Appropriation & ownership of artisanal knowledge: explorations at the interface between craft know-how and institutional codification
Location C
Date and Time 12th December, 2008 at 10:30


Trevor Marchand (SOAS)
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Short Abstract

Artisan production is improvisational and inventive, but officials try to conserve craft by codifying techniques. This panel explores the appropriation of artisan knowledge and investigates struggles between craft communities and institutions over ownership, authenticity and the right to innovate.

Long Abstract

Artisans worldwide acquire trade skills via apprenticeships and through long-term, direct engagement in communities of practice. Training and knowledge in these milieus typically exceeds language and is seldom recorded or prescriptively delineated. Professional identities, social status and expertise are therefore negotiated and staked through an articulation of know-how that far exceeds technical ability, and often includes distinctive comportment, moral agency, acute awareness of environmental variables, and the possession of trade secrets. This complexity of knowing enables improvisational response and licenses creative innovation, often framed within a discourse of 'tradition and continuity'.

In contrast to the seeming fluidity and dynamic nature of artisan knowledge, the crafted object in circulation is readily amenable to empirical classification and evaluation. Artefacts deemed to possess economic or symbolic worth, or to be 'endangered', have increasingly become the target of Government bodies, special interest groups, museums and vocational institutes who seek to conserve and perpetuate the associated craft by codifying its technique and locating its reproduction within legal, typological and pedagogical frameworks. As a result, the nature of artisan knowledge and its expressions of ownership are transformed.

The papers in this panel explore these distinct ways of appropriating and articulating artisan knowledge and investigate the tensions that arise between craft communities and institutional apparatuses over struggles for ownership, claims of 'authenticity', and the right to reproduce and innovate. Equally, participants are encouraged to consider the bearing of the ethnographic enterprise on the dynamics of artisan knowledge and the sense of ownership within the communities we study.

Chair: Anna Portisch

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Concepts of ownership and originality in Kazakh crafts

Author: Anna Portisch (SOAS)

Short Abstract

This paper focuses on two contrasting approaches to Kazakh crafts, in a domestic production setting and a museum environment. It explores how notions of creativity, standards, ownership and originality are tied up with belonging to a community of practice and being a recognised contributor to a cultural practice with a particular social relevance.


In most Kazakh households in western Mongolia, young girls learn to contribute to textile production just as they learn to contribute to other household tasks. Felt carpets and embroidered wall hangings are made in daily life for the home and given as part of wedding-related gift-exchanges. Young girls work together with their elders and other co-learners, learning by watching others, practising, and gradually gaining responsibility. Most families in this remote, mountainous region are dependent on herds of animals for their livelihood and raw materials such as sheep's wool are used to make many domestic crafts. Learning to make crafts is thus part of a more widely relevant set of livelihood skills, and a means of contributing to the often collaborative activities of other family members. Crafts are not approached as an expression of an 'artistic vision' of a single craftswoman, but rather as functional soft furnishings, often the result of many people's work. In an environment of scarcity and poverty, women often innovate and improvise, using new materials, tools and designs. Similar craft are displayed in museum collections in Kazakhstan emphasising planes of meaning that are often absent in the practices of the craftswomen of western Mongolia. This paper looks at contrasting understandings of meaning, heritage, originality, ownership and appropriation, and how these are associated and negotiated in the everyday craft practices of Kazakh women.

Choreography of the Hands: Keeping and transmitting knowledge amongst lace makers in Central Slovakia

Author: Nicolette Makovicky (University of Oxford )

Short Abstract

In contemporary society crafts are increasingly taught within educational institutions, rather than through apprenticeship. Comparing two different pedagogical approaches to teaching the craft of lace making, this paper shows how modes of transmission are key to the reproduction of separate craft communities each struggling to define and own craft knowledge.


Based on ethnographic fieldwork amongst lace makers in Central Slovakia, this paper looks at how different modes of knowledge transmission influence shared conceptions of skill, progress, pattern and design. Embracing this notion that craft is learned through an inductive experience that creates social persons, as well as objects, anthropological studies of craft have commonly focussed on understanding knowledge transmission within the context of apprenticeships. This study, however, takes into account that in contemporary society crafts are increasingly taught within the institutional parameters of schools, colleges and evening courses. Thus, this study contrasts and compares two different pedagogical approaches to teaching the craft of lace making (apprenticeship and class-room based teaching) and examines the consequences these have for lace makers' practical and conceptual approaches to craft practice. My approach is informed by the observation that learning is a socially and historically situated process of community inclusion (Lave and Wenger 1991). The different modes of transmission found in the villages and at evening classes in the city are key to the self-perpetuating reproduction of separate communities of lace makers each struggling to define the nature of craft knowledge. These divergent conceptions of the nature of craft knowledge, in turn, form the basis for competing claims of ownership, the right to access and reproduce designs, and commercial benefits.

From baskets to full bodies: Agency among Aboriginal fibre artists in Australia

Author: Christiane Keller (University of Western Australia)

Short Abstract

This paper investigates the agency of Aboriginal artists when dealing within a global art market. While Western institutions use established categories to codify fibre objects as craft, Aboriginal artists invent new fibre objects that resist such categorisation and, therefore, challenge Western perceptions of Indigenous fibre art.


The local and global art market with its collective of defining forces including museums, galleries, collectors and scholars have contributed to a classification and evaluation of Indigenous art objects. There is general agreement that the art market has to some extent appropriated artisan knowledge. Over the course of the last two decades this process of appropriation has however been increasingly informed and, I argue, wilfully guided by Indigenous artists themselves. They have not only utilised art market forces, but, in a feedback process, subverted and changed perceptions of Indigenous fibre art and its place in the market.

Until the mid 1990s Aboriginal fibre art was categorised by the art market as craft because the main producers were women and most of the works were functional objects including baskets, bags, fish-traps and mats or ceremonial regalia.

By providing case studies from central Arnhem Land and the Western Desert this paper will exemplify how some Aboriginal artists have challenged preconceived Western categorisations and perceptions of fibre art. Indigenous fibre artist have invented a new movement in Aboriginal art - that of fibre sculpture. Most fibre sculptures have not existed in this form before and can not be categorised as functional objects. The artists actively engage with sculpture production that specifically targets the fine art market. They often aim at transcending Western categorisations and educating cross-cultural audiences about Indigenous values.

On Peacocks, Eiffel Towers and Jacquard Machines: appropriating tradition and innovation in two Indian silk clusters

Author: Camilla Roman (Oxford University)

Short Abstract

This paper investigates continuities and changes in products and technologies in two Indian silk clusters. 'Tradition' and 'innovation' intermingle in the discourses and practices of silk entrepreneurs as they juggle with the contradictory demands of the market for handloom fabrics.


This paper explores the practices in which entrepreneurs draw upon their expertise and existing knowledge repertoires for producing and selling silk fabrics. 'Tradition' and 'innovation', continuities and changes intertwine in the making of silk textiles and in the ways people talk about their work and their crafts. The widespread use of the term 'tradition' may be understood in relation to state discourses about the 'authenticity' and cultural significance of Indian handloom fabrics and also to efforts to secure specific market niches. Entrepreneurs draw upon repertoires of 'traditional' and conventional motifs and weaving techniques and at the same time they continuously adapt, reinterpret and modify their products according to changing consumers' preferences.

Highly innovative practices do exist in this 'traditional' industry. Yet the specific forms and degrees of innovation vary greatly among entrepreneurs. It is weavers-turned-entrepreneurs (as opposed to merchant-entrepreneurs) who display the most far-reaching innovations. They are better placed to combine in-depth technical knowledge with insights into market trends, which they gain through their direct engagement in sales and interactions with buyers. The links and overlaps between different communities of practice are often sites of change and artisans-entrepreneurs move and act in those areas of contact between practices. However, given their limited capital, the innovative ability of artisan-entrepreneurs could not be realised if substantial financial resources were a requirement for innovations. We need to consider prevailing labour relations and the technologies used in order to explain why the costs of innovation are not barriers for artisan-entrepreneurs.

The Australian 'skills shortage' and apprenticeship in rural trades

Author: Greg Downey (Macquarie University)

Short Abstract

Attempts by the Australian federal government to counter-act a perceived ‘skills shortage’ through formal trade education perversely undermine the condition of the rural trades. By changing the entry conditions, social relations, and commodification of rural skills, some forms of education deter individuals from entering rural trades.


Australia is suffering through a 'skills shortage' according to media and government, a labor issue affecting immigration policy, educational expenditures, and even the recent national election. At the same time, apprenticeship trajectories in the 'trades' are shifting, with some becoming formalized and requiring specialized education for entry. The perception that there is a 'shortage' of skilled labor clashes with the situation in rural areas, where unemployment is high and farmers are profoundly affected by a severe drought.

This presentation explores the political and economic impact of changes to the education of tradesmen, especially in rural trades such as machine repair, masonry, fencing, rural construction, and other farm-related specialist skills. Drawing on interviews and apprenticeship-based fieldwork with rural tradesmen in an area largely unaffected by drought (the Illawarra region of New South Wales), this paper explores how policies intended to increase the supply of skilled labor perversely undermine the labor supply.

In part because they affect the entry conditions and social relations of novices and the way in which skill is commoditized, some of these educational programs actually make trade apprenticeship less open and attractive to potential entrants. A close examination reveals large-scale traffic in 'unofficial' forms of trade knowledge that is, to some degree, threatened by official attempts to certify and increase expertise in rural trades. This paper also considers the implication of these social changes in labor in relation to rural-to-urban migration, drought, and the transformation of the agricultural economy.

Artisan Industrialists: Learning from and Informing Ethnographic Praxis

Author: Todd Harple (Intel Corporation)

Short Abstract

Anthropologists working in industry are akin to artisans in their communities, where "ethnographic methods" are appropriated. Interestingly, in these situations, there is often an exchange where the "artisan" anthropologist learns from the industrial "appropriator."


Following fieldwork on the southwest coast of New Guinea, I came to know the Kamoro as a community of artisans. Various practitioners were recognized for their ability to interpret events, to link the present with the mythical and historical past, and to exercise some control over their natural and built environment. Like the Kamoro storyteller or master carver, I've acquired my ethnographic skills through a variety of "apprenticeships" and long-term direct engagement with a community of anthropological practitioners. The training and knowledge that I've acquired over the course of formal education and more than a decade of practice that define me as an anthropologist are not prescriptively delineated means of uniting our field. Like the artisan, my "status" as an anthropologist is staked through an articulation of know-how that far exceeds technical ability and academic training. As "ethnographic methods" continue to be appropriated in market research and business-oriented qualitative research, it leaves the anthropologist to question "What is it about my practice of 'ethnographic methods' that allows me to claim status as 'owner'?" This paper will position the anthropologist in a non-academic environment where "ethnographic methods" are claimed as core competency by a broad spectrum of "industrial" practitioners. Rather than question the "authenticity" of the practice of ethnographic methods by those not trained in the anthropological tradition, I aim to examine areas where the "artisan" anthropologists can draw from the industrial practitioners and how anthropologically-trained researchers can continue to differentiate and contribute to both industrial and academic praxis.

Speeds, Feeds and Variables - a Metaphor for the Modern Apprenticeship

Author: Gwen Wanigasekera (University of Waikato)

Short Abstract

Fieldwork at a New Zealand precision engineering company is providing a picture of the way artisanal apprentices are the focus of groups with often conflicting aims. This paper looks at the impacts of this situation on those most affected - the workers themselves as they acquire the skills of their trade.


The notions of 'skill' and 'knowledge' feature frequently in the discussions and proclamations of economists, educationalists, business people and politicians. In New Zealand the 'lack of skilled workers', the need to 'up-skill the workforce' or be 'part of the knowledge ecomomy/society' are frequently heard phrases and demonstrate the way these words have been appropriated into everday and political discourse and presented as a means of economic salvation for the country. In my current research at a precision engineering company I am gaining an insight into what these notions and their accompanying cultural understandings mean to those who are the target of these various institutions - the workers themselves - in this case, precision engineering apprentices.

In New Zealand, the delivery of artisanal training has been the focus of major policy changes during the last fifty years. Presently, a number of organisations, including employers and workplaces, are involved in the delivery of this training. My fieldwork at the company is providing a picture of the way the often conflicting aims of these groups impact on those within this workplace.