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History of the study of technology

The social organization of crafts

Development of craft associations


The term “craft” derives from the Anglo-Saxon crseft, meaning “strength, skill, or cunning,” in contrast to “art,” which usually implies an intention of producing beauty or pleasure. Contemporary scholars often consider “arts and crafts” together because of the difficulties in so many societies of differentiating the aesthetic from the strictly utilitarian. Anthropologists prefer to use “technology” to refer to the processes of manufacture and “material culture” for the artifacts themselves. Since crafts include all activities that produce or modify objects by manual means, with or without the use of mechanical aids, such as looms or potters’ wheels, the range of study is very broad. There is an equally wide range of social forms within which the craftsmen operate.

In a second sense, “craft” is synonymous with “guild,” commonly used as a term of class ascription and role delineation in contemporary sociology, and is applied to occupational associations. Within this meaning the status of craftsmen differs by culture, epoch, and craft.

History of the study of technology

It was the change in the role of the craftsman that first drew the attention of scholars to the importance of studying the history of technology. When it became apparent in the middle of the nineteenth century that the impact of the industrial revolution was causing rapid degeneration in traditional peasant crafts, European folklorist-ethnographers set themselves to recording and collecting as much as possible before the crafts became extinct. As these collections grew, the study of technology grew with them and raised some of the basic questions with which the infant science of anthropology was to be concerned. The exhaustive collections of European museums, often made under the impetus of chauvinistic nationalism, tempted some scholars to postulate a number of diffusion theories of differing degrees of sophistication and other scholars to devote their careers to the refutation of these theories. The product of these controversies has been of infinite value to the social sciences.

European students of local arts and crafts have made superbly documented analyses of the diffusion of particular objects, styles, and techniques, such as de Rohan-Csermak’s study (1963) of the spread of sturgeon hooks across Eurasia, and most European countries now boast folk museums or reconstructed villages where peasant crafts are produced, displayed, and sold. Folk craftsmen, along with folk musicians, dancers, and other artists, are subsidized by the national governments to discourage crass commercialization and to ensure the continuity of tradition. In many countries, such as Sweden, Denmark, Mexico, and Japan, folk craft products have been adapted to the world market to such an extent that they have become a valuable asset in economic development and national prestige.

However, American scholars view much of this European research as both questionable and beside the point. On the basis of the work of Sapir (1916, pp. 5–25), Dixon (1928, pp. 145–146), and others, they tend to feel that far-reaching historical reconstructions on the basis of distribution studies of artifacts are unwarranted, and they are particularly cynical if the result happens to support a nationalistic claim. Only very limited and tentative historical inferences are allowable from the study of artifacts, and then only in a restricted area whose historical unity can be assumed, or where the artifacts are used to corroborate and illustrate historical documentation. Archeology, which might be defined as the study of the more durable arts and crafts of past societies, provides a model. In spite of extreme care in distribution study and typing of artifacts, archeologists reach only very tentative conclusions and are loath to attempt the outlining of even a small segment of protohistory.

Thus, in their zeal to understand more fully the relationships between art and culture, American scholars eschew historical reconstruction based on techniques for chipping flint or the distribution of beads. Instead, such monographs as Bunzel’s The Pueblo Potter (1929), O’Neale’s Yurok-Karok Basket Weavers (1932), and Adair’s The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths (1944) analyze the integration of craft activities with the structure of living societies, the economic base of the crafts, their social functions, the roles of the craftsmen, and the value systems that may be expressed through them; these monographs are, accordingly, as pertinent to art historians, aestheticians, and psychologists as to anthropologists. But even when the art is moribund or the culture extinct, intensive study of museum specimens can yield useful insight into the nature of style and the processes of creativity. In this way, Olbrechts (1946) was able to postulate the so-called Master of Buli as the creator of the long-faced Luba sculptural style, and Pros-kouriakoff (1950), through analysis of significant stylistic details on dated Maya stelae, was able to give provisional dates for the great mass of un-dated Maya sculpture. The inconclusive results of studies in measurement, such as Reichard’s Melanesian Design (1933), or in typology, such as Schweeger-Hefel’s Holzplastik in Afrika (1960), suggest the need for more sophisticated statistical and computer analyses of dimension, proportion, and the frequency of particular stylistic characteristics in objects from a given area, the ultimate goal being the mathematical quantification of each style. Research projects by Yehudi Cohen and Alvin Wolfe, as yet unpublished, are hopeful attempts to correlate particular styles or forms of art with types of social organization. Where the arts and crafts are still practiced in reasonably traditional ways, it would be possible to study the aesthetic value systems of the craftsmen and their audiences and thus help answer the ancient questions about the existence of an absolute criterion of art above culture, epoch, and individual.

The social organization of crafts

Craft organization by sex

In most human societies throughout history, the crafts have been organized primarily on the basis of the sexual division of labor, with all the men of an ethnic group learning with varying degrees of skill all of the “masculine” crafts, and all the women learning a separate set of “feminine” crafts. Although it would seem logical for women to make clothing and utensils for food processing, and for men to provide shelter, transport, weapons, and hunting and fishing equipment, actually there is no clear consensus as to which sex should practice which particular crafts. Women are the weavers in the American southwest, but men are in Africa. Men of the Northwest Coast Indians design the Chilkat blankets by making drawings on boards, but women do the actual twining process. Men are the potters in Europe, India, and central Africa, but women are in west Africa and the Americas. Bark cloth is made by men in Africa, but by women in southeast Asia. Baskets made for the home are usually the domain of women, but men may make baskets for sale or barter. In spite of its obviously arbitrary nature, the division of craft labor by sex is usually considered a “law of nature,” the breaking of which brings serious consequences. Many nonliterate societies provide the role of the berdache, or transvestite, for men who are not necessarily homosexuals but who choose to practice, and often excel women in, the feminine crafts. Even in Western culture, where industrialization has blurred the sexual division of labor, female welders, engineers, or surgeons face as much opposition as male nurses or secretaries, although there is no innate supra-cultural reason why they cannot perform the required services as well as, or in some cases better than, the opposite sex, to whom the role is usually assigned.

Craft organization by family

A second basic structuring device for crafts is the family unit. This device occurs in fairly complex societies and is seen in its most extreme form in Indian occupational castes. Here all the men of a family practice the same craft, the techniques of which are handed down from father to son. Ideally at least, every son follows the same craft as his ancestors and marries the daughter of a member of the same caste. Wherever appropriate, the women also practice the craft or help in the preparation of raw materials. Such endogamous occupational castes as sonār (goldsmiths), lohār (blacksmiths), kumhār (potters), and camār (leatherworkers) prove quite stable even when technological change or emigration requires radical modification of their occupational activities to keep their product marketable. Many occupational castes have subcastes, each endogamous, which specialize in particular designs or types of the caste product. Although castes effectively minimize competition, they are all interdependent economically because they need one another’s products.

In many other societies castelike family organization exists among craftsmen. The Senufo and Bambara of west Africa, for instance, group all artisans together in a single endogamous kin unit, whether they be male blacksmiths, jewelers, wood or stone carvers, or female potters. They usually live apart in their own villages or in compounds at the edge of towns. Even though they obtain most of their livelihood from farming, as do other Senufo, they have a separate initiation system and are both feared and disdained because of the magical associations of their callings. In central Africa those who know the secret of smelting iron from local ore are also considered magicians but are often of chiefly status and are accorded great admiration, rather than fear.

In many other cultures, such as traditional Japan, China, Dahomey, and Polynesia, the right to practice a particular craft was hereditary, and these craft families often served as courtiers who supported the political authority by providing suitably elegant objects for the king and his court. In contemporary Euro-American culture one may find families who have practiced a particular and often highly specialized craft for many generations and often in many countries. Examples are the Dolmetsch family, makers of recorders and other archaic instruments, the Zildjian family, who alone possess the formula for making the finest cymbals, and, in the humbler crafts, Swiss woodcarvers and watchmakers, Belgian lacemakers, and Irish and Scottish tweed weavers.

Craft organization by village

Since nearly all crafts require particular materials for their manufacture, craftsmen try to settle as near as possible to their source of supply or, alternatively, to their markets. In this way, an area possessing an out-cropping of fine pottery clay will often develop one or more villages of potters. In such a situation, it is not difficult to see how potters originally of different origins could combine forces to regulate prices, standardize designs or specializations, minimize competition, and ultimately to intermarry and form a complex kin unit. Within such a craft village, the family organization is likely to approximate a caste; indeed, in India many craft villages are inhabited by a single occupational caste. Even where there is no limitation on marriage, the common economic and technological interests of the young people tend to draw them together socially.

Just as with interdependent castes, craft villages and families also are complementary. For instance, craft villages in Melanesia trade extensively with one another, often in connection with ceremonial exchanges. The need for one another’s exclusive products is so great that trade is often carried on through neutrals during periods of war. In the Nilgiri hills of south India, three non-Hindu tribes have a similar symbiotic relationship, the Toda providing clarified butter (ghī) for food and ritual purposes, the Kota cultivating grain, and the Badaga serving as craftsmen, merchants, and musicians.

Mexican popular arts, probably the richest and most varied being produced today, come from family groups in Mexico City or from small craft villages. In the Lake Pátzcuaro district of Michoacan, for instance, Uruapan produces fine lacquer work; Paracho, musical instruments, toys, and lathe-turned wooden objects; Santa Clara del Cobre, hammered copper utensils and fringed black serapes; Apatzingán (until recently), leather-covered equipale furniture; Patamban, Capula, and Tzintzuntzan, three or more distinctive pottery wares; Erongarícuaro, woven cambaya cotton textiles and embroideries; and Pátzcuaro itself, rebozo, reed mats, and silver jewelry. Even in pre-Columbian times the Tarascan Indians of Michoacán had a high degree of craft specialization, including lapidaries, stonemasons, woodcarvers, paper and feather workers, weavers of cotton textiles, mat-makers, lacquer makers, drum makers, and makers of bows and arrows. Today the products not consumed locally are sold in nearby Morelia, and a few reach international markets. Similar conglomerates exist around Guadalajara, Toluca, Puebla, Oaxaca, and other Mexican cities, and there are many isolated craft-producing areas, such as Santa Maria del Rio for silk rebozo and Saltillo for serapes.

Part-time professionals

In most societies there is no economic surplus to support full-time craftsmen, so that all practitioners of crafts, even those recognized as consummate experts, must make their livings largely through agriculture. As an example, the Chokwe of Angola and the Congo (Leopoldville) teach all boys to carve mahamba figures for hunting magic and jinga charms for female fertility in the course of the mukanda initiation rites. Except for a few special cases, no full-time artists exist, but a number of skilled carvers have so impressed their individual styles on the community that their work can be recognized far and wide, and young men pay for the privilege of being apprenticed to them. Yet such a master carver (songi) works his farm and hunts at the end of the rainy season. The few masks, figures, or stools he might be commissioned to make in the course of a year would bring him only a small amount in cash or livestock to supplement his regular income from the sale of peanuts, manioc, or other crops. The paucity of output helps explain why each piece is stylistically unique and why traditional carvers employed full time as producers or teachers turn out only repetitive and stereotypic work. Such part-time experts also supervise the making of masks and paraphernalia for the elaborate socioreligious rites, for instance, of the west African Dogon (Griaule 1938) and the Melanesian Orokaiva (Williams 1940).

Development of craft associations

In all their variety of style and technique, most crafts can be shown to have been invented at least twice (in the Old World and in the New World) and probably many more times in the hundreds of centuries man has had at his disposal, and they do not seem to follow a strongly evolutionary pattern of development. On the contrary, the elegantly idealized animals of the Magdalenian cave painters were drawn virtually with the same methods, tools, and materials as are found in a contemporary art studio. By 1500 b.c. craftsmen in Egypt and the Near East, using almost all the techniques now known to us, were able to turn out work comparable to the finest of any other epoch. Five hundred years earlier in Sumeria, craft guilds were formed to protect full-time craftsmen working in the royal courts and developing urban centers. Craft associations with such features as the apprenticeship system, standardization of production, and a division between utilitarian and luxury goods existed in most classical cultures. But for a long period after the fall of the Roman Empire, craftsmen could safely earn their livings only as retainers of an isolated and virtually self-sufficient baronial manor. Because a weaver, armorer, or saddler could produce more than even a populous manor could consume, full-time craftsmen in late medieval times began to move into towns, where they could offer their services to more numerous and richer clients.

Town craftsmen accepted commissions to be carried out to the taste of the purchaser, and often with materials provided by him. Craftsmen also discovered that they could profitably produce objects in advance for sale to all. In this situation the craftsmen were no longer working for wages as in the manor, but had become merchants buying and selling raw materials and finished products in their own right for profit. In such politically independent commercial centers as Milan, Florence, Barcelona, Bruges, and Ghent, merchant guilds were established primarily to create a legal monopoly on the sale of local products within the town under municipal authority. The merchants in return could promise a “fair” fixed price for products of each quality and could effectively prohibit any attempts by their members to corner the market in these goods. Guild rules were strictly enforced, and expulsion meant that the merchant could no longer do business in that city. Membership became so desirable that it could be attained only by purchase or inheritance, not unlike a seat on a contemporary stock exchange. A further important function of merchant guilds was the lending of money to members at equitable rates. In time the wealthier merchants began to purchase for export some or all of the output of other craftsmen at less than retail prices. This wholesale trade proved so profitable that merchants soon set up central craft workshops employing craftsmen full-time, foreshadowing the factory.

By the fourteenth century the merchant guilds had become too cumbersome for efficiency and broke down into smaller units limited to the practitioners of a single specialized craft within a city. These craft guilds, or “companies,” besides protecting their members from competition, ensured fair wages and fair prices, forbade night work, inspected workrooms, and protected the apprentices and journeymen. The considerable revenues received by the craft guilds were expended on public works, such as bridges and roads, religious processions, public festivals, and charity and occasionally were used for political purposes. The guilds, often run by powerful family dynasties, resisted both technical innovation and the growth of trade as destructive of their monopoly. By the end of the seventeenth century the improvement of transportation made possible a greater exchange of goods, and the power of the guilds was gradually broken by the spread of laissez-faire economic policies. Craft guilds were legally abolished in England in 1835, but some continue to have ritual functions. Among the contemporary Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria, new guilds are being organized for recently introduced crafts, and their pattern of development parallels that of European guilds.

Outside the secular urban setting of guilds, full-time professional craftsmen are often organized by means of socioreligious brotherhoods. In India painters who were also Buddhist monks spent centuries decorating their cave retreats with gigantic murals, while medieval Christian monks in Europe lavished comparable time, effort, and taste on the illumination of sacred manuscripts. Female artists have been organized into similar associations, the incomparable textiles of the Incas of Peru having been produced by the acllacuna, women trained from childhood as weavers of ritual and burial robes.

One characteristic distinguishes craft production in most cultures and epochs—a single individual carries on all the processes of production, from the gathering of the raw material to the finishing of the article. But when craftsmen are brought together in a central workshop, it soon becomes apparent that some excel in one process and some in another. When each step in the production of a craft is carried out by a specialist who does nothing else, the result need not be inartistic even though standardized. Chinese porcelains pass through at least twenty hands in the process of production, and Japanese blockprints are turned out by a series of experts, each of whom carries out only one step. Although many crafts are now produced by production-line methods for the market, a surprising number of craftsmen have resisted specialization of technique and standardization of product, preferring aesthetic satisfaction to greater efficiency and profit.

Daniel J. Crowley

[Directly related are the entriesGilds; Primitive art.]


Adair, John 1944 The Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

Bunzel, Ruth L. 1929 The Pueblo Potter: A Study of Creative Imagination in Primitive Art. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Dixon, Roland B. 1928 The Building of Cultures. New York: Scribner.

Foster, George M. 1948 Empire’s Children: The People of Tzintzuntzan. Institute of Social Anthropology, Publication No. 6. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Goldwater, Robert J. 1964 Senufo Sculpture From West Africa. New York: Museum of Primitive Art.

Griaule, Marcel 1938 Masques dogons. Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie.

Herskovits, Melville J. (1940) 1952 Economic Anthropology: A Study in Comparative Economics. 2d ed., rev. & enl. New York: Knopf. → First published as The Economic Life of Primitive Peoples.

Lloyd, Peter 1953 Craft Organization in Yoruba Towns. Africa 23:30–44.

Olbrechts, Frans M. (1946) 1959 Les arts plastiques du Congo Beige. Brussels: Erasme. → First published as Plastiek van Kongo.

O’neale, Lila M. 1932 Yurok-Karok Basket Weavers. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 32, No. 1. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana A. 1950 A Study of Classic Maya Sculpture. Washington: Carnegie Institution.

Reichard, Gladys A. 1933 Melanesian Design: A Study of Style in Wood and Tortoiseshell Carving. Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology, Vol. 18. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Rohan-Csermak, GÉza de 1963 Sturgeon Hooks of Eurasia. Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, No. 35. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Sapir, Edward 1916 Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture: A Study in Method. Canada, Geological, Survey Memoir 90, Anthropological Series, No. 13. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau.

[Schmidt, James N.] 1959 In Mexico: Where to Look, How to Buy Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts, by James Norman [pseud.]. New York: Morrow.

Schweeger, Annmarie (Hefel) 1960 Holzplastlk in Afrika: Gestaltungsprinzipien. Vienna: Braumüller.

Williams, Francis Edgar 1940 Drama of Orokolo: The Social and Ceremonial Life of the Elema. Oxford: Clarendon.

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crafts: see arts and crafts.

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