In Defense of Craftsmanship


“Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work” by Matthew B. Crawford was recently released by Penguin.  An excellent review from Kelefa Sanneh in the New Yorker was just in a recent addition of the New Yorker, and who’s review prompted this post.  While I have only read excerpts from the book the ideas certainly resonated with me.  The book is expanded from an article in The New Atlantis both the article and the book explore the idea of craftsmanship and how modernday office workers are so far removed from actual products they lose pride in there work.  He also argues that physical labor or “manual competence” is a key ingredient in craftsmanship, and who’s appreciation for how hard it can be to do something right forms a bridge or creates social currency between other craftsmen, generations and in general, people and the lack of it divorces us from our work, and then arguably, people.  Here he quotes Alexandre Kojève.

The man who works recognizes his own product in the World that has actually been transformed by his work: he recognizes himself in it, he sees in it his own human reality, in it he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his humanity, of the originally abstract and purely subjective idea he has of himself.

With the lack of manual competence and its social currency, the only thing we then have to rely on is hard currency, which may or may not be the best yardstick for measuring worth, or more importantly self-worth.  And while he goes on to argue why manual competence gives someone pride, connectedness and self-worth it is a point brought up by the review that I found even more compelling and he used a book by Alain de Botton, “The Pleasures and Sorrow of Work,” to illuminate a corollary and here I will quote directly from the review, as I can do no better at summarizing it.

“…when de Botton tours a biscuit factory in Belgium, he starts with mockery: ‘Grief was the only rational response to the news that an employee had spent 3 months devising a supermarket promotion based on an offer of free stickers of cartoon characters called the Fimbles.’ Then he thinks better of it and decided that, with a little imagination, it is possible to the the biscuit factory as an ennobling place:

The manufacture and promotion of all these (products) was no game, but rather an attempt to subsist which was no less grave, and threfore no less worthy of respect and dignity, than a boar hunt on whose successful conclusion the fate of an entire primitive community might have once have hung.  For if a new wrapping machine did not operate as efficiently as anticipated, or if a slogan failed to capture the imagination of shoppers, there would be no escape from shutters houses and despair in the suburbs…

So to me the bigger question is how can everyone maintain this ‘pride’ that Crawford argues so compellingly about?  From my own experience I know doing the right thing and the expedient thing are sometimes at the opposite sides of the spectrum, but certainly not mutually exclusive.  I also know that one of my best summer jobs was building fences, and it had many of the elements that Crawford points out, manual competence, skill, the belief that what I was building would last and be appreciated by others.  However, I can find that appreciation in other people and products, for example the fact that I never owned an ipod, and not so much that it looked slick but worked slick really impressed.  Or that my car has a built in umbrella holder in the side of the door that drains outdoors I find slick, and slicker still that when I opened the door and looked in, there was an umbrella there.  I appreciate the fact someone took the time to think about these things.  With my own work,  I always feel that it is our job to remove headaches and if we do it well it will be appreciated somewhere down the line.  By the architect who can readily go to work on design, or by the construction manager who realizes that the as-builts or BIM is spot on and can then work faster or more efficiently.  I can’t say how people may find it in their own work, but I can say it is there somewhere, and it is appreciated.

One of things in response to my profession, building surveying, that we have done is form the APBS (Association of Professional Building Surveyors) so we can create a certification for professionals who can take pride in their own work, and by forming our ‘guild’ let others know that when they receive our work that they can have faith in it.  Now this sounds pretty mundane compared to a guy who has his own motorcycle repairshop, as that is Crawford’s profession, and I must say does not sound as cool but to me it’s the same concept.  One note that is completely similar is that Crawford argues craftsmanship cannot be outsourced, that is when you need your car fixed, a new bathroom put in or bookshelves made, someone has to come to your house.  Well, surveying the built environment, same argument.

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