Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Apprenticeship in Western India

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Apprenticeship in Western India

Article excerpt

The town of Mandvi and the village of Salaya stand either side of the Rukhmavuti Estuary on the southern shores of Kachchh District, Gujarat, western India. The scale of activity in the dozen or so shipyards dotted along the banks of the estuary cannot fail to impress anyone visiting for the first time. Close up, the activity in these yards initially grates at the senses; they are noisy, smelly, and visually chaotic places. The air is full of the sounds of hammers on iron and wood and the mixed odours of mud, sawdust, and chemicals stewing over open fires. Men shout strange things at one another as they clamber over and around ships with fantastic speed and agility. The yards produce ocean-going vessels of considerable draft from thousands of pieces of timber without the use of plans, technical drawings, or sophisticated machinery (Fig. 1). Apprentices are drawn into the workforce and learn, through participant observation and other less attractive procedures, the techniques of shipbuilding and the sociality of shipping. Eventually, the experience of sensory chaos ceases to be salient for them, as neophytes become familiar with the techniques, technology, and processes of production and gradually tame their new environment.

I conducted fieldwork in these shipyards between August 1997 and April 1999 and have made further visits in subsequent years. Like others (Coy 1989b; Palsson 1994), I have been struck by the parallels between anthropological fieldwork and apprenticeship. However, I have found it hard to write about these parallels adequately and honestly, as the boundaries between what I do and do not know about apprenticeship are often impossible to identify. Consequently, over the last few years my ethnography has worn numerous masks. At times, it has been a treatment of the parallel symbolism of social life and craft production (after Dilley 1987; Lancy 1980; Messick 1987) and at others an exploration of the differences between descriptions, actions, and learning (after Bloch 1991; 1998; Jenkins 1994).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

I have presented my work to numerous seminar audiences, which were mostly sympathetic, but sometimes derisory. At first, I was perplexed, if not to say frustrated, by this second type of response because the data I was discussing were robust and, I thought, interesting. Later, I suspected that whereas few if any in those seminar rooms would have had direct experiencee of civil war, trans-national labour migration, or circumcision rituals, they all had their own experiences of learning and of professional apprenticeships of sorts and therefore had pretty clear ideas about what these things entail. What I was saying was often discordant or simply did not fit with these ideas, and this seemed genuinely to irritate people. Although traces of these previous incarnations remain in the text, here I have decided simply to present my data loosely following the career trajectory of a typical shipyard apprentice.

Many readers will be aware of the excellent ethnographic literature that has recently emerged on skill, apprenticeship, and the broader implications of apprenticeship for social theory (notably Bloch 1998; Bourdieu 1977; Coy 1989a; Herzfeld 2004; Hutchins 1996; Ingold 2000; Jenkins 1994; Keller & Keller 1996; Kondo 1990; Lave 1984; 1988a; 1988b; Lave & Wenger 1991; Marchand 2001; Messick 1993; Starrett 1995). Given the range and complexity of these debates and their often very different epistemological starting points, it is impossible to review these contributions here. Generally, however, these studies show: first, that great feats of computational imagination, mastery, and ingenuity exist outside formal education; second, that knowledge is not possessed by a homunculus or even by the 'mind' of the learner; and, third, that apprenticeship is related to the reproduction of the social order, a fact which links this literature to studies of organizations, identity, and work. …

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