17 June 2010

On manual work, feedback and fulfilment

I've just finished Matthew Crawford's (2010) The Case for Working with Your Hands; or why office work is bad for us and fixing things feels good London; Penguin/Viking, published in the USA last year as Shop Class as Soulcraft; an inquiry into the value of work. It's not very long, and highly readable.

To a certain extent, Crawford is in the same territory as Richard Sennett (see links below) in lauding craftsmanship and painstaking skill, but whereas Sennett rambles self-indulgently around the workshops of violin-makers in Cremona, and discusses literary approaches to cooking a chicken, Crawford is more grounded. He does not use the effete term "craft", but concentrates on the manual "trade". And his paradigmatic trade is repairing motorbikes.

He has an impressive academic background, including a degree in physics and a doctorate in political philosophy, and enough form as an office worker to reject it on an informed basis. He can also appeal to having practised as an electrician on small-scale construction sites.

He runs a motorbike repair shop as his main business. He knows what he is talking about, as some fascinating stories testify, even if readers may not really understand them.

There's much too much for a blog post here, and of course if I go into it too much you may not read the book, and there are reviews here, here and here. But...
  • He celebrates work which gives direct and unmediated feedback; do it right and the machine works again. Do it wrong and it doesn't. 
  • He bemoans current systems which don't do that--but he talks about them as if they were deliberately constructed as if to obscure feedback. They aren't. It's just that in most areas of practice today you don't find out at once if something is working or not (see Jaques "time-span of discretion"
  • And he castigates managers and modern work practices for focusing on process and compliance rather than outcomes and results. I have a lot of sympathy, and I moan about it myself, but complex organisations are just like that. Sorry!
  • Crawford's conception of manual work is somewhat idealised. He nods in that direction in his acknowledgement that working as an electrician on new-build work is less interesting than repairing faults. And of course, manufacturing new motor-bikes on a production-line represents exactly the de-humanising work against which he inveighs.
Well worth reading, but particularly for his discussion of the intellectual component of practical work in the first five chapters.

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