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Book Review: The Pursuit of Pleasurable Work

Book review of Trevor H. J. Marchand's The Pursuit of Pleasurable Work: Craftwork in Twenty-First Century England (2021)

Published onMar 27, 2023
Book Review: The Pursuit of Pleasurable Work

The Pursuit of Pleasurable Work: Craftwork in Twenty-First Century England, by Trevor H. J. Marchand (2021). New York: Berghahn Books.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, when a craftwork renewal sparked public interest in traditional crafts in the United Kingdom, anthropologist Trevor Marchand embarked on a journey as a student of fine woodworking at Building Crafts College in London. Marchand’s new ethnography, The Pursuit of Pleasurable Work, details his experience as a student and practitioner of woodworking and evaluates the role of craftwork in the individual fulfilment and wellbeing of its practitioners. The book features extensive ethnographic fieldwork, with Marchand – as a participant-observer and interviewer – seeking to understand how creating objects and crafting solutions can lead to the specter of “pleasurable work” for craftspeople.

The introductory chapter lays out the author’s definition of craft as a “polythetic category” through which its practitioners possess some, but not necessarily all characteristics of their craft (p. 9). Defining craft in this manner enables Marchand to compare the experiences of designers and creators in various traditions as part of the same continuum. In the first chapter, the author foregrounds his previous apprenticeships as a stone mason in building sites in Yemen and Mali, where working on site functioned as a “permeable classroom” in which he learned by watching others, following orders, and eavesdropping on conversations. The remainder of the book, in contrast, explores an opposite learning experience in craftwork: that of being a student of fine woodworking in London’s Building Crafts College, which uses a traditional classroom approach and a performance-based pedagogy to teach the craft.

Marchand proceeds to delve into historical context of the carpenters’ guild in England that led to the establishment of craft colleges. The second chapter traces the history of carpenters’ liveries in England from the thirteenth century – sketching this group’s oscillating fortunes with royal patronage and regulation – until the nineteenth century, when the first craft college was established. The third chapter explores the century-old Building Crafts College, as it navigated wars and overhauls of vocational education policy, such as during Margaret Thatcher’s reforms of the 1980s. The author contrasts the loss of old-style apprenticeships with manufacturers with the new system of providing vocational qualifications via which students, paradoxically, receive little exposure to the business side of enterprises.

In the fourth chapter, the author introduces the day in the life of a woodworking student. The first few days of interaction among the new cohort of woodworkers bring out their competing masculinities – which are expressed as overt displays of knowledge, paternalist hierarchies and dependencies, jabs at each other’s competence, demonstrations of virility, and excessive alcohol consumption. Female perspectives of this milieu are introduced later in the book, in which women lament the unfortunate absence of opportunities for them in the realm of woodworking.

The fifth chapter explores the competing philosophies and methods of teaching employed by instructors in the college. Beyond the physical and mental dexterity needed for work, the instructors emphasize the use of sensory perceptions, especially that of sight and touch, as the hallmark of a competent woodworker. They also point out the importance of making and repairing mistakes as components of a version of problem solving that distinguishes between mastery and expertise.

In the sixth chapter, the author explores the motivations that brought students to study fine woodworking at the college. Marchand labels these students as “vocational migrants” because of the thoughtful deliberations that they made to leave their careers and choose fine woodworking as a lifestyle as much as a livelihood (p. 113). Although their individual life experiences are different, a baseline of common values – to practice an ancient trade, foster a gratifying connection with work, and employ embodied intellectual and practical skills – are among the factors that drew the woodworkers together. Along these lines, the seventh chapter pares down the integral relation between craftworkers’ bodies and their tools. As such, the author argues that technical mastery entails a harmony between their bodies and the tools, implements, and materials of craftwork.

In the eighth chapter, Marchand couches craftwork in terms of problem solving. To illustrate this, he describes an instance of an instructor correcting the mistake of a student in the classroom. Here, in a collaborative and engaging manner, the teacher employs gestures and demonstrations until the student comes to understand the reasoning behind this “correct” way of doing things. Through a comprehensive description of this example, the author details what it takes to equip craftworkers to solve problems in their own work through trial and error and a process of discovery.

In the ninth chapter, the author contrasts the utopian quest to find pleasurable work as “direct resistance to some version of reality” (p. 264). The experience of woodworking students assembling their portfolios for the New Designers Exhibition in London demonstrates what happens they leave their school’s safe confines and encounter the “real world” of clients and critiques. To the college’s students, the pragmatic sides of building a client base, negotiating contracts, and marketing one’s own work become nearly as important as honing their crafts; as such, the students confront their own inadequacies vis-à-vis the business side of work and, consequently, negotiate their responses in diverse ways.

The tenth chapter compares the portraits of adolescent, middle-aged, and elderly woodworkers to demonstrate what it takes to develop skills and maintain them throughout a lifetime. The epilogue highlights the renewed interest in craftwork taking root among millennials (even in the midst of what the author dubs “throwaway consumer culture”), which – to the author – represents an opportunity for the school to continue to attract and retain talent in craftwork education. In this vein, Marchand’s study on craftworkers comes at a time when new forms of technology are fragmenting the workplace, and a lot of “work” is being transformed into a routinized microtasks. This results in de-skilling of workers and depreciation of their wellbeing. In such a conjuncture, however, the concept of “occupation” that craftwork embodies – which calls for workers to build their personal capacities and engage in interpersonal learning – stands in stark contrast to the more precarious and uncertain plights of workers in other sectors.

The Pursuit of Pleasurable Work will be of interest to students and practitioners of contemporary craftwork, especially fine woodworking. The role of craftwork as an occupation will also appeal to those in industrial relations and labor economics. The detailed ethnographic account of learning a craft will undoubtedly resonate with social anthropologists and ethnographers of work. In addition, the history of the liveries and the development of craft guilds in England will be of interest to historians. And finally, the book’s critiques of current educational policies in the light of the author’s personal experience and insights will be relevant for those who study and make educational policy.


Author Biography:

Deepa Kylasam Iyer is a Ph.D. student in the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University. Her research examines how technology impacts work in the context of platform-based work.


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Jaimee Lucas: Fascinating insights! Thanks for sharing your review of "The Pursuit of Pleasurable Work." It seems like a comprehensive exploration of craftwork and its significance in contemporary society.

Jaimee Lucas: This sounds like a fascinating exploration of craftwork and its role in contemporary England. Thank you for sharing this insightful summary!

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"The Pursuit of Pleasurable Work" is an insightful and thought-provoking book that challenges traditional notions of work and career by exploring the concept of "pleasurable work" and how it can lead to greater fulfillment and success in one's professional life, offering practical guidance and inspiring stories that inspire readers to find their own path to meaningful and enjoyable work. sell my house fast thomasville nc

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Humanity's innate need to make things with our hands, our incessant search for purposeful employment, and the uphill battle to realize our aspirations are all revealed in these lively and erudite narratives of learning, achievement, and challenges. This book, via its insightful examinations of the nature of embodied ability, advocates for a higher valuation of the dexterity, cleverness, and intellect that underpin all forms of handiwork.

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