Book review: Ocejo, R. 2017. Masters of craft. Old jobs in the new urban economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ocejo’s new book takes us on a voyage of discovery of the revival of ‘old’ crafts in New York City. Why are well-educated people – primarily men – shying away from white collar work and taking up manual jobs in sectors traditionally perceived as low status?
The inquiry arises from the observed craft renaissance in advanced urban economies. Jobs centred around manual skills are allegedly making a come-back. Indeed, they are attracting to their ranks second careerists looking to reconnect with what they perceive as more authentic work. The book offers a fascinating portrait of four worlds: cocktail bars, distilleries, men’s barbers and whole-animal butchers. Through dedicated ethnographic work, including some too close for comfort encounters with dead animals, Ocejo explores the practice and motivations of these new urban craftsmen. The desire to do a job well, to deliver with a high level of expertise and technical skill characterizes the subjects of this study. And there is more. Doing a job well is part and parcel of the perceived reward of their occupational choice. As such, the book offers a glimpse into an alternative urban economy: one bathed in nostalgia maybe, but also one where younger generations of producers and consumers are rediscovering and valuing crafts. While Masters of Craft focuses on the production side, it is also a call for consumers to reward skill and mastery in their choices.
For all its richness and depth, Masters of Craft however falls short of a clear stance on exactly how sustainable and egalitarian these old jobs in the new urban economy actually are. Is this a new economy for all, or is this exclusive to the playing field of affluent urbanites in search for distinction? And while we learn how middle-class men navigate entry to these occupations mobilising savoir faire and personal networks, what are the prospects for a more diverse group of aspirants? Is this just a trend? What are the survival rates of these businesses? In the epilogue, we also sense a dominant narrative of progress as growth and expansion. The shadow of co-optation looms large. The small, independent distillery caught the eye of a large company, that eventually bought the brand. Craft cocktails are now so popular that claims to their authenticity get lost in the clatter of a downtown bar.
Yet there is a message of hope here. Ocejo sketches a vision for the future where taking the time to do a job well and to appreciate are core values. So let’s raise a glass of slow-distilled gin and toast to this new economy: may it lead to more meaningful work and more conscious consumption for all.