In 2005, with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), I commenced a new project with woodworkers in East London that built upon my previous studies of building-craft knowledge and apprenticeship in Yemen and Mali. In addition to the fieldwork and theoretical investigations into motor cognition and embodied forms of communication, the project also allowed me to invite anthropologists with shared interests in skill-learning to present their research in a seminar series and a subsequent one-day workshop, both hosted at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 2007. This volume grows out of the proceedings of that programme, initially titled The transmission of knowledge.
It is now three decades, and longer, since the works of Foucault (1977), de Certeau (1984), and especially Bourdieu ushered ‘everyday knowledge and practice’ to the fore of the social science agenda, and this focal concern is retained by the volume contributors. But while participants in the seminars and workshop gratefully acknowledged Bourdieu's seminal role in excavating Mauss's ‘techniques of the body’ (Mauss 1934) and developing a theory of habitus (Bourdieu 1977), they were invited to consider the limitations of ‘practice theory’ (e.g. Bloch 1991; Farnell 2000; Jenkins 1992) in advancing their own empirically based accounts of learning, situated practice, and embodied cognition. A project statement and set of questions framed the seminar programme. In particular, participants were asked to consider: How might social anthropologists effectually chronicle manifestations of human knowledge that ‘exceed language’, including bodily and perceptual practices? In which ways can ‘know-how’ be cogently described and represented in our ethnographic accounts? How, and under what circumstances, are new practices taken up and honed? And by what combination of cognitive and social mechanisms do they become stabilized as ‘memory’ or ‘habits’ that are consciously or unconsciously enacted? What drives improvisation in activity? And how do innovations in practice become publicly recognized and validated? How are different domains of knowledge co-ordinated within the mind-body complex, thereby resulting in both intelligent and intelligible performance? How are different ways of knowing variously communicated and interpreted by participating members within fields of practice? And crucially, how might we appropriately account for the necessary but ever-changing relations of learning to the physical and social environment in which it unfolds?
The follow-up workshop provided an intensive forum for seminar speakers and an invited panel of discussants to present and debate issues of theory and method, and consider anthropology's current and future contributions to the enduring, cross-disciplinary study of human knowledge. During the roundtable session we critically assessed the word ‘transmission’ and debated its appropriateness for accurately describing the myriad of complex ways in which knowing is articulated, acquired, and transformed in situ, involving communities of actors engaged in co-ordinated (and sometimes discordant) practices and communication. In the social sciences, ‘transmission’ has been regularly employed as a shorthand for the combined processes of teaching and learning, or for the operations of socialization and enculturation across generations, and several contributing authors rightfully use the term in this manner. But it can also bear problematic connotations of mechanical reproduction and homogeneous transferral of facts and information from one head (or body) to another. Lave has argued that ‘transmission and internalization [are not] the primary mechanisms by which culture and individual come together’, proposing instead ‘that activity, including cognition, is socially organized and quintessentially social in its very existence, its formation and its ongoing character’(1988: 177). In wanting the title of our collective work best to convey our shared aims in representing learning and knowing, I have renamed the volume Making knowledge. ‘Making’, I feel, more accurately captures the processes and durational qualities of knowledge formation; and rather than being suggestive of hierarchical and methodical transfer, it fosters thinking about knowledge as a dialogical and constructive engagement between people, and between people, things, and environment.
This special volume of the JRAI features the works of leading scholars who promote bold, innovative approaches to understanding the nature and social constitution of human knowing. Notably, the theme, ‘making knowledge’, is not an intended revival or perpetuation of the ‘anthropology of knowledge’ subfield that emerged in the 1970s. Rather, the collection represents a concerted investigation into the core activity of all anthropology: namely ‘the making of knowledge about the ways other people make knowledge’. The ethnography, theory, and methods presented expose possibilities for interdisciplinary collaboration and lay solid foundations for further investigations into embodied cognition and conceptual thinking. Ideas are couched in long-term, worldwide fieldwork; and a host of intriguing commonalities and differences emerge across the collection. All the authors are deeply unified in their concern for the appropriate study and representation of knowledge in its diverse forms and expression. Knowledge is explored both in its various modes of articulation (i.e. motor, sensory, and propositional) and in its range of social, cultural, and material manifestations. Conclusively, knowledge and practice are not fixed; nor are they hostage to unconscious reproduction. Rather what the essays demonstrate is that our human knowledge, like our physical bodies, is constantly reconfigured in the activities and negotiations of everyday work and life.
I thank the seminar speakers and workshop discussants for their co-operation in realizing this project, and the ESRC for their generous funding (Res-000-27-0159). The workshop discussants included Emma Cohen, Anna Portsich, and Charles Stafford. Paper contributions from Cohen and Portish are included in this collection. Regrettably, Rita Astuti, Susanne Kuechler, and Harry West had to withdraw from publication, but their individual contributions to the seminar series were highly valued. I also thank Richard Fardon and my fellow colleagues at SOAS for their support throughout the seminar series; and the students of SOAS and other colleges who regularly attended and enlivened the discussions with shrewd insights and penetrating questions. Finally, I thank Julia Elyachar and an anonymous reviewer for their valuable comments on an earlier draft of the volume, and Justin Dyer for his meticulous copy-editing.