I recently gave a “big thumbs up to Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman“:/2008/06/24/warcraft-and-the-craftsman-grinding-crafting-and-craft/ and have also been thinking about “anthropology as personal transformation”:/2008/07/28/anthropology-as-personal-transformation/. In his book Sennett gives major kudos to the work of Erin O’Connor, a grad student who is writing on embodied knowledge amongst glassblowers. O’Connor doesn’t appear to be done with her Ph.D. yet, but she has published “two”:http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/117976136/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0 “articles”:http://www.springerlink.com/content/b46g746817566x7p/ on how people learn to blow glass (there is also an open access “draft”:http://www.nyu.edu/projects/nylon/nylonoconnor.pdf of another paper as well).
O’Connor’s work is, in my opinion, absolutely fantastic. Although my embodied knowledge mostly comes from the performing arts (where my only ‘tool’ is my body) her mix of personal reflection, close description of glassblowing, and close reading of Polanyi (Michael) and Bourdieu rings very, very true to me. More to the point, however, they are also very much about personal transformation. Although O’Connor interviews people, reports what they say, and describes the glassblowing shope where she works, it is clear that she is exhibit A — the work is above all about what she has learned, how she learned it, and the subjective experience of being caught in the process of creation.
The is social science built around personal transformation — a reflexivity that has deep roots in sociology as well as anthropology. In fact if anything sociologists (of a certain stripe, to be sure) have never had the anxiety that anthropologists have had about their methods. Sociology’s connection with American pragmatism as well as its connection with introspective fin-de-siecle thinkers like, say, Simmel, has always led to a brand of philosophical and humanistic sociology that I’ve always found immensely attractive.
Although I don’t know about O’Connor’s personal genealogy, her work exemplifies one way in which social science is tied to personal transformation — here the researcher, rather than the informant, is at the center of the research experience, and their socialization into a new role (or, to be less clinical, their learning-to-become) is just as important as the people they meet.
This kind of work is not easily understood as a ‘soft’ version of ‘real’ experimental practice, but a form of knowing which is valuable, but which is always in danger of disappearing because it doesn’t make sense in terms of the established genres of knowledge that we work with today. Some would argue that this sort of thing tends to lapse into either narcissism or sentimentality. This is a fair criticism, but one of limited scope: it is merely to say that sometimes work is done badly, which is true of all sorts of research.
So maybe when we speak of anthropological knowledge as a form of personal transformation we can say that O’Connor’s work is a good example of one form — one in which the researcher experiences some way of being and then conveys that way of being back to her readers. This seems to me to be distinct from other kinds of personal transformation — general character broadening, for instance — but I’m not sure how to articulate that difference, so I will ask you all to comment and try to thrash out what I mean below the fold.