An Anthropologist looks at Engineering

Ian Ewart (Oxford University)
Production studies have until recently been pushed to one side in anthropology, but with growing interest in what seems to be coalescing around ‘Design Anthropology’ there may soon be a new sense of vitality in issues to do with making things. My research falls within the broad scope of that emergent field, and aims to tackle some basic questions about how engineering as an activity works, and to examine some of the assumptions about what engineering actually is.
The acronym-rich Science and Technology Studies (STS) have, since the 1980s, developed a number of theoretical approaches that offer a sociologist’s eye view. Most notably, but also perhaps most controversially, Actor-Network Theory (e.g. Latour 2004), but also, among others, the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) approach (e.g. Bijker, Hughes and Pinch, 1987). Whilst ANT provides a refreshingly relational way of thinking, it has been roundly criticised, not least for its apparent emphasis on non-humans and lack of attention to practice. Similarly SCOT demonstrates the historical and culturally specific appropriation of technologies, but at its simplest is little more than a ‘Just So’ story. Material Culture Studies on the other hand, have a plethora of ideas on how to treat objects: from Gell’s agency to Kopytoff’s biographical approach, Miller’s materiality to Ingold’s biology, and all kinds of ideas on exchange, globalization, disposal, domesticity…. Though not a lot, it has to be said, to do with production. With the dry business of STS laying siege to production and technology studies, what we surely need is to introduce some of that anthropological creativity. As Design Anthropology begins to loom larger on the horizon, hopefully liberation beckons.
For my part in this enterprise, I have gathered data from the Kelabit highlands of Malaysian Borneo, by engaging with a rural community in some of their communal projects. This has included building and refurbishment of houses, installing and repairing water supply pipes, and the construction of a new bridge. Engineering can of course be applied to a paper clip as well as a skyscraper, but to my mind ‘real’ engineering is the communal projects and large objects. As well as this, material culture studies have tended to focus on smaller objects, perhaps a hangover from the days of museum collections, which have now been so richly studied, but are inherently portable. Without going in to the whys and wherefores, unashamedly I admit I want to look at BIG things.
Building a bridge in the Kelabit Highlands
Being a rural community, the Kelabit have restricted access to industrial materials and ideas, and have developed their own sense of what constitutes engineering. For instance, work is carried out through a system of voluntary communal labour exchange kerja sama, which has traditional origins, but has become associated with the Christian church. Then, the lack of specialists in for example bridge-building, requires the villagers to apply their considerable ingenuity to problems that are new to them. ‘Not-knowing’ forces innovation; we can trace a history of Kelabit bridge design, an evolution of sorts, and it is quite clear that they are keen to push the boundaries with each design. The new bridge was a self-conceived ‘suspension’ bridge, a development of the more common ‘catenary’ or hanging bridges, but made using quite rare materials – wire rope and the extremely durable belian hardwood. This contrasts markedly with the traditional bamboo and rattan constructions which they throw up with remarkably little fuss, and incredibly quickly (I ‘helped’ build a 10m bridge from scratch in 3 hours!).
Many of the newer materials are only available via roads cut by logging companies in the last 5 years or so, challenging Kelabit rights to the forest, whilst at the same time enabling greater access to the wider world. This illustrates how they are changing relations with their surroundings, spreading their sights beyond the immediate environment to include coastal towns some 10 hours drive away. Along with the gradual influx of new tools (first saws, then chainsaws, more recently generators and electric tools), this has relaxed the pressure on retrieving and recycling materials and allowed greater personal expression and experimentation. Longhouse floorboards, once carefully retined as a sign of prestige, are now being replaced with chainsawn and electrically planed boards as the best flooring. Materials and ideas are now finding new ways of migrating to the Kelabit highlands, to be squeezed and forced into shape.
We can also ask questions about conception and design, much of which seemed to have been dealt with on the ground and in practice, rather than through pre-conceived detailed plans. Engineering in this case seems to be done ‘in-the-hand’ and not ‘in-the-mind’. Design, if we can call it that, is drawn from history and tradition, shining a light on the problems of today, manipulated by the forward thinking Kelabit to take account of new materials and tools, and recently acquired skills. And finally, what of the object itself, the finished bridge? Here I readily acknowledge the influence of MC studies and relational thinking in suggesting that what is produced is a bundle of relations, ever changing in its comprehension. A fleeting agglomeration of components and tools, ideas and sociality, initially cosseted and fussed over in construction, then left to its own devices, as much a part of the forest as of the village.
Engineering is not the cold application of science and technology, nor is it simply or primarily a social construction. For the Kelabit, engineering is a practical activity, one which requires a good hand and a keen eye. It is a forum for emotional expression: frustration, embarrassment and ultimately pride. It is the means by which a community can experiment with new materials and exercise their desire for discovery, and it is ultimately a process of creation. As I hope this project shows, research that concentrates on production is an exciting and vibrant prospect, and one full of potential.


  1. “Material Culture Studies on the other hand, have a plethora of ideas on how to treat objects: from Gell’s agency to Kopytoff’s biographical approach, Miller’s materiality to Ingold’s biology, and all kinds of ideas on exchange, globalization, disposal, domesticity…. Though not a lot, it has to be said, to do with production.” (Ewart 2010)
    Ian Ewart’s project and his Material World essay are compelling and interesting and I would like to use the above quotation as a means to a larger end. I have no interest in criticizing the author or his worthy project. The reading of “Material Culture Studies” implied here is widespread and is a common symptom of conflating a primarily recent, United Kingdom-based, and anthropology-centered network of material culture work and workers with the whole of a wider, older, and interdisciplinary field of inquiry. The United States generally, and its scholarship particularly, is hegemonic in so many domains that it is a bit embarrassing to speak up for work originating here. With that disclaimer, I will note that I am not alone at being dismayed by the degree to which other lines of material culture research (many ultimately German in origin) prominent in the United States context seemingly do not exist for many material culture studies scholars whose orientations are rooted in contemporary work in the UK. Material culture work in American folklore studies (with its ties to Scandinavian ethnology and Irish folklife studies) provides my case in point, but cultural geography, vernacular architecture studies, “New World” historical archaeology, and Americanist anthropology (despite is mid-20th century neglect of material culture studies) are all closely intertwined approaches with deep and productive histories of research on the material world.
    Since the 1960s, when American folklorists augmented older historic-geographic and text-centered approaches with contextual ethnographic methods, material culture studies have been particularly prominent in the field. Along with Northern European folklife studies scholars, North American cultural geographers and cultural anthropologist working in the Boasian culture history tradition were influential on the material culture turn in U.S. folklore studies. Folklorists working on material culture have had an almost obsessive interest in production. While mass-produced goods were long neglected and the field maintained a special interest in the hand-made object (quilts, pottery, furniture, basketry, religious icons, musical instruments, etc.), recent work by folklorists has been particularly focused on the production of complex assemblages such as clothing ensembles, parades, home altars, closets, yard art, meals, and domestic interiors. These often incorporate mass-produced commodity goods into large-scale works. Vernacular buildings–large and complex productions–were a long privileged research focus. Older work on the construction and repair of buildings is today complemented by studies of life and (productive) work within buildings. Such studies have alternated between consideration of the extra-ordinary moments in the (material) lives individuals and communities (fairs, parades, holiday meals) and concern for “everyday (material) life” (farm work, blacksmithing, clothing). Conceptual debates over the meaning of such concepts as art, craft, and “folk art” animated research in the 1970s while today there is much interest in theoretical questions arising from the broader chain of circulations that extend from acts of production through successive stages toward curation, disposal or recycling. DIY practices and values of a diverse sort are of special interest to younger folklorists working today.
    Design anthropology and other new developments are interesting and promising avenues but I am not alone in my dismay that so much solid work in material culture studies–elsewhere in the world, not just from the U.S.–goes unnoticed and is sometimes effaced by capitalized, singular Material Culture Studies (as if it were a school or theory). There is a fruitful literature in material culture studies on questions of production, it just has been compiled by folklorists (and others) and is not as widely known to all of our (potentially-interested) colleagues. In my work as editor of Museum Anthropology Review I have tried to bridge this gap in a tiny way by regularly recruiting scholars from folklore studies to contribute alongside those working in a range of other research traditions, including those represented so productively by Material World and the Journal of Material Culture. I hope that more robust strategies for fostering dialogue within material culture studies writ large can be found. Material World is one important venue for the production of such exchange.
    PS: For a more passionate expression of frustration on behalf of his folklore studies colleagues, see Simon Bronner’s (2008) Review of: Understanding Material Culture by Ian Woodward. Journal of Folklore Research Reviews. Posted May 29, 2008. , accessed June 10, 2010.

  2. Hi Jason
    Thanks for your posting and your comments. Material World definitely aims to be a hub to bring together different strands of thinking about the material world! However – just want to note that as we are not an academic journal, we don’t ask our contributors to provide detailed background bibliographies, or to map whole fields. Ewart’s piece by no means excludes the literature you mention, rather highlights the work he is currently reading and finding useful…and talks about his process of research and thinking rather than providing a polished thesis.
    In the spirit of the processual nature of the blog: Would you be able to post a few references to flesh out your comments? It would be great to know what the touchstones are for US Folklorists and other material culture scholars. What papers/books to you consider to be indispensible in building up general theories of production/technology – that might complement our current pantheon and be expanded into other contexts in inspirational ways?
    (by the way – you might be interested in a piece that Ludo Coupaye wrote which is a good overview of the French anthropology of Technology and Chaine Operatoire which has been influential on material culture studies in a journal I edited with Josh Bell about material culture in Oceania. It was open access for a while…

  3. Haidy has generously invited me to pursue a worthwhile task that is beyond me at present. A new synthesis of material culture work by U.S. folklore studies scholars would be a very valuable contribution, particularly if this work were placed in dialogue with scholarship arising in other fields–the revitalized study of material culture in English-speaking anthropology being particularly relevant in the present context. Unable to provide such an account at this point, I can provide a hastily assembled list of works by folklorists working on material culture since the late 1960s. The list is both too long and not long enough for all of the usual reasons. It is long because making such lists is challenging and one risks offending colleagues with every item. It is not long enough because much important work will have been left off for a range of reasons that ultimately boil down to my on inadequacy to the task. There are works on this list that I would guess nearly all folklorists would recognize as canonical, but there are works that most would argue should be here and that have been left off. This is a consequence of my haste and my own incomplete knowledge. I beg my colleague’s indulgence. I am an anthropologist too and much work in anthropology has been influential in my studies and in the work of many scholars listed here. This list though is centered on scholars whose primary disciplinary identity has been as folklorists. In essays and articles is where a great deal of important work gets done. This is a book list and that means that very important figures whose most influential work has been published in article length works are not represented here. While circulation and consumption occur as themes in some of this work, production–particularly the making of handmade objects–is a dominant theme. Biographies of individual makers of things, culture histories of regional craft traditions, and comparative treatments of particular types of objects/forms are prominent in the folklore studies literature. Studies of production teams/workshops and of local craft industries become more prominent over time. Work focused on the building and display of expressive assemblages, often built of out goods procured in markets is another more recent trend. Such work is generally (as with Shukla 2008) pursued with an awareness of cognate work in anthropology. Some work by vernacular architecture scholars is listed here, but separate lists for U.S. vernacular architecture work and for U.S. cultural geography could be compiled. The Vernacular Architecture Forum (which publishes Buildings and Landscapes) and the Pioneer American Society/Association for the Preservation of Artifacts and Landscapes (which publishes the journal Material Culture) are two organizational centers of gravity for these fields. Canadian work is not well reflected here, but the journal Material Culture Review provides a window on Canadian scholarship in these fields. Having assembled this list, I see that foldaways work by folklorists is also not present here as it should be. There are many very active folklorists working in this area at present. Search of the journal and public sector folklore literature will point to this scholarly work. (The American Folklore Society has a Foodways section.)
    1960s and 1970s
    Henry Glassie (1968) Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States.
    Henry Glassie (1975) Folk Housing in Middle Virginia.
    Michael Owen Jones (1975) The Hand Made Object and Its Maker.
    John Michael Vlach (1978) The Afro-American Tradition in the Decorative Arts.
    Ralph Rinzler and Robert Sayers (1980) The Meaders Family: North Georgia Potters.
    Charles L Briggs (1980) The Wood Carvers of Cordova, New Mexico: Social Dimensions of an Artistic “Revival.”
    John Michael Vlach (1981) Charleston Blacksmith: The Work of Philip Simmons.
    Henry Glassie (1982) Passing the Time in Ballymenone: Culture and History of an Ulster Community.
    William Ferris (1982) Local Color: A Sense of Place in Folk Art.
    John A. Burrison (1983) Brothers in Clay: The Story of Georgia Folk Pottery.
    Warren Roberts (1984) Log Buildings of Southern Indiana.
    Thomas C. Hubka (1984) Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New England.
    Simon J. Bronner (1985) Chain Carvers: Old Men Crafting Meaning.
    Barbara Babcock, Guy Monthan, and Doris Monthan (1986) The Pueblo Storyteller: Development of a Figurative Ceramic Tradition.
    John Michael Vlach and Simon J. Bronner, eds. (1986) Folk Art and Art Worlds.
    Charles G. Zug (1986) Turners and Burners: The Folk Potters of North Carolina.
    Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach, eds. (1986) Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture.
    Brian Sutton-Smith (1983) Toys as Culture.
    Robert Blair St. George, ed. (1988) Material Life in America, 1680-1860.
    Michael Owen Jones (1989) Craftsman of the Cumberlands: Tradition and Creativity.
    Gerald L. Pocius (1991) A Place to Belong: Community Order and Everyday Space in Calvert, Newfoundland.
    Gerald L. Pocius, ed. (1991) Living in a Material World: Canadian and American Approaches to Material Culture.
    Henry Glassie (1993) Turkish Traditional Art Today.
    John Michael Vlach (1993) Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery.
    Wilbur Zelinsky (1994) Exploring the Beloved Coutry: Geographic Forays into American Society and Culture.
    Daniel Wojcik (1995) Punk and Neo-Tribal Body Art. [See the large number of other titles in the Folk Art and Artist Series published by the University Press of Mississippi]
    Henry Glassie (1997) Art and Life in Bangladesh.
    Marsha L. MacDowell and C. Kurt Dewhurst (1997) To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Tradition.
    Chris Wilson (1997) The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition.
    Donald J. Cosentino (1998) Vodou Things: The Art of Pierrot Barra and Marie Cassaise
    Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1998) Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage.
    Henry Glassie (1999) Material Culture.
    Dorothy Noyes and Regina Bendix (1998) In Modern Dress: Costuming the European Social Body, 17th-20th Centuries.
    Marjorie Hunt (1999) The Stone Carvers: Master Craftsmen of Washington National Cathedral.
    Kay Turner (1999) Beautiful Necessities: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars.
    Sabina Magliocco (2001) Neo-Pagan Sacred Art and Altars: Making Things Whole.
    Thomas Carter and Elizabeth Cromley (2005) Invitation to Vernacular Architecture: A Guide to the Study of Ordinary Buildings and Landscapes.
    Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (2007) The Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust.
    Pravina Shukla (2008) The Grace of Four Moons: Dress, Adornment, and the Art of the Body in Modern India.
    Patricia A. Turner (2009) Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters.
    John A. Burrison (2010) From Mud to Jug: The Folk Potters and Pottery of Northeast Georgia.
    Henry Glassie (2010) Prince Twins Seven-Seven: His Art, His Life in Nigeria, His Exile in America.

  4. Is there any chance that we can have a similar list for the anthropology of building big stuff in industrial societies? I know there’s a bit of work in STS, SCOT and allied disciplines using ethnography to look at contemporary scientist-artificers, but I would dearly like to know of more.
    So far my main references are Latour (Aramis), Bucciarelli, Vinck (Everyday Engineering), Ben Sims, Karen Henderson, Lucy Suchman, Kunda, Albena Yaneva, plus a smattering of others.
    What am I missing out on?

  5. Just a small comment on this discussion directed at Jackson rather than Ewart. I think what Jackson reveals is perhaps a growing misapprehension about both the nature and intent of UK material culture studies, i.e. in some ways the reverse of this idea that it is US material culture studies that is being misapprehended. As stated pretty clearly in the initial editorial of the Journal of Material Culture there has never been an intention or desire to establish a delineated field of enquiry with this title. When I first joined the department at UCL material culture studies was dominated by a volume called The Evolution of Social Systems by Friedman and Rowlands. What they had achieved was a blend of history, archaeology and ethnography that no-one else could accomplish because of the conservatism of traditional disciplines. Similarly my own work on consumption was an opportunistic acknowledgement that this had become neglected for similar reasons. In short the idea of material culture was that it would be an ever changing and dynamic configuration of anyone who wanted to associate themselves with such a label and was constrained by such disciplinary conservatism.
    Certainly I have my own theorisation and orientation to the study of artefacts as summarised in my recent book stuff, but even within UCL this is entirely different from say Chris Tilley’s work on phenomenology and landscape, or Chris Pinney’s largely incompatible theorising of visual culture. The point is that everyone feels they can use material culture to add scholarship and perspective that disciplines are missing. I would say the Journal of Material Culture has a clearly inclusive ethos, which takes eclectically from archaeology or geography and would happily embrace any form of folklore based studies that readers see as of sufficient quality for the editors to accept. In fact we have an informal agreement to keep any publication of people presently at the department of anthropology at UCL to a minimum, in order that the journal should not be influenced by its own editorial group. We are the only people we discriminate against ! So far I have just mentioned UCL, when we then expand to Oxford at which Ewart works or to Ingold, who, contra Ewart, is very interested in production (incidentally we also have also just appointed a new lecturer in UCL who specialises in the study of technology and production), when you add in the digital studies, cultural heritage and museum studies then I really don’t see a UCL or UK school of material culture with any kind of static coherence. I think I would concede there may not be a lot of links with folklore right now, through there remain more with European Ethnology, but the journal Home Cultures which is also edited both by Victor Buchli at UCL and by Dell Upton would connect with vernacular architecture and I probably work more with cultural geographers than with anthropologists, as in the current Waste of the World project. To conclude I don’t want to be complaisant, but I would hope, as in the specific instance of this blog, that material culture, as currently constituted, facilitates far more than it constrains, and that everyone who feels they have offerings to make should feel equally free to make them. I don’t think anyone has a prejudice against folklore inflected material culture, I just don’t think many people would be happy to reduce material culture only to folklore inflected studies. Maybe the problem is that in the US and only in the US there has been a rather conservative view that to incorporate the rest of what is now done under the auspices of material culture studies would threaten its own past.

  6. Thanks to Jason Baird Jackson for his very useful list, something I will investigate and hopefully be able to use. As Danny Miller has said, Material Culture Studies is a broad church, but it is always difficult to break out of your own discipline and take in the most recent work of others. The tone of my article was of course slightly provocative: ‘production’ has not been entirely forgotten in anthropology – the French have been at it for years, and as Miller hints, Tim Ingold has had some interesting things to say. For my part, as an industrial engineer turned anthropologist, I can’t help but think there must be more to it, and that’s what I’m casting around for. I’m interested in dirt-under-the-fingernails production, simply because my experience convinces me of a whole host of misconceptions about engineering. So to read for example Ingold (who I greatly enjoy) and his focus on craftsmanship, skilled individuals and so on, I ask to what extent that translates onto a workshop floor, corporate design or even large scale communal production generally, such as my bridges and houses in rural Borneo? I wonder if this type of emphasis (not Ingold personally) stems from early anthropology (e.g. Malinowski’s Trobriand gardens) and the nature of museum collections as the database for cultural studies of technology and production – objects that are mainly portable, crafty, and attractive. Is this approach also true of folklore studies?
    STS is a fairly closely related discipline and one that I have drawn on, though I suspect they may not really consider themselves to be Material Culture-ists. It has however, been for me a good way of seeing a different perspective on some of the same issues. It may be that Jackson’s American folklore provides another alternative and enriches my thesis, which would be most welcome. If I doubt the applicability of some anthropology, but see usefulness in STS (and folklore studies? Other suggestions welcome!) then the wider point is that it shows it is possible to break down some of those barriers that come with pigeonholing, which must be a good thing.

  7. Engineering is such a broad word that it accompanies many misconceptions. It is in the same way that “religion” can mean the Heaven’s gate for people who committed suicide or your grandma going to church. Henry Glassie provides a very rich and balanced discussion which is one of the more relevant sources. Thanks Jason as I would not have been introduced otherwise without your well-researched comment.
    For what it’s worth, I much prefer the older work on the construction and repair of buildings. Nowhere is this practice more illustrated than in Japanese villages that practice Satoyama. For anyone who has time, research their influence and you will be amazed.

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