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Cheese Machines and Cellos: Technical Craftsmen and Craft Technicians

The study is based on a period of ethnographic research among approximately thirty tradesmen, apprentices, supervisors and related personnel at a medium-sized precision engineering company in Hamilton, New Zealand. The company specialises in high quality niche products and machinery for the dairy, aviation and medical technology industries. Its work involves a wide variety of engineering crafts and practices. My aim was to better understand the work that was done there, the elements of skilled and expert practice involved in it; how these skills were learned and from whom, and what they meant to those who held them. I wanted to find out which people and what conditions and environments best enabled the acquisition of skills and a good learning experience. By way of comparison to this main group, I interviewed a smaller number of craftspeople in the wider community: a fine furniture maker, a printmaker, a ceramicist and two luthiers, all of whom worked independently. This ethnography is located within a wider literature on apprenticeship, skill and education, and about what it means to be a “maker of things” (e.g. Beeby 1992; Biesta 2006; De Munck, Kaplan and Soly 2007; Dormer 1994, 1997; Keep 2007, 2009; Sennett 2008). I also draw on ethnographic discussions by other scholars who have described skilled practices and ways of learning in diverse social and cultural contexts (e.g. Coy 1989; Crawford 2009; Eraut 2001, 2002; Keller and Keller 1996; Lave 1988, 2011; Marchand 2003, 2010). My ethnographic data provides a rich description of a contemporary industrial workplace where learning involves both practical and theoretical knowledge and creative ability. The findings demonstrate that successful learning on the shop floor (and in the other examples given) is the result of a complex amalgam of disparate elements. The learning and teaching in these workplaces are sometimes structured and sometimes serendipitous. They are embedded in and arise from the processes of creativity, analysis, manufacture and reflection. They involve not only what takes place at the worksites but also the qualities and dispositions and histories of learning, both formal and informal, that the participants bring to their work. The development of skill and the acquisition of knowledge are shown to be complex and deeply personal and individual phenomena that are best nurtured in environments rich in materials, opportunity and experience, and in cooperation with interested, capable and expert “others”. This complexity is not easily represented in or catered for by current forms of educational assessment in New Zealand. A further and largely unexpected dimension of the study was my growing awareness of my own apprenticeship as a practitioner of ethnography, including my location as a participant observer in the actual field of study. This experience invariably led me to reflect further on the processes of apprenticeship, education and learning.
Type of thesis
Wanigasekera, G. D. (2013). Cheese Machines and Cellos: Technical Craftsmen and Craft Technicians (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/7788
University of Waikato
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