Anthropology of Skill & Craftwork: Explorations of the Intelligent Body in Education & Work

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The Anthropology of Skill & Craftwork investigates the entwined activities of design and making and the contemporary politics of ‘handmade’.

Taught by Professor Trevor H.J. Marchand

8 x 1. 5 hour classes

Start date: September 2023

Price: £245

This course is aimed at students (and graduate students) of anthropology, sociology, experimental archaeology, material culture, education studies, design, fine arts, architecture and museum studies (upper-year UG, MA and PhD); postdoctoral students of any discipline with an interest in craft, design or embodied knowledge/skill; practicing craftspeople, designers, architects, artists and engineers – worldwide.

Key words: Anthropology of craftwork, politics of craft, skill, embodied knowledge, apprenticeship, vocational training, communities of practice, problem solving

The Anthropology of Skill & Craftwork investigates the making of things. The multitude of functional and decorative objects, implements, textiles, buildings and furnishings with which we interact daily have been expressly designed and made, and the biographies of many such things include hands-on repair, restoration, recycling or repurposing. This project-based course introduces participants to the study of human skill and ways of knowing that create our material worlds and give them meaning.

If you are already an enrolled student, you can access our Moodle platform here:

Tutor biography

Trevor Marchand is Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, London) and recipient of the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Rivers Memorial Medal (2014). He studied architecture (McGill), received a PhD in anthropology (SOAS), and qualified as a fine woodworker at London’s Building Crafts College.

Over a period of three decades, Marchand has conducted fieldwork with masons and craftspeople in Northern Nigeria, Yemen, Mali and the UK. In addition to lecturing in anthropology, he also lectures on the art, architecture and archaeology of Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and West and North Africa for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and the Society for Asian Art (SAA).

Marchand has published extensively. His monographs and edited volumes include The Pursuit of Pleasurable Work (2021, nominated for the Prose Awards), Architectural Heritage of Yemen (2017), Craftwork as Problem Solving (2016), Making Knowledge (2010, special issue of the JRAI), The Masons of Djenné (2009, winner of three international prizes), Knowledge in Practice (2009, with Kai Kresse, 2009) and Minaret Building and Apprenticeship in Yemen (2001). He has produced, directed and presented documentary films on architecture and craftwork, and has curated exhibitions for the Brunei Gallery in London, Museum of Oriental Art in Turin, Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Royal Institute of British Architects, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He is an independent advisor on heritage for the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a member of the ICOMOS World Heritage panel, and an advisor on the international experts panel for the Endangered Wooden Architecture Programme (EWAP) at Oxford Brookes University.

Tutor biography

Dr James Rose is a forensic and expert social anthropologist specialising in culturally-based land claims, cultural heritage protection, data governance and geographic information systems.  His methodological focus includes network-based population dynamics and social and kinship network analysis. James holds two decades’ experience working with Australian state, territory and federal government agencies and departments, Commonwealth institutes, industry regulators, health service providers, universities, community-controlled organisations, and the private sector, and is a Senior Research Fellow with the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health.

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Watch a recording of James Rose discussing Forensic Expert Social Anthropology: 

Course objective & structure

The course objective is to acquaint participants with seminal ideas emerging from anthropology and other academic disciplines on the interconnected topics of craft, skill and embodied ways of learning and knowing. Importantly, the course also introduces relevant research methods in order to prepare participants for conducting their own fieldwork and research on craftwork in parallel with the seminar series.

This eight-week, non-assessed course is structured around weekly online “roundtable” seminars of 90 minutes each. Seminar discussions are participant-led, grounded in the ideas, issues and questions that arise from the assigned weekly reading(s) and from participants’ fieldwork experiences (see below). At the close of each seminar, the convenor will briefly introduce the following week’s topic with key concepts from selected authors.

Summary of seminar topics

  • Week 1: Introduction to the Anthropology of Skill & Craftwork
  • Week 2: Social Politics of Craft & Manual Work – Past & Present
  • Week 3: Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Craft & Apprenticeship
  • Week 4: Communities of Practice and Contemporary Craftworlds
  • Week 5: The Senses in Making
  • Week 6: The Intelligent Body
  • Week 7: Craftwork as Problem Solving
  • Week 8: Project Findings & Future Research

Week 1: Introduction to the Anthropology of Skill & Craftwor

During the first seminar, the convenor will present an overview of the course contents and the fieldwork component. We will discuss the preparation of a research consent form, as well as the Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA) ethical guidelines for fieldwork

The convenor will conclude by introducing the topic for discussion in week 2.

Week 2: Social Politics of Craft & Manual Work – Past & Present

The nineteenth-century Arts & Crafts movement sought to not only bring respectability to craftspeople, but to also make craftwork a vehicle for social and political reform. For some contemporary makers, craft continues to be an outlet for political expression; for others, it offers the promise of pleasurable work, self-realisation and a sense of agency; and, for the members of certain communities, it remains a (loathed or prized) form of labour tethered to their caste, ethnic identity or socio-economic class.

Week 3: Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Craft & Apprenticeship

Since the publication of Michael Coy’s edited volume on ‘apprenticeship’ as both research topic and field method (1989), apprenticing as a means of inquiry has become a common field method in anthropology. Apprenticing as a technique of anthropological inquiry is well suited to the study of learning and knowing in practice-based contexts where talking is often upstaged by doing. It also equips anthropologists with first-hand experience – and possibly some level of expertise – in the practices and site politics that they theorise and write about. In the exchange of ‘toil’ for ‘ethnographic knowledge’, fieldworkers are exposed viscerally to the learning environments and livelihoods of fellow trainees and engaged directly in the kinds of verbal and bodily communication that are employed in the transmission of skills and comportment. However, apprenticing as an anthropological method also has its challenges, which we will explore this week.

Week 4: Communities of Practice and Contemporary Craftworlds

Cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave and educational theorist Etienne Wenger’s influential study on situated learning promotes a thinking about learning as ‘increasing participation in communities of practice [that] concerns the whole person acting in the world’ (1991). Fieldworkers studying skill learning and craft knowledge have employed Lave and Wenger’s concept of “community of practice” to better understand how individual practitioners (i.e. apprentices, novices and masters) learn from one another through processes of sharing information and experiences, and thereby develop in both personal and professional ways.

However, craftspeople develop their personal design aesthetics and making skills through not only their interactions or collaborations with fellow makers, but also in their engagements with patrons, marketing agents and collectors. Over the past two decades, a keen fascination with and desire for things “handmade” has burgeoned among elite and middleclass consumers around the globe. While creating new markets and opportunities for makers, contemporary “craftworlds” are exposed to regimes of changing fashion and the volatility of global events, and individual makers are more likely to become embroiled in contests over ownership, authenticity and heritage.

Week 5: The Senses in Making

n craftwork, developing a “critical eye” refers not merely to vision but rather means gradually elevating perceptual awareness through practice and learning to direct sustained attention to the kinds of information that needs to be registered, attended to, and processed in order to do something well. It involves active and regular seeking of irregularities, mistakes, deficiencies and inefficiencies with the aim of learning, improving and mastering – and, for some craftspeople, striving for perfection.

Touch is especially important in many craft disciplines. Handwork is often reliant on the immediate tactile relation between a maker’s hand, the tool blade/tip and the material being worked. While making, the senses of sight, hearing, smell, kinaesthesia and proprioception combine with touch to produce a whole-bodied experience in the task and an intimate, multilayered dialogue with the sensory properties of the material(s).

Our discussion about the role of the perceptual senses in craftwork will be further developed next week when we investigate the “intelligent body”.

Week 6: The Intelligent Body

Neurologist Frank Wilson’s meticulous study of The Hand (1998) marshaled neuroscience, anatomy, psychology, and his own ethnographic accounts of puppeteers, artisans, musicians, and other practitioners to construct a lucid portrayal of the evolution and skilled intelligence of human hands at work in various settings and on diverse tasks. Anthropology and a multitude of other disciplines continue to provide fresh insights into the nature of skill learning, tool use, and the interconnectedness of language, conceptual thought, perceptual senses and motor cognition. Such research findings are essential to fostering greater social and cultural value for the “intelligent body” at work. Broadening the definition of intelligence to include the kinds of skilled practices that characterise craftwork could potentially incite needed reform of traditional school curricula and workplace learning programmes.

Week 7: Craftwork as Problem Solving

Learning and discovery are not confined to abstract thinking about the problem, one step removed from the physical activities of implementing a solution. Instead, learning in craftwork (or in any other endeavour) demands situated perceptual experience and physical activity, as well as emotional engagement. This final topic draws together what we have learned about the roles of the perceptual senses and motor activity in the design and making of things. Our discussion will also incorporate participants’ observations of problem-solving tactics and strategies that are used by the artisans they have studied and worked alongside during this course.”

Fieldwork component

During the course, participants are expected to conduct a short period of fieldwork (approximately 2 hours per week) with a local artisan or maker in order to examine some dimension of craftwork of their choosing. In order to do so, participants will need to obtain written consent from the individual(s) with whom they will be studying or working, and a copy of this should be submitted to the course convenor for approval before fieldwork commences. The consent form should provide a clear and succinct description of the research aims, the researcher’s role and proposed field method, the intended use and dissemination of the study results (if any), and possible implications that the research might have for the subject(s) of study. The format and contents of consent forms will be discussed in week 1.

Before the course commences (or at the start of the course), participants will independently visit a craftsperson/maker and negotiate a short period of fieldwork with them. Participants are encouraged to select a field of making that is of personal interest. Fieldwork may variously include participant observation, formal and informal interviews, field notes, audio and visual recordings of processes and production, and, possibly, a short hands-on apprenticeship. For the purposes of this independent study, selected artisans might include carpenters, cabinetmakers, masons, glassblowers, blacksmiths, jewellery makers, weavers, knitters, embroiderers, basket-makers, printers, bookbinders, leatherworkers, potters or others. The principal criteria are that their production involve an element of handskill and/or other skilled forms of embodied perception and practice; specialised knowledge of the materials being worked; and the use of specialised tools or implements. The selected artisan might be economically dependent on their production – entirely or in part – or they might engage in craftwork for personal, social, or political reasons rather than financial remuneration. These are potential issues to investigate.

Once fieldwork has commenced, participants are encouraged to bring their individual fieldwork experiences, findings and challenges to the seminar, and to present and discuss these in light of the core reading(s).

All core readings are available online either through publically accessible websites or the RAI Anthropology Library. In preparing for seminars, participants are also encouraged to explore the supplementary readings. While some are available online, others may be accessed in public and university libraries. The reading list is by no means exhaustive, and therefore students may wish to investigate additional sources (including documentary films or exhibitions) and share their discoveries with the seminar group.