Richard Sennett: Back to the bench

Sennett's influential books about the way we live and work have made sociology into an art. Now he turns his mind to craft. Boyd Tonkin talks to him
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The Independent Culture

Later this year, Richard Sennett plans a revealing piece of research. He wants to act as "a fly on the wall" in the TV studios as the US presidential candidates prepare for their make-or-break screen turns. If he gets his way, the social philosopher who has told us more than any other thinker of our time about the fast-changing world of work will lurk behind the scenes with the rivals for the biggest job on earth. "This isn't an original idea of mine," he says. "It goes back to Machiavelli, who talks about statecraft as what's hidden behind the stage." Still, the prospect of subjecting the dark arts of political showbiz – the make-up, the lighting and so forth – to scrutiny has rattled party insiders, although "the Obama people seem much more open to this than anyone else".

Whether in the White House or a crack house, nothing human is alien to Sennett's all-connecting eye. From forsaken sink estates to Renaissance palazzi, recession-stricken factory floors to string-quartet rehearsal rooms, he has for almost 40 years brought humanity and wisdom to the places where people come together to toil and trade, to talk and play. In a dozen books, the Chicago-born polymath (sociologist, philosopher, novelist, trained cellist, expert cook) has made the study of the way we live now into art as well as science.

A reading of landmark works such as The Hidden Injuries of Class, The Fall of Public Man and Respect delivers not just enlightenment but pleasure of a kind that the state-of-society speeches of Gordon Brown or David Cameron – which so often sound like Sennett-lite, with all the irony and empathy stripped out – can never hope to match. Throughout, he aims not merely to diagnose our ills but to show how frail and often frightened human beings could be helped to do better. The Blair government once appointed a "respect tsar". If anyone deserves that moniker, it must be the wholly non-imperial Richard Sennett.

We meet in Penguin's pharaonic Thames-side block, not far from the LSE. Sennett has taught there as professor of sociology for the past decade. In London, this drolly observant insider-outsider relishes the distance that lends, if not enchantment, then amazement to the view of his adopted home. "Quel pays!" he erupts, rolling his eyes heavenwards, when I mention to this shrewd analyst of covert class warfare the allure of Cameron's laid-back Etonian style. "Where have I landed?"

Born into a Communist family, his mother and uncle (a Spanish Civil War veteran) both union organisers in Chicago, Sennett grew up in Cabrini Green: first a model housing scheme of the kind whose rise and fall he later chronicled, then an American byword for inner-city dereliction. If the promises and pitfalls of urban space form one pole of his research, the other comes from his immersion in the evolving workplace, as machine-shop and drawing-office yield to retail mall and computer lab.

A succession of recent books have given a sweeping overview of the human cost of economic shakedowns. Now, like so many of the redundant specialists he met, he hankers to get back to the bench: "I spent 15 years of my life talking and writing about capitalism, and so I wanted to touch something rather more hands-on." The first fruit is The Craftsman (Allen Lane, £25), which champions the value of good work and – crucially – argues that nearly everyone can learn to improve the practice of their abilities: "the capacity to work well is shared fairly equally among human beings". From the best way to write a chicken recipe (show, don't tell) to the uncanny consistency in the time it takes to perfect any sort of expertise, from basketball to fiction (10,000 hours), Sennett – as always – craftily dovetails theory with sidelights and insights from every sort of skill.

In the age of the buttoned-down manager, Sennett celebrates the mind, and the hand, of the rolled-sleeves artisan. But don't mistake his praise of the self-improving craftsman for the Ruskin-Morris school of small-scale, non-industrial handwork that has exerted such a pull over British imaginations – not to mention home-furnishing choices. "It's a holdover from the Victorian past to imagine that you understand good quality work and tangible practices by referring to skilled manual labour," he argues. His nostalgia-free ideal craftsman (who may, of course, not be a man) will these days be found in the lab – or on the software-development campus – more often than at lathe or loom.

"That's why there's so much about science in the book. Because a laboratory is a modern workshop." Working at MIT, "What interested me about the scientists was that the really good ones haunted labs. They weren't sitting in an office dictating from afar. They wanted to know what went right and went wrong." Hands on, they learned how to solve problems – and find new ones. "That's how people get better."

In a previous interview, Sennett described himself to me as "an old-fashioned humanist and, I suppose, an old-fashioned democratic socialist". Now he adds to this profession of lightly-worn faith an intellectual calling-card: "I am a pragmatist. That's my philosophical church." "The pragmatist movement from [William] James and [John] Dewey to Richard Rorty, Amartya Sen and myself is about discovering what people are capable of doing," he explains. "It tries to understand social injustice and oppression by finding something positive that has been suppressed."

For an exam-fixated education system such as ours, which still dumps thousands of children into an "unskilled" limbo of failure and shame, his emphasis on the near-universal capacity to learn and to improve sounds revolutionary. "The testing regime – which is so fierce in Britain – really robs people of confidence because of invidious comparisons... The thing about the old guild system was that, once there were objective standards, it was assumed that anybody could meet them."

Sennett distrusts the language of "creativity", with all its Romantic baggage: "I don't think people dwell in a state of creativity; they actually have to do things." Needless to say, "gifted" – that mantra of every pushy parent – is "a word that makes me squirm, because it means you have the gift before you have the experience".

Re-locating to the British system, Sennett had two interviews with head teachers about his teenage son, who aspired to become an artist (an ambition now achieved). One comprehensive head talked about the best means to stretch a fledgling talent; but the chieftain of a famous independent school said that "'What we want to do is inspire confidence in your son that he can do other things than art.' That's a pre-Civil Service mentality!" Sennett snorts, suspicious of any ruling elite that presumes via its "effortless superiority" to know better than the hands-on artisan. A striking section of his book portrays the NHS as a collection of "craftsmen", and investigates the impact of "in-and-out experts", armed with targets, on their work.

Rather than top-down blueprints, Sennett applauds the messy business of trial and error. "If you couldn't make mistakes, how could you learn!" As a cellist, he found that "In order to progress, you've got to lose the fear of playing wrong notes. You've got to surrender into the work so that you don't have the terrible anxiety about doing something wrong." For schoolkids, musicians and scientists alike, learning from error is "fundamental to real experiment".

Yet good craft can serve bad ends. Inevitably, The Craftsman discusses the atomic scientists who took such pride in the demanding work that would lay waste cities. "The pleasure of getting it right can blind you to the consequences of what you're doing." Pandora, and her box of crafty tricks, stalks the book, partnered by the limping blacksmith-god Hephaestus, "proud of his work if not of himself", and so immune to the craftsman's hubris. "Craftsmanship is a virtue," he stresses, "but it's not an innocent or total virtue."

This book begins a trilogy. Later volumes will explore the crafts of living together with less on a planet running low on resources. For a writer so concerned about how we do better with the tools we have – a meliorist, rather than a utopian – there could hardly be a more urgent job. And, if Sennett keeps up the elegant craftsmanship evident on every page here, then the three-part artefact will merit that shopworn term taken from the medieval workshops he admires – a masterpiece.

Biography: Richard Sennett

Born in Chicago in 1943, Richard Sennett studied music at the Juillard School before gaining a BA from the Unversity of Chicago and a PhD from Harvard. Founder of the Institute of Humanities at New York University, he later became professor of humanities at NYU, and then Centennial Professor of Sociology at the LSE. He combines his post in London with an appointment at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. His many books on urban life, cultural change and work include The Hidden Injuries of Class, The Fall of Public Man, Respect and The Culture of the New Capitalism. His fiction includes an Evening of Brahms and Palais-Royal; his new book, The Craftsman, is published by Allen Lane. He is married to the sociologist Saskia Sassen.