Social Markets, Networks and Crafts-Based Livelihoods in India

Mohsini, Mira is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She is conducting research on crafts communities in India, with particular focus on the impact of globalisation on the livelihoods of crafts-people and their knowledge systems. She is currently based in Delhi.

This article attempts to elaborate on the importance of social markets and networks for sustaining crafts-based livelihoods. These two concepts of are often pushed aside and favour is given to discussions about income generation for artisans and upgrading skills so that products are better received at market. While the latter are important means to improve livelihoods, an understanding of social markets and networks is crucial for any intervention to remain sustainable.

Confronting the decline of crafts-based livelihoods in India means identifying the factors that have a direct bearing on this situation and understanding the ways in which these factors are impacting artisans, their crafts, and their communities. A plethora of reports and surveys blame both the colonial predatory interventions and post-independence development policies in India to have disproportionately and negatively affected traditional craft communities (Erdman 1988, SRUTI 1995, Halder and Pandey 2001, Christensen 1995, Kak 2003). These reports also suggest that even though the numbers employed in the crafts sector remains second only to agriculture, a long standing neglect of the sector on the part of policy makers has resulted in the declining social and economic status of artisans, and, combined with the significant collapse in the traditional forms of “civil society”, has left many struggling on the margins of society. The situation is further exacerbated in the recent decades by declining markets for a growing number of traditional crafts in the age of globalization and local governments’ often inept and haphazard interventions, such as removal of entire crafts communities from their traditional habitats in town and city centres to the periphery (Tarlo 2000, Dhar Chakrabarti 2000, Ali 1995). Cumulatively these continued assaults have not only impacted on craftsmen/women’s daily life and working practices by weakening their economic and social networks, but also on their sense of self, the future of their crafts and livelihood, and the continued existence of their communities.

A walk in any old city around the world, where sectors, lanes, and markets are named after crafts – Potters Lane, Confectioners’ Quarter, Goldsmiths’ Bazaar, and so on – is an acute reminder that historically artisans the world over formed distinct communities within which both economic as well as social networks supportive of crafts and artisans were formed (c.f. Pal 1978: 106, 143). In India, of course, the need for artisans to be part of such communities and their networks seem to be even more indispensable for their self identification as well as work due to communities’ association with the varna-jati framework, which forms the cornerstone of the caste system. When communities and networks are weakened, broken or severed, the craftspeople struggle to survive in the absence of support systems and crafts as means of sustainable livelihood end up on a slippery slope to extinction.

When discussing the production of crafts, which is most often situated in local communities, a conceptual differentiation needs to be made between the symbolic and historic realities at work in the community. Following Cohn (2002), symbolic reality “grows out of the mythology and sacred traditions,” and historic reality “is a set of ideas about the remembered experiences of a group of people” in a community. Further, the symbolic reality manifests itself in religious and cultural concerns; the historic reality influences social and political matters. Out of these two different realities networks are created that sustain the religious and cultural dimensions of craft production, as well as facilitate the social and political changes. Both types of networks assist in “their capacity as learning systems, passing information in multiple directions and with great situational adaptability” (Smith 1999: 147, my emphasis). The first kinds of networks, however, are concerned with the embeddedness of craft production in the symbolic reality of the community and hence facilitate communication through hierarchical linkages (Schwitzer 1997). At the production level, these networks are responsible for creating social awareness that not only provides a coded meaning to the artefact and creates shared aesthetics and values among the community, but it also helps in fashioning place-specific differentiation for artefacts while giving the craftsperson a sense of him/herself as an artisan.

As an example of networking that supports crafts production within the symbolic realities of villagers, consider briefly the following description of pottery making in Manipur provided by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). In Manipur, pottery is practiced by women without using a potter’s wheel in the manner found in other north-eastern states. The pottery is used both for ritual and domestic purposes. One ritual use for a specific artefact called the Chaphu, for instance, is associated with childbirth. The placenta of the newly born child is cut-off and kept inside a small earthen pot called Chaphu, which symbolizes purity and sanctity. Aspects of purity and sanctity are then transferred in varying degrees to artefacts for domestic use, which often lead to the production of a variety of Chapu like pottery: Chapu Uyan Pun for storing rice; Hantak Chaph, for keeping pounded fish mixture; Ishaiphu for containing water; Chini Chaphu, a small earthen pot with stalk for storing sugar; Chengpu pot to store starch, and so on. Furthermore, these utensils assume different colours and finishes in different districts and thereby acquire associations with various people. Thus, for instance, glossy black pottery is made in Ningi village in Ukhrul district by the Tangkhuls; the dull black pottery is made in Oinam village in Senapati district by the Poumais; pottery in brick red with a coat of blackish maroon colour is made in Andro village in Thouble district by the Chakpas, and so on. The complexity of the form/use/locality/group may be bewildering for the non-initiated person, but not for the members of local communities who are steeped in the coded sacred knowledge (IGNCA 1999: internet document).

The second type of networks supports the embeddedness of craft production in the community’s historic reality, i.e., the interpenetration of social and cultural domains (Schweitzer 1997). At the practical level these networks are primarily concerned with the sustainability of crafts as a means of livelihood through continuous self-metamorphosis and adaptation of an artisan’s horizontal linkages with his/her jati-peers; the market place; the technology; skills upgrading, and so on.

The establishment and maintenance of networks, both symbolic and historic, are necessary elements of a social market. In order to explain the concept of a social market, I will use a case study known as Third Italy.

The term Third Italy refers to a process of industrialization that occurred in the central and eastern parts of Italy. The region has been differentiated from the industrialized north and the general poverty of the south (Boschma 2005). One of the main distinguishing characteristics of the Third Italy is its crafts-based small-scale industry, often no larger than a household unit, specializing in a wide range of crafts, such as shoemaking, textile production, and ceramics. Other than specializing in these generally low-technology, crafts-based industries, the region is distinguished by the prevalence of what Smith refers to as a “social market” (Smith 1999). Accordingly, “[A] market that had a strong social component to it demonstrated that the competitive efficiency of the region came neither from the open competition between firms that conventional economics might have expected, nor from a similar struggle between capitalists and workers. It came instead from some kind of historically established balance between competition and cooperation. A balance made possible, perhaps, through the mediation of local culture, understood here as values, goals and interests.” (ibid: 142). Generally, the growth of this kind of social market occurred as a result of several factors, such as localisation or industrial clustering and the reliance on local networks of formal and informal organisation.

The formation of networks is not only essential for the transmission and propagation of knowledge but also for their “capacity as learning systems” (Smith 1999:147). The knowledge propagated through networks may be in the form of tacit knowledge (Polanyi 1973), which is transmitted endogenously within the confines of a family unit or within the broader scope of a community of agents who possess a similar knowledge base (i.e., knowledge of crafts or other skilled trades). Or alternately, the form of knowledge that passes through networks may be of an explicit nature, such as different kinds of codified knowledge. An interesting aspect of the Third Italy-type of social market organization is the way knowledge is transmitted through the dense networks created in industrial districts. In other modes of production such as factories or large transnational enterprises, the transmission of knowledge is explicit; meaning that for the factory or enterprise to function efficiently its knowledge base must be in the form of codified and structured information. Also, this kind of explicit knowledge is transmitted by various impersonal channels such as data tables, diagrams, articles, books, etc. In the case of Third Italy, networks of production are localized, flexible and trust-based and therefore the efficiency of production is not dependent on the transformation from tacit knowledge, which is necessarily transmitted through personal relations, into explicit and codified knowledge. Boschma also notes that the network-type of coordination associated with horizontal and trust-based relations facilitates innovation through the exchange of tacit knowledge, although he does not discuss how this is managed (ibid: 219). These observations are intriguing because they imply that tacit knowledge of a trade or craft, which is often passed down through the generations, can remain as sustainable as codified knowledge as long as there is a suitable social market for its generation, transmission and adaptation.

The insights to be gained from studying the Third Italy case may be useful in the Indian context for a number of reasons. Firstly, as mentioned above, Third Italy illustrates the importance of spatial organization for the development of networks and the facilitation of knowledge transmission. In the Indian context, spatial boundedness is a distinct characteristic of crafts-based industries. In Delhi, for example, groups of artisans specializing in pottery have, until recently, resided in a spatially circumscribed part of the Old City. Although these potters have lately been forcefully dislocated from the old city and resettled on the outskirts of Delhi, they still reside in spatial clusters. The importance of space, in terms of spatial organization, as well as place, in terms of affiliation to ideals of community – and how these impact the transmission of knowledge – is significant in the formation of social markets.

Secondly, the success of the Third Italy, based on the spatial clustering of one particular trade, is to a large extent determined by the inputs being generated within the same bounded area during the production process. Inputs could be in the form of knowledge and know-how of technique transmitted through households or formal networks; labour provisions from within the household or community; contributions made by networked agents or groups in the production process due to “put-out” work received; transportation services provided so the final product can reach the appropriate market. The key aspect of the Third Italy’s success is that the importance of space and place led to, more often than not, the efficient transmission of knowledge and the reduction of transaction costs.

A third factor that constituted the success of Third Italy was the small size of the firms involved in the production process. Many of the firms were household units where the entire family would be involved in some aspect of production. The smallness of the firms, whether they were family-sized or whether employees were sought exogenously, played a significant role in the transmission of tacit and explicit knowledge and therefore a certain degree of trust was built within the networks. In the Indian context, craft production has traditionally revolved around the family structure (Krishnan 1989, Miller 1985).1

The discussion of Third Italy does in no way call for an exact replica to be created in the Indian context, since there are very many differences between the two regions. These differences are of course based on the varying historical, social and economic developments of Italy and India. One important distinction that deserves mention is that although the Italian case is unambiguously demarcated between regions and their trajectories of economic, political and cultural developments2, no such differentiation is made in the Indian context (that I am aware of). Since India is not divided regionally in terms of production strategies, caution must be exercised when discussing crafts in such a diverse country so as not to collapse the innumerable craft industries into the Indian craft industry. Each particular industry in India will no doubt have its own peculiarities ranging from methods of transmitting knowledge, organization of labour, levels of trust and extent of networking among various parties involved in the production process, amount of contact with domestic and international markets, proximity to urban centres, and so on. The Indian case, however, is also marked by complications arising from continuing assaults on artisan communities – spatially, economically, as well as culturally – manifesting in continuously fading networks that, as we saw, are so essential for the sustainability of crafts-based livelihoods. It is in this regard that insights from the Third Italy’s experience can be particularly useful, since as an example it demonstrates the importance of creating a socially embedded economy after its sustained embrace of industrialization.


  1. Liebl and Roy (2000) “Handmade in India” report that 38% of crafts production occurs within household units.

  2. Third Italy, with the peculiar characteristic of its "social market", is contrasted with the mass production factories of Italy’s North and the generalized poverty of the South.


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