job and lose your love for it (Crawford says this happens because the intrinsic rewards are displaced by extrinsic criteria). In a very brief few pages at the end of ch8 [195-7] Crawford proposes that meaningful work can be had by using your skills in the service of other people living the good life as you understand it. In his case, making motorcycles run well. Meaningful work contributes to the practice of a good life by members of your community.