Unraveling ‘Empowerment’ in Craft Encounters
Unraveling ‘Empowerment’ in Craft Encounters

Questions of power, privilege and power relations are seldom asked in craft development. Paradoxically enough many craft development projects with artisanal communities are labelled as ‘empowerment’ yet fail to recognise power can manifest in the very act of craft making and, in the actions, and exchanges with others such as designers, facilitators and NGO staff. There is consensus that the crux of the issue of the wide gap between understanding and practice of participatory empowerment is the complexity of power relations1. Power relations encompass not only individuals such as the facilitator and community through forms of agency but also the social and political structures that surround communities such as those of NGOs, local governments, schools and privileged elites. These systems tend to overlook the potential of the agency within craft making that can lead to gradual transformative changes in behaviours that are the aim of most craft development projects.

This essay aims to start the conversation on power in craft development and critically reflect on facilitation practices with indigenous craft communities. Textile making forms a major percentage of traditional crafts and their communities being ‘developed’ in South Asia. In India, in particular, whole villages and regions – such as Bhuj, Kutch – are vested in the making of ‘saleable handmade crafts’ particularly textiles, perpetuated by the influx of the tourist trade (Hardy 2013 2 and the widening local appetite for ‘heritage luxury’ products (Kuldova 2013 p.53)3. Pakistan has not yet succumbed to the ‘heritage luxury’ market, which Tereza Kuldova describes as discriminatory in nature where the country’s elites are ‘seeking an aesthetic distinction more reminiscent of the feudal hierarchical social structure’ (2013, p.56). The perspective of the revival of heritage craft is itself under scrutiny due to its power narratives – perpetuating an asymmetrical relationship of the dominant defining the lives and practices of others in less privileged social positions. Another endemic top-down approach is ‘help culture’ creating ‘the view that people are clients in need of help’ (Zimmerman 2000, p.44), which promotes dependence of communities on outsiders. Individual patron, designer, philanthropic and NGO craft development started later in Pakistan, but there is a possibility of following a similar pattern due to distinct hierarchical social structures firmly in place with defined class systems4. Nevertheless, craft development strategies in Pakistan and elsewhere must resist falling into dominant power traps, or national ‘hegemonic strategies’5.

Playful creatures speaking to woven images of the women delineates the establishment of a new power dynamic between researcher and artisans through the informality of mark making. Image © author’s own

The pattern of perception and consumption more visible in Pakistan, at least currently, is one of more value placed on the ‘designer’ product made en masse. Handicrafts are often viewed as the cheap labour alternative not being given the due value of a skilled practice that requires expertise and sustained practice to master. Making communities themselves may desire products made industrially, not locally by hand6. This may be because of what Robert Chambers highlights as the importance of power relations in rural contexts. He argues that modern scientific knowledge from urban centres is seen as the only knowledge of significance in rural societies and those who acquire formal education and training and live and work in rural areas derive part of their status from being possessors of this knowledge (1983, p.76)7. This means that not only do uneducated rural people perceive them as superior, but it also places them in a position of authority in their own eyes. However, there are complexities beyond the perception of urban and rural knowledge. Geographical distances and societal isolation limits outside interaction of non-privileged rural communities with others in Pakistan exacerbating the situation. The idea of ‘others’ and ‘outsiders’ described here is as the ‘dominant’ ­– in perceived social class, geography, cultures, knowledge and thus power – in relation to remote artisans8.

‘Handicrafts’, as they are often termed, remain one of the main cottage and home-based labour industries of Pakistan. Home-based producers of these crafts are largely women while cottage industries are primarily male dominated. Home-based traditional craft making artisans, especially women on whom this discussion will concentrate, have been subjected to many projects under different labels such as enterprise development, design intervention, income generation, poverty alleviation/reduction and women’s development. Nearly all of these projects and interactions employ and capitalise on the term ‘empowerment’. This begs the question of what is empowering and what is disempowering for an artisanal community with a thriving material culture?

What is empowerment?

The term empowerment is given different definitions regarding the ‘what and how’, yet most agree that ‘it is a multidimensional and interdependent process involving social, political, economic and legal changes’ through meaningful participation, rooted in the positive social change agenda9. Empowerment approach to intervention design, implementation, and evaluation is described as one that redefines the professional’s role to one as collaborator and facilitator rather than as expert and counselor, learning about participants through their cultures, their worldviews, and their life struggles which can lead to social change10. The Handbook of Community Psychology provides us with some other broader definitions11. These are empowerment as a construct linking individual strengths and competencies, natural helping systems, and proactive behaviours to social policy and social change (Rappaport 1981; 1984) and empowerment as an intentional ongoing process focused on the local community, involving mutual respect, critical reflection, caring, and group participation, through which people that lack an equal share of valued resources gain greater access to and control over those resources (Cornell Empowerment Group 1989).

In craft encounter terms this means a multilayered approach that addresses both social and material concerns of the community with meaningful participation. By participation we do not mean using labour or the use of skill but participation both in decision-making processes and in the creative making processes, while creating spaces for autonomy through critically reflective facilitation and community engagement.

The top-down approach manifests in physical interaction of NGO staff with communities through ‘positioning’. Image © author’s own

Understanding power in traditional making contexts

In 2011 the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK had an exhibition titled, ‘Power of Making’, showcasing 100 different crafted objects12. This exhibition highlighted the wide array of making practices from traditional to innovative. It showcased the spaces of making where the life of the maker is entwined with making and the sheer joy of making. This perspective offers us a fresh take on material culture and elevates the act of making, taking it comfortably outside the realm of only ‘utilitarian’. Material culture of indigenous craft communities is far more than utilitarian. It is a part of the communities’ identity, lexicon and their way of living, interwoven with their social lives (Tilley 2006)13, or ‘Yeh humari pehchaan hai’ [this is our representative identity] an example noted during my own extensive fieldwork in Sindh (Mirza 2020). Craft development practice seems wholly unscathed by this discourse, even though it is often conceptualised by or modeled on western models. There is a disjuncture between praxis of contemporary craft making and craft practiced by indigenous communities and its progression. The role of the facilitator is also still considered utilitarian – linking communities to the market and producing market-ready craft products that are often replicated. The counter argument to this might be that artisans may want to be told what to make. However, just like in the instance of education if a teacher were to tell a student the answer to a difficult question outright, does that create critical learning for the student or the student learning experientially or ‘learning by doing’? (Freire 1970)14. If we are truly talking about human development, it requires mutual learning and cycles of critical questioning.

There is also the economic empowerment perspective to consider and proponents may argue that earning or contributing to income in a household may enable more decision-making in the household and community, uplifting the social status of women and thus, giving access to more power. The focus on generating income yet lack of attention to the nature of collaboration in craft, by being ‘given’ design briefs, inevitably and inadvertently places women artisans at the bottom of the power chain similar to the subjugation the women may routinely experience in other spheres of their daily lives. The ‘prescribed’ design briefs can range from replicating foreign craft skills, to just following orders of drawn in designs and/or copying products bought elsewhere. In many cases these products are made in large quantities for capitalising on ‘handmade production’. Applying industrial values of production e.g. standardisation and mass production are detrimental to both the crafted object and its making community. Material culture is built on values such as identity, human relationships, emotions, gift economy and ritual 15.

A maker’s craft is also their ‘voice’ and attached to their sense of self (Mirza 2020). Outsiders’ design briefs, some of which may be far removed from traditional making, tend to assert a top-down flow of knowledge, decisions and unwittingly privilege. Income generation as a necessary stage towards empowerment in environments charged by patriarchy is not being refuted, but that more is required to build change where socio-political situations and thus mindsets transform to overcome this context where craft, despite its social underpinning, is relegated in favour of income. Development economist Amartya Sen suggests that employment without choice and the nature of work can itself be a ‘major deprivation’ rather than a freedom where archaic power structures linger, explaining that the free market dynamic is only liberating where other basic freedoms and business ethics are in place first (1999, p.113)16.

The designer/facilitator’s role

Rural communities might not rely on their own initiatives to change their situation because of predetermined conditions and social constructs. In Sindh, for example, I noted a lack of self-worth in communities that can be attributed to the absence of control over resources and socio-political situations, which is bound to create a disempowered perception of local communities’ agency and potential. Some in development studies argue the word ‘power’ in itself is seen as contentious and even threatening in development policy and practice – with it sometimes being excluded in organisations’ definitions of empowerment (Eyben, Kabeer et al. 2008). Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas of social power created through cultural and symbolic means can be applied to material culture in Sindh17. Outsiders’ actions in craft development projects although well-intentioned do not always consider the impact of tacit and implicit dialogue on power relations. This can send an unintentional detrimental tacit message that may socially condition marginalised communities who rely on their strong visual and material cultures for their sense of identity, creativity and social belonging.

Detail of collaborative textile interaction between author and artisan (dobby weave and stitch) from the ‘textile dialogue series’ on power, author’s PhD project. Image © author’s own

This means that the role of the designer needed is not just utilitarian, providing a means to an end (in beautifully designed products to sell), but one that is conceptual, that uses the innate and phenomenological aspects of making as a method in itself to understand making communities better and/or for communities to have spaces for critical reflection. Phenomenological here is used as a way to describe something that can be read by more than participatory observation – that which is embodied. Design discourse offers much less than the social sciences in terms of addressing power relations in a rural craft context that does not relate to craft for financial gain (Mirza 2020). However, the concepts of participatory design and design thinking among others are methods that consider the role of the designer not as an expert but as an equal partner. Participatory design researches with stakeholders, it does not necessarily include designing with the facilitator. The design thinking space of ‘ideation’ for example encourages participants ‘to come up with as many ideas as possible’ (Brown and Wyatt 2010, p.34)18. Designers have to navigate through these constructs and create their own craft syntax with the participating craft community making full use of the language that only makers have access to. The language that a design practitioner speaks is through reflective practice and we can choose whether we want to send a dominating message or one that uses mutual learning and praxis. This means that designer/facilitator and artisan encounters require a closer inspection of activities and craft praxis through which we as different craft makers each have a ‘voice’, learn about ourselves and others.


  1. Eyben, R., Kabeer, N. and Cornwall, A. (2008) ‘Conceptualising empowerment and the implications for pro poor growth: A paper for DAC Poverty Network’. Brighton, Institute of Development Studies
  2. Hardy, M. (2013) ‘Can We talk? Textiles, Change and NGOs in Kutch’ Textile Society of America [Online]

    Available from: https://textilesocietyofamerica.org/2494/can-we-talk-textiles-change-and-ngos-in-kutch [Accessed 8 December 2019]

  3. Kuldova, T. (2013) ‘The Maharaja style: Royal Chic and Double Vision’ in Tereza Kuldova (ed.), Fashion India: Spectacular Capitalism. Oslo: Akademika publishing
  4. Rahman, T. (2012) The Class Structure of Pakistan, Karachi: Oxford University Press
  5. Appadurai, A. (1990) ‘Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy’ Theory, Culture and Society Vol.7, pp.295 – 310
  6. Mirza, S. (2020) Threads of the Indus: the subtle forms of power in craft development in Sindh, Pakistan, PhD Thesis, Royal College of Art, London
  7. Chambers, R. (1983) Rural development; putting the last first. Harlow: Pearson Education
  8. Foucault, M. (1994) Power: essential works of Michael Foucault 1954 – 1984 volume three London: Penguin Books

    Bourdieu, P. (1986) ‘The Forms of Capital’ in Richardson, J. (1986) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Westport, CT: Greenwood

  9. Pettit, J. (2012) ‘Empowerment and Participation: bridging the gap between understanding and practice’, ‘Promoting people’s empowerment in achieving poverty eradication, social integration and productive and decent work for all’, UNDESA Expert Group Meeting, New York
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  14. Freire, P. (2003; 1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum
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    Mirza, S. (2020) Threads of the Indus: the subtle forms of power in craft development in Sindh, Pakistan, PhD Thesis, Royal College of Art, London
    Van Gennep, A. (1960) The Rites of Passage London; Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul

  16. Sen, A. (1999) Development as freedom. New York: Oxford University Press
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  18. Brown, T. and Wyatt, J. (2010) ‘Design Thinking for Social Innovation’, Stanford Social Innovation Review Winter 2010, Stanford

Dr Seher Mirza is a design practitioner, researcher, and facilitator based in London, UK with broad ranging experience of making practice and craft development in Pakistan. She was awarded her PhD in textiles and social innovation from the Royal College of Art in 2020, titled ‘Threads of the Indus: the subtle forms of power in craft development in Sindh, Pakistan’. In 2011 alongside her PhD project she founded and still runs www.sjoaccessories.com , a community initiative that offers traditional women artisans space for creativity and exchange to develop their own self image and realise their own potential collaboratively reconceptualizing textile craft techniques into jewellery and accessories sold at the V&A and the Whitworth Art gallery (Manchester) among other retailers. Mirza is on the core team of editors of The Karachi Collective (TKC), a member of the Art Workers Guild (AWG) in London and on its outreach committee. She divides her time between working on collaborative projects with indigenous craft communities and, researching and writing about power and privilege in making practices where social, material and design contexts meet.

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