Erin O’Connor on glassblowing

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”: “articles”: on how people learn to blow glass (there is also an open access “draft”: 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.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

20 thoughts on “Erin O’Connor on glassblowing

  1. 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.

    Perhaps articulating the difference is helped along by consideration of the distinction made between religions of practice and religions of belief—Catholicism vs. Evangelical Christianity, for example. Having grown up in the American South and later in life spent time living in Latin America I am of the opinion that while the distinction is first and foremost a heuristic it also has some real world validity. When I had been living in Guatemala for a few weeks I asked the family I boarded with if I might go to mass with them that Sunday and was a bit taken aback to be told that I “didn’t know enough yet” to accompany them. I was from a background where knowledge (cognitive or embodied or of any other sort) had little to do with going to church; in non-denominational congregations one could get the callin’ one day and be preaching the next. But I digress…

    The next step would be to consider how the two categories are related. Fasting during Lent might lead one to a deeper understanding and interest in the doctrines of Catholicism. I suppose it could work the other way, too. One could be drawn to the intellectual (for lack of a better word) tenants of Islam or Judaism and then begin to fast during Ramadan or keep kosher.

    It will be interesting to read O’Conner’s articles. I recently have been curious about how one would conduct phenomenological research in scientific or at least systematic fashion. I think one of the reasons that social scientists tends to draw so heavily on linguistic behavior as data is that 1) it is fairly easy to make the information picked out of speech behavior look like it matters to the speaker and not just to the analyst and 2) it is reducible to text, which is then susceptible to analysis for patterns. It seems ironic to me that first-hand knowledge by the ethnographer is somehow less valid in a scientific sense. But I find it useful to consider how one might make it more so rather than poopooing the scientific method.

    To reply to your query with a query, Rex, what distinguishes a good ethnography based in phenomenological theory from a sloppy “I am my own fieldnote” ethnography?

  2. Thanks for this last batch of posts, Rex. I agree that the tradition of pragmatic social psychology (symbolic interactionism, eventually) offers an elegant and appealing way to get at reflexive fieldwork without the anxiety. The question is ‘reflexive in relation to what’; the problem comes from conceiving the what (the self) simply and statically rather than dynamically and relationally.

    Navel-gazing is intercepted by a fully-socialized understanding of selves built in interaction with others. “We must socially stimulate ourselves to place at our own disposal the material out of which our own selves as well as those of others must be made” (G.H. Mead, “The Mechanism of Social Consciousness,” Selected Writings, ed. Andrew J. Reck). This goes beyond Cooley’s metaphor of mirroring – we don’t just reflect others, we become ourselves in relation to them and thus embody them.

    This helps answer MTBradley’s counterquery. “Our thinking is an inner conversation in which we may be taking the roles of specific acquaintances over against ourselves, but usually it is with what I have termed the ‘generalized other’ that we converse, and so attain to the levels of abstract thinking, and that impersonality, that so-called objectivity that we cherish” (G. H. Mead, “The Genesis of the Self and Social Control,” Selected Writings).

    The cumulative, recursive, and emergent (transformative) possibilities of this self-other constructive interaction can of course be cut off or dissipated at any point in narcissism, power games, or what have you, and that would give us sloppy fieldnotes. Any time I decide I’ve found myself once and for all or even think that’s a sensible goal I’m instantly disqualified as a reflexive fieldworker. But in the situated relationality of the self are also the ready ingredients for a kind of mindful participant observation and analysis that is never entirely inside or outside on both sides, with objectivity emerging as a product of the extension of perspective and insight this process offers.

    The successful researcher should literally become a newly othered self, just as any mindful person should keep becoming in the ordinary flow of life. But because the process is both cumulative and emergent, the new always incorporates the old and is conditioned by the possibilities it affords. No deus ex machinas here, which is why I’m leery of the language of ‘transformation’.

    Sorry if I’m stating the obvious, you got me all excited.

  3. Carl, if I may rephrase my question in light of your post–Is it possible to treat the theories of Mead and his intellectual descendants as falsifiable hypotheses rather than as axioms?

    I am not asserting that it is not, but it is not at all clear to me how to do so.

  4. I think my point is that O’Connor is not attempting to present falsifiable hypotheses — she is telling us what it is like to blow glass.

  5. —I think my point is that O’Connor is not attempting to present falsifiable hypotheses—she is telling us what it is like to blow glass.—

    You’re fencing; her Qualitative Sociology paper is hardly a descriptive material culture essay. In the paper she seems to be claiming that corporeal knowledge underlies social structure:

    Tools not only expand the actor’s phenomenological body, but also dispose actors towards matter to be worked upon: such matterly dispositions, we will see, inform culture and consequently, we can come to understand edifices of culture, such as forms of knowledge and discourse, as substantiated with matter. (p.178)

    I agree that phenomenology is an absolutely fantastic way to approach issues relating to the formation of the self in the sense that the acquisition of new knowledge by an individual changes how they interface with the world. Where I think a phenomenological approach could benefit from falsifiability are those instances when it is used as a foundation to support claims that “the illusion of structure” is a result of “the emergent quality” of culture, which is a result of “micro-social interaction”.

    So, yeah, O’Conner’s stuff is great. I can totally buy that glassblowers hang out with other glassblowers because they all know how to blow glass. On that level I don’t think phenomenology needs falsifiability. But when someone tries to use CA to show that discourse explains gender and kinship I would do think they need to bolster their case a little.

  6. Thanks, MBT. Hrmmf. I think in general my game is ‘edification’, in Rorty’s sense, not scientistic truth claims. But I also don’t think ‘it’s all good’, and I guess Popper offers one of the decent ideals to generate more robust claims – not that anyone in science studies would recognize ideal falsifiability as how any scientist actually goes about her practice. Ahem, got my throat clear now.

    Apart from the I-refute-you-thus sort of empirical reality bludgeons that are available in the hard sciences, the model of humanistic robustification that makes sense to me and follows from Mead, et. al. is Sandra Harding’s “strong objectivity” programme. Cough, wheeze, still a little bit of sumthin caught in there.

    I guess I need some help understanding what you mean by case bolstering, MTB, specifically in reference to a proposition like “‘the illusion of structure’ is a result of ‘the emergent quality’ of culture, which is a result of ‘micro-social interaction’.” In non-equilibrium thermodynamics this is a perfectly ordinary sort of proposition about perfectly ordinary sorts of physical, chemical and biological processes, supported by both experiment and gnarly mathematics. If you accept that cultures are dynamical systems then to apply this sort of thinking is isomorphic, not analogic; but we’ll all need to learn a hell of a lot more math. Is that what you’re asking for, or are you doubting the value of the original proposition?

  7. I know nothing of thermodynamics and I am unfamiliar with the work of Rorty and Harding (though my understanding of Regna Darnell’s historiography of the Boasians may acquaint me with standpoint theory).

    My extensive quote-unquoting was done as a jab at a certain school of anthropology. Impressionistically, I think of it as Mainline Linguistic Anthropology. Members of this school continue to present their research programs in the polemic style of the founders of linguistic anthropology despite the fact that times are different. As language was studied in the 1950s it was hard to get a study of verbal artistry taken seriously like a grammatical sketch but there has since been a division of labor—linguistic anthropology studies style and linguistics does grammar.

    What I am specifically trying to address is what I see as a great irony in the practice of many linguistic anthropologists. There is a tendency by linguistic anthropologists to assert that linguists unproblematically assume the linguistic structures which form the framework for their analyses and the theories of mind that follow from them. Linguistic anthropologists then go on to use this assertion to justify their empirical study of language-based communicative behavior (or text-in-context or whatever other buzzword).

    But these same scholars tend to, in my opinion, consistently fail to examine their own basic concepts. I guess my problem is the phrase “if you accept that.” Not all research can be an investigation of the basic concepts in one’s field of study. But some of it needs to be. I just feel like researchers using the work of Mead and his successors need not only preface their analyses with “If we accept that…” but also to go to the field asking, “Why should we accept that?”

  8. “Although my embodied knowledge mostly comes from the performing arts”

    Your embodied knowledge is manifest in the way you walk and talk, the way you dress and the way you interact with people. It’s your physical presence and social manner as experienced by others.

    “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.”

    By your logic craft itself is disappearing, including the craft of writing, which was once thought of even by academics as an intellectual activity.

    You compartmentalize. rationalizing “experimental practice” in language. It’s a rhetorical trope designed to suit an academic model of intellectual life. Academics like gamers now imagine embodied knowledge as an option rather than a given. Like nerds who want to wish away their physical limitations and live their lives as virtual warriors or athletes when in fact they’re couch 300 lb. couch potatoes living on cheetos and ice cream, yours is a virtual intellectualism.

  9. Does anyone understand what Seth is saying? I think its meant to be critical of someone — me, or the people who have commented on this blog, but I can’t make it out.

    At any rate, if he thinks that sight reading a Byrd motet with nothing but three other people, pitchfork, and a score is as easy as “walking and talking” then he is a much, much better singer than me. Or a much, much worse one.

  10. “At any rate, if he thinks that sight reading a Byrd motet with nothing but three other people, pitchfork, and a score is as easy as ‘walking and talking’ then he is a much, much better singer than me. Or a much, much worse one.”

    Where were camera phones and YouTube when we in the future really needed them?

  11. A midwestern. south Texas or Bronx accent are all forms of embodied knowledge.
    A swagger or a slouch are forms of embodied knowledge. Affect -affect display- is embodiment. The model of academic intellectualism seems to have become one of feigned lack of affect. Or maybe it’s not feigned in some cases. I’ve come across more than a few people who seem unable to experience the polyphony of animal communication. They seem to live in a Aristotelian non-contradictory universe.
    Most of them are pretending but some of them aren’t.

    The choice for craft is a choice to engage consciously with techniques and manners we otherwise use every day without thinking. It’s not the difference between silence and speech but between speaking and speaking well. Craft is an action in ironic distancing relation to our everyday activities as social beings. The model of intellectualism as asocial observation of the social is either a pretense or symptomatic or both.

    To be fair here’s one example of this sort of blindness.

  12. Rex, Seth is a self-fulfilling prophecy of marginalization. His m.o. is he goes charging into conversations with a big wavefront and a f-y attitude, like a little guy picking a fight in a bar daring you to throw him out.

    A rhetorical anti-platonist, he has a platonic notion of the academy. We’re his bete-noir. He thinks we’ve (all!) got ourselves all twisted up in our undies thinking that the stuff we think about is transcendentally different than the stuff of everyday life. He’s got a very high opinion of our intelligence and a very low one of our judgment, and he’s stunned and outraged every time we wander from the core ordinary truth that we humans make our own realities in creative and arbitrary ways. Well, me too, except without the high opinion of our intelligence.

    His point is that there’s no important difference between singing Byrd and speaking South Texan. In each case a human masters a craft of expression – a procedure to make relationships. Doing anthropology is another such craft. I agree, don’t you? If Seth was just slightly more true to his insight and less true to his belligerence he’d see that academics are in fact exactly the same thing as South Texans and Byrd singers; the full accomplishment of craft is always to retrospectively hide its process and ‘naturalize’ it; so the critique of our lack of reflective awareness always has to fight against its own grounds. (Seth may be self-aware, but if so I haven’t seen where he shows his work.)

    …OK, see what happens when you act like an asshole, Seth? You force other people who are trying to take you seriously and see your value to pick through your horseshit and pluck out the peanuts of wisdom. And you’re sitting there itching to jump me for the ones I missed or that I didn’t quite get the flavor of, right? Whose job do you think it is to make sense of what you’re thinking? When did you decide to skip the step of mastering the rhetorical crafts of communicating with this particular tribe?

    Go look up the definition of borderline personality disorder, think again about the concept of walking on eggshells only with you as the master, not the slave, for mercy’s sake finally work out where all this blustering rage is coming from (news flash: it’s not us, that’s the first counseling session), then come back and play nice so the rest of us who, YOU ARE RIGHT, are not doing anything different than you’re doing can fully benefit from your actually awesome but self-defeatingly unusable insight.

  13. Actually Carl I was responding to the specific language of the post.
    But yes I’m on the margins. Most of my friends are in Hollywood, and I haven’t taken the plunge.
    I should probably.

    “It’s not the difference between silence and speech but between speaking and speaking well.”
    I’m trying to remember Leach’s epigrammatic comment about Levi-Strauss.

    We have one thing in common Carl: our father’s were both at Temple U.
    But my father was a professor of literature, not philosophy.
    Makes sense.

  14. Ah, the two departments for which reality is an imaginary place between the ears and the covers of books. I got good advice to avoid philosophy but had to learn about lit. myself. Jackson, Stewart and Rackin, as I recall; missed Edenbaum.

    MTB, thanks, I see and agree. Failure to examine our basic concepts is a theme here and I liked Seth’s formulation that “The choice for craft is a choice to engage consciously with techniques and manners we otherwise use every day without thinking… an action in ironic distancing relation to our everyday activities as social beings.”

    It’s my impression that the Meadian tradition has gotten the most satisfactorily fieldy and reflectively open-source on the sociology side as ‘symbolic interactionism’ or ‘grounded theory’. The social embedding of the researcher is well understood.

    Rex, if you’d grown up singing Byrd motets it would be exactly as easy as walking and talking, which are hard. Now I’m wondering when learning new things engages the ironic distancing relation to the everyday? Is this the transformation we’re talking about?

  15. The tension between the instrumental and the communicative roles of language is a question for philosophy and every other field in the humanities.
    It wasn’t handled well here.

    And to “normalize” in the arts or rhetoric is not the same as to “naturalize” in philosophy. The literature of the past comes down to us as description, not reason. The academic philosophy of our genteel tradition claims superiority as logical and “craftless,” as gloriously indifferent to context. That error has now spread far and wide in the academy.
    What’s to blame? Modernism, America, Fordism, Sputnik, math envy.

    “This kind of work is not easily understood as a ‘soft’ version of ‘real’ experimental practice,”

    Rex could say that he’s making my argument and say the same about his interest in anthropology as “personal transformation.” I would say he seems to be trying to explain descriptive (as opposed to speculative) literature to people who don’t know what it is: who are so caught up the the academic world that they’re unable to imagine intellectual if not emotional life outside the categories of academic discourse. I’ve met a few too many people like that.
    I’d also point out that any activity taken on with a level of commitment involves personal transformation.

    I guess what struck me was the tentativeness and the awkwardness of the discussion of the relation of the personal to the impersonal. I should be relieved it’s there at all.

  16. Yup.

    The demolition of academic/philosophical abstraction is an old project, as you know. “When reality is depicted, philosophy loses its medium of existence,” Marx said. Or “the personal is political.” That sets up the usual mirror trap of class struggle, of course, where we just choose up sides over systems of prejudices.

    Not to defend the indefensible but it’s not true, however, that all philosophers are platonists and rationalists. Toulmin has a nice argument in Cosmopolis about how this strand became dominant (Descartes was a key moment; math envy is part of it and so is the secular substitution of religious certainty), but there have always been more engaged strands (Montaigne, Herder, Dilthey, Dewey) for whom life is the point, not an impurity to be burned off in the furnace of reason.

    However, “The best argument for leaving others alone in their bizarre beliefs, for being curious but not contemptuous, is the recognition of your own capacity to believe things equally as odd.” As faculty brats we’re not inclined to extend this generosity to our own tribe, especially when we see them violating it programmatically. But we should.

    My point keeps being that despite their corporate ideologies, which should not be taken at face value or considered fully intentional any more than any others, academics’ abstractions do not issue like Athena from the echoing vastness of their own headspaces but are the product of their positioning in a class system and a division of labor that tasks and rigorously disciplines them with impersonality and disinterest. This norming is not optional for those who want to occupy this space, so irony about it just creates an odd liminality; this is why so many smart grad students who figure out the lay of the land drop out. Leaving the worst of the true believers in charge.

    In a sense, academics (and artists, of course) are this civilization’s monumental architecture of the mind: our primary functions are symbolic including, of course, symbolic violence, but not real practical even for that.

  17. You’ve still missed my point, I think.
    Art [craft] and criticism exist in a reciprocal and respectful if antagonistic relation. Historians and biographers exist in a similar relation to their subjects.
    Theory in its own valuation precedes and is superior to practice. That’s the foundation for the language however rueful of this post. I suppose I should be grateful for the rue but ‘m not.

    And by practice I’m not referring to its meaning here: /2008/08/18/around-the-web-25/
    Between the vulgar and the unworldly there is another option. That’s in fact my point.

    And as to literature and philsophy, I’ll say again that literature is first and foremost patterned description in the language of its day, of events, objects and language itself. The plot is as secondary to any memorable novel as God is to the Bible.
    And as for philosophy, European rationalism has always been the imaginative literature of rationalism. American is the pseudo science of language in use.
    Amazing as it seems legal philosophers have contempt for practicing lawyers

    I’m going to go back to writing art history. I want to write something on Edward Yang’s Yi Yi as pattern making (invention) and as observation of contemporary Taiwan. Good art always defeats theory.

    My anger at the academy is in response to the ascendency of technicians as intellectuals. Now technicians are sad. What can I say?

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