19 February 2007

What is craft research?

As we canter up to the New Craft Future Voices event, we should begin to focus our thoughts and discussions on one key question in particular: what exactly is craft research? I say "one key question", but of course there are a number of related questions bound up in this. How do we define it? What is its scope? How do we articulate its wider value? Is it not simply a subset of design research?

I pose these questions because of the need to define a position in respect of both critics and those whom we seek to support and encourage. Two recent events have brought these questions into focus. One was the view expressed by a prominent member of the design research community to a colleague that (I risk paraphrasing here) "little of any significant value has arisen from research in the crafts". The other was a conversation with another colleague who was expressing frustration that she had to learn how to write as a social scientist in order to publish in the field of craft research, while such writing skirts around but does not get to the core of the original knowledge that was arising from her practice. Her view was that we have failed to define a way of communicating craft research that is appropriate to our disciplines. Twelve years ago I began to discuss this in a somewhat polemical piece It's Research, Jim... that I had intended to revisit at some point, but never got around to. It's probably time that I did.

We should aspire to define a field of inquiry with its own distinctive methods, forms of communication (and perhaps learned society?) that is sustainable and valued within the wider academic community. The response to the New Craft Future Voices call for papers is hugely encouraging. There is some excellent, engaging and committed research being undertaken in craft disciplines throughout the world, much of which does not readily find a home in existing research communities. Therefore we have an opportunity to define and create a framework for supporting such research.

So, my initial stab at a definition is this:

Craft research aims to improve the understanding of and enhance innovation within craft practices.

Its key objectives are to:
  • explore the cultural and economic value of craft
  • promote discourses around the nature of contemporary practices
  • develop appropriate means of communicating the craft knowledge that arises through practice
  • promote innovation in craft practice.
I welcome all contributions that seek to improve on this initial definition and move us further towards articulating a clear position on what is craft research.


  1. One of the biggest issues for me in craft research is language. Craft is I believe a visual language and there is little point in my opinion in translating that into a verbal language as much of the richness and depth of meaning is lost. Craft communicates something that written or verbal lanaguage cannot. So one of the biggest issues for me in craft research is identifying what relationship craft practice has to craft writing and by association craft research.

    Im also more interested in the ways in which craft contributes to the social fabric of society and culture. The social capital of craft is I feel more valuable than the economic contribution.

    If Im honest I also have a problem with the use of the word innovation. Innovation is part of a modernist agenda and more associated with product design. For me craft is more concerned with familiarity and local adaptation. Hence each original is based on tradition but is new and different in each locality.For example spoons. And hence why there are so few forms in craft.

    We should be trying to articulate what is unique and special about craft and not attempting to turn it into product design.

    Craft knowledge is of a very different order than design knowledge and we should be articulating in what ways. It is also a very different kind of knoweledge from that of the sciences and we should also be highlighting that. For me craft knowledge unites ontology and epistemology and that is one of our strengths.

    The one area that I also feel you havent addressed is craft pedagogy and so I would include something about the importance of teaching. As we shouldnt separate the research from the teaching.

    For me craft is also about education - education of the self - learning what it means to be human - and this is something that we have to contribute to other disciplines that talk about their craft e.g. writing, medicine etc.

    I would therefore suggest a rewording of your aims and objectives to;

    Craft Research aims to improve the understanding of craft practice for pedagogy and communication with other disciplines.

    Its key objectives are to:

    - articulate the uniqueness of craft
    - develop an appropriate written lanaguage to articulate this uniqueness
    - promote discourses around the nature of contemporary practices
    - develop appropriate visual research methods
    - explore the social, cultural and economic value of craft
    - enhance the quality of craft teaching and education
    - promote partnerships/collaborations with other disciplines
    - Develop a craft epistemnology

    Ive written this off the cuff so to speak - but would welcome the opportunity to discuss some of these issues with you in more detail.

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