Are Traditional Handicrafts Good for Society?

A couple weeks ago, in preparation for a talk, carver/turner Robin Wood asked people to comment on this question about traditional handicrafts:

“We can see the benefit to a few craftspeople but can you prove the benefit to the wider community?”

He had over 170 positive answers within a couple of days, and last I checked, it’s up to 285 responses. (You can see the whole thing at his Facebook page.)

Layout Tools 2012 - - 2Although we Americans tend to ask first about the value of things for individuals, Europeans (like Robin Wood and his immediate audience) tend to ask more frequently about social value. Both are important questions. Matthew Crawford, for example, makes a strong case for the value of skilled, manual labor for individuals in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft.

But what about society as a whole? If more individuals in North America began to learn to work with their hands, would our society as a whole tend to flourish? My short answer is, of course, yes. I think that society as a whole benefits from having a lot of people who have the skills to make and repair physical objects.  Or, put negatively, I think our society will suffer if we continue to drain it of people who can shape our physical environment without destroying it.

But that raises a further question: what does it mean to flourish as a society at all? It seems to me our modern economy thrives on consumers who are impatient, greedy, gluttonous, easily manipulated, superficially enthusiastic, imperceptive about quality, and quickly bored—people who value cheap thrills and immediate ease above all else. If a flourishing society is one in which an ever-increasing number of people are living in ever-increasing physical comfort at ever-decreasing prices, then handicrafts really have very little place in a modern society—at least the American one that I live in. Insofar as our economy has any connection to the physical world at all, it is built on low-quality consumer goods that require rapid replacement.

If, however, human flourishing has anything to do with developing a well-ordered soul, then we would do well to cherish and teach traditional handicrafts. These crafts require the craftsperson to be patient and thoughtful, to persevere through difficulty, to notice subtle differences, to pay attention to details, and to value the integrity of the thing itself above the thing’s market value. Learning a craft not only fosters an independent spirit (“I can make it myself.”), but it also unites people in communities of like-minded workers–guilds, as we used to call them.  These communities both set the standards for excellent work and ensure that the skills necessary to meet those standards remain alive and active.   These sorts of communities are also, I think, foundational to civil society. Speaking for myself, I would like to live surrounded by communities of people who are thoughtful, careful, patient, honest, thrifty, and perceptive. I would like to live around more skilled workers.

How about you? Do you know of any examples of that demonstrate the social value (and not just the individual value) of traditional handicrafts?  If so, I’d love to hear your story.

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6 Responses to Are Traditional Handicrafts Good for Society?

  1. E. Miller says:

    Well said! And to have an academic express that viewpoint gives it all the more weight, in my opinion.

  2. Hi

    Great topic! I think you can look at past societies and see how “good” it was for them. Take for example Europe, America or Japan around 1700. The golden times of craftwork. And the golden times of society we could argue. And think of global warming, that’s one of the issues that craft economy could help to solve. A simple example is Ikea furniture. You need four times more energy to produce OSB than to produce solid wood. Then add machines and factories (made of steel and concrete, the two most resource intensive materials in the world) and I guess you can go at a factor 10 in energy reduction by doing things by hand.

    Now, consider that you need people to do the work and that you wanna do it locally. This means more jobs and less unemployment, and not stupid call center jobs, but real jobs. Nowadays in Europe you have a generation of young people that will be systemically unemployed for the rest of their lives, but they will keep on buying in Ikea because it’s cheaper.

    Third, all these people working with their bodies will be healthier, since they will not sit in front of a computer 8 hours a day, they will live longer and better. That means fewer cases of Diabetes type 2, which is currently putting in crisis the NHS in the UK. So you have a richer country, less unemployment and a reduced energy consumption, that all seems good to me.

    And you are totally right about the foundations of civil society. In Greek mythology, man was first created together with all the animals. Then Epymetheus gave “gifts” to the different animals but forgot the humans, they were naked and frail amongst the beasts. So Prometheus came to fix this, and give them the fire, symbol of the technics. And so the humans were raised over the animals and were able to build a life. But they kept on fighting and killing each other, so “Zeus therefore, fearing the total destruction of our race, sent Hermes to impart to men the qualities of respect for others and a sense of justice, so as to bring order into our cities and create a bond of friendship and union. Hermes asked Zeus in what manner he was to bestow these gifts on men. “Shall I distribute these tekhnai as the arts were distributed—that is, on the principle that one trained doctor suffices for many laymen, and so with the other experts? Shall I distribute justice and respect for their fellows in this way, or to all alike? To all said Zeus, “let all have their share”” (Plato, Protagoras) So, the Plato tells us, before having a civil society, you need to develop technics.

    I think the reason is, as you correctly say, that when you do crafts you need “to be patient and thoughtful, to persevere through difficulty, to notice subtle differences, to pay attention to details, and to value the integrity of the thing itself.” I call this growing up. Or if you want to go Freudian, learning to come to terms with the reality principle. By working in close contact with the world you learn what is possible and what is not, and what it takes to create something. This makes for a more rational society, and not one that wish to consume ever increasing amounts of everything, like children in a candy store or rats in lab where the experiment seems to be how fat can they grow before they die.


    • Matthew Crawford makes much the same argument (about what you call the reality principle, especially) in the Shop Class book I referenced above. I quite agree. The trade-off, though, is economic. We would have to be willing to pay higher prices for fewer goods of better quality.

      • I read the book, and also the craftsman of Sennet, but they are too american for my taste… I felt much more fulfilled with Technics and Time by Stiegler.

        The trade-off is something bound to change. As oil production peaks, bringing stuff from china will get dearer and dearer, and technology, as Ray says, is bound to an ever increasing energy consumption. That’s the thermodynamic reality that economist cannot cope with.

        But more importantly, at least for me, is what Sturt tells us about loosing the crafts even if we win on the economic realm: “But no higher wage, no income, will buy for men that satisfaction which of old – until machinery made drudges of them – streamed into their muscles all day long from close contact with iron, timber, clay, wind and wave, horse-strength. It tingled up in the niceties of touch, sight, scent…. But these intimacies are over.” I sincerely hope he is wrong, and a new intimacies are there for us to experience.

  3. Ray says:

    The fence always seems greener on the other side. Don’t get me wrong; I use hand tools a lot and would like to see the younger generation get their hands used more often manually. But the reality is that in the modern world and in the future to come where technology leads, traditional handicrafts are good to the society only in a limited way. Yes, they are good as a hobby to many and to some who do woodworking for a living. But I doubt very much it is relevant to the society at large.


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