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Lessons Learned in a Mill

Olin Professor of Anthropology Caitrin Lynch has received an NSF grant to study the effects of globalization and deindustrialization as seen through the lens of a 150-year-old New England textile mill. She spent her sabbatical year of 2016 conducting fieldwork in the mill, doing everything from working on the shop floor to interacting with the company’s President. She also extensively interviewed mill workers and managers at the factory. Her time in the mill has led her to a better understanding of the impacts of technological change on people and businesses in the manufacturing sector. This is an edited version of her conversation with the WIRE.


THE WIRE: What were you trying to accomplish in working at the factory?

LYNCH: This is my third factory research project, and in all my projects I’ve done this kind of immersive fieldwork. As an anthropologist, I immerse myself in the lives of the people I’m studying so that I can understand how people experience and make sense of their lives. We can learn that to a certain extent via interviews and observations. But it’s also important to do what we call “participant observation”—participating and observing at the same time.

THE WIRE: So what did you do?

LYNCH: At any point in the year you may have found me cleaning dye kettles, blending fiber, watching for runs on fabric, and other such work operations. I was working alongside people as they were working, so I could learn from them about what was going well, and what wasn’t—and how people mastered and responded to the work. And of course, because I’m a neophyte, I see things differently than the workers and managers in the mill—so that allows me to ask questions about things people there take for granted. And, by shadowing people, I could see how their senses work in a different way than mine do (their hearing, sight, ability to reach and carry) because their bodies have adapted to and been changed by this work. All this gave me the chance to understand different ways of working with machines, materials, and coworkers in the process of making fabric.

THE WIRE: So, what was your goal in doing this fieldwork?

LYNCH: My goal in this project is to understand the challenges of keeping a textile business alive in the US today, and I want to understand the financial, technological, and labor issues at play. And the ultimate goal of all the research that I’ve done in the past 25 years as an anthropologist is to have a better understanding of what work means to people and how to create better work environments and ways of living and supporting families and communities for people of all kinds of abilities.

THE WIRE: What do you feel that you learned from the fieldwork experience or are learning as you continue to engage with the mill?

LYNCH: It was especially interesting to have this experience in an election year, in an environment with people whose perspectives on national politics are often very different than mine because of the different experiences we have with economic and social policies (such as taxation, education, employment, immigration). Having that experience gave me a better understanding of national political debates. I was able to have conversations with people who were all over the political spectrum—supporters of Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Jill Stein. This gave me the chance to humanize the arguments coming from different political candidates and their supporters. Too few of us have that opportunity, and I would love to figure out more ways to make it possible for more people than anthropologists.

THE WIRE: Do you feel that you now have a better understanding of working-class perspectives?

LYNCH: Yes, and also to perspectives of small business owners. In our society, a lot of people feel like they’ve been left behind. There’s a rising death rate among white middle class in the United States, for example, and one study connects the death rates to financial despair. I know a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump and say, “I didn’t vote for Trump, I voted for change.” And the reason people are saying we need something new is because they feel like they’ve been left out of the “American dream” and they are grasping for a solution to let them have that dream they felt they were promised.  

THE WIRE: So, were there moments that really stood out for you during your time in the factory?

LYNCH: A lot of them! Here’s one: When I was finishing an interview with one of the millworkers, I had turned off my recorder and I was packing up. The man I interviewed said something really memorable “See, you are writing books — you have an education in something you’re passionate about. That’s all I wanted. That’s what I hope for my son.” This man works several jobs, he’s got a couple of kids, and he’s doing everything he can do so his kids will have an opportunity to find something they care about and pursue it. He himself hasn’t been able to do that—he only works for the paycheck, and though he finds satisfaction in doing a job well, he doesn’t feel fulfilled or happy. But he has bigger hopes for his kids. This is important for us to understand when we talk about what are “good jobs,” and how jobs are changing with technological change.


THE WIRE: In your op-ed that appeared in the local paper, you talked a lot about the importance of encountering people across differences. Did you learn anything that would help people do that in some way?

LYNCH: The first step would be to realize the ways in which we see the world through a particular lens. In anthropology, there’s an expression I often quote “We don’t see things the way THEY are. We see things the way WE are.” The first step to productive change and empathetic understanding is to realize that we’re all steeped in interpretation and seeing the world through lenses that lead us to see the world in partial perspective. If we want to create environments where we can pay attention to, support, and value differences, we first need to realize where we’re likely not doing much of that, even if we think we are. Exposing ourselves to very different environments is important. There’s a lot to be said for training engineers to understand the moments in which they’re seeing a problem, opportunity, or situation only through their own perspective and not through the perspective of the people with whom they are working. There are many experiences at Olin where students have the chance to get out of their comfort zone and question and debate what they think they know.  For example, I’ll have a team of students working with me in the mill this summer, as I did the two previous summers. I’d love to see even more than those kinds of experiences inside and outside the classroom at Olin.