Culture & Society

What’s the Value of Labor When It’s a Labor of Love?

Artisans who find meaning in their masterpieces are more likely to charge less to connoisseurs.

September 07, 2018

| by Katia Savchuk
A group of women selling jewelry and handicrafts at the walls of the Jaisalmer fort in Rajasthan India. Credit: iStock/Aluxum

What’s the economic impact when artisans feel an emotional and spiritual connection to their work? | iStock/Aluxum

When Aruna Ranganathan began touring handicraft markets in India seven years ago to prepare for her dissertation research, she noticed a puzzling paradox: Even though she was visiting from abroad, artisans offered her deep discounts on their wares. Meanwhile, her assistant, who was a local, usually paid more for the same goods.

What explained these peculiar pricing decisions? Ranganathan, now an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, spent a year figuring out the answer.

Her conclusion: Audience matters. When artisans met buyers who understood and appreciated their work, they cared less about financial rewards. When they dealt with shoppers whom they considered less discerning, they prioritized monetary gains. In Ranganathan’s case, for example, the vendors noticed that she wore handcrafted jewelry and clothes, whereas her assistant typically wore mass-produced clothing and plastic jewelry.

The driving force behind this behavior, which Ranganathan describes in a recent paper in Administrative Science Quarterly, is something she calls “product attachment.”

“These artists develop deep love and affection for their work products and begin to anthropomorphize them and consider them their ‘babies,’” she says. Since a discerning buyer is more likely to take good care of the item, she argues, the craftperson is willing to charge less if it means their masterpiece will find a good home.

“The More I Sweat, the More I Love”

To study this phenomenon, Ranganathan conducted research in Channapatna, a city in southern India known for its traditional wooden jewelry and toys. First, she spent eight months interviewing and observing artisans and traders. Her fieldwork confirmed that artisans identified strongly with their work, while traders — who sold the same products but weren’t involved in their creation — did not.

Next, she trained six women, all in their early 20s, to buy standard pairs of bangles from nearly 80 artisans and traders. Two of the buyers were locals wearing handmade products, two were foreigners in Western clothing, and two sported plastic jewelry and synthetic handbags. Based on more than 450 transactions, she found that artisans offered well-below market prices to foreigners and those wearing handmade products, who were seen as more knowledgeable, while charging the third group above-market prices. Traders, on the other hand, charged everyone based on their perception of what the buyer could pay.

These artists develop deep love and affection for their work products and begin to anthropomorphize them.
Aruna Ranganathan

Finally, Ranganathan surveyed nearly 100 artisans and traders to learn more about how product attachment works. She found that attachment grows depending on the extent of artists’ involvement in the production process, which for some woodworkers involved several steps, such as cutting and seasoning the wood, shaping it on a lathe, then sanding and assembling the finished pieces. The attachment was particularly strong for those whose craftsmanship included the more artistic processes of lacquering and painting.

“The more I sweat, the more I love,” one craftsperson told her.

She also noted that many artisans go so far as to “deify” their craft by becoming “emotionally and spiritually connected” to the effort. As one of them told her, “Work is god for us.” Some craftspeople made offerings of flowers and incense to their tools.

Most artisans were even willing to sacrifice personal safety out of respect for their work. Despite sawdust and wood splinters on the floor, every artisan she met went barefoot because it was sacrilegious to wear shoes in a place of worship. And almost none wore safety glasses to protect their eyes from splinters and wood chips — not for lack of access or knowledge, but because it blocked them from observing their work as closely.

Lessons for Policymakers

Ranganathan’s findings have significant implications for labor market policy. Artisans are the second-largest occupational category in India, and globally more than 40% of workers are in the “creative class,” according to urban studies scholar Richard Florida.

Government programs that assume low-income workers only prioritize economic rewards could miss the mark, Ranganathan cautions. One example she cites is a proposal among Indian policymakers to increase tourism to far-flung artisan locales in order to increase local incomes.

“What my research shows is that just increasing tourism might not necessarily help artisans, since they might consider them discerning audiences and sell at discounted prices,” she says. “Policymakers should think carefully about what drives low-income workers, without assuming it’s always economic, in order to design policy solutions that artisans would actually benefit from.”

Her research holds a good lesson for travelers as well: Buy directly from the artist, and you just might get a good deal.

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