Review: Masters of Craft

Virginia Webb

Richard Ocejo. Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy. Princeton University Press, 2017. xxiv, 284 pp.

IMasters of Craft, Richard Ocejo looks at the way that lower status jobs are being upscaled by educated urbanites in a post-industrial city. Ocejo looks in detail at four occupations—bartender, distiller, barber, and butcher—outlining the cultural repertoires of each job, the basis for their revival and reconfiguration in contemporary urban economies, and the cultural coding that distinguishes these workers from their traditional cousins. He then considers how the college-educated workers he profiles have reinvented or reimagined their jobs to find satisfaction and enjoyment in their work and secure their social position by questioning the social norms that directed them towards college and a future of cubicle work.

Ocejo evaluates the jobs in the context of societal changes such as reconfigured understandings of taste and a search for authenticity; the development of community institutions in changing urban neighborhoods; and the nature of work in the modern economy. Above all, he considers the place of masculinity in urban economies where service work is displacing production. The workers he meets, who are almost all men, reconnect to traditional masculinity through physical work in niche ways. The new jobs often entail codes of dress and expectations of behavior that attempt to capture an imagined past as men negotiate masculinity in contemporary society. The cocktail bars offer the most direct examples of this, where codes of courtesy specify that women are to be served first, and gentleman are asked not to speak to ladies until an introduction has been made. In one case, these rules are posted on the walls, made explicit where they are no longer believed to be implicit. Experiences are achingly curated, and it’s a relief when, towards the end of the book and after several years of research, Ocejo sees a shift towards a more confident and relaxed interpretation of urban culture which a bartender describes as more “open and egalitarian,” less self-conscious.

This nostalgia is also found in Ocejo’s description of the neighbourhoods where the barbers, bars, and specialist food retailers operate. He argues that the arrival of the white, well-educated middle class has helped revive the urban village model for city neighborhoods in the postindustrial era. However, Ocejo notes an important distinction between the neighborhood businesses of the old urban ethnic communities that the new upscale versions emulate, which is that interaction between customers and workers is focused on the good or service being provided, rather than on people’s shared experiences of living in the neighborhood. The workplaces described in the book trade in the visual rhetoric of the older neighborhoods without satisfying the need for community. They employ an aesthetic that their customers can read as authenticity; cocktail bars are rendered as speakeasies with hidden doorways and bartenders in suspenders; and barbershops reference the workingmen’s clubs that might once have existed in the neighborhood, for example.

Ocejo presents Masters of Craft in two parts bracketed by an engaging preface and thoughtful epilogue. Each of the chapters in part one is devoted to one of the four occupations and dwells on the aspect of social change that the role best represents. The second part considers the way workers enact their roles across the four occupations. The distillers, who are producers, do not fit as neatly into this section of the book as the service workers. The distinction is reinforced in the epilogue when the distillery sells one of its brands to a large Scottish distiller, entering the mainstream and inviting readers to revisit the logics of authenticity discussed in part one.

The book captures both the excitement and precarity of the reconfigured jobs. Anyone thinking of quitting their day job to turn their passion into a profession would benefit from a close reading of this book. The workers on whom Ocejo focuses have carved out roles for themselves in their chosen industries, but he offers cautionary tales of others who don’t succeed. There are several references to the physical toll that manual labour takes on workers, from a barber’s strained wrists and aching feet to the serious injuries suffered by a butcher whose craftsman status means that he works in a small shop with apparently little in the way of protective equipment.

The book offers a street-level perspective on the changing form of cities which Elizabeth Currid-Halkett describes as the defining geography of elite lifestyles, and builds on Ocejo’s earlier work on gentrification and the emerging role of elite service workers as cultural intermediaries.[1] The comprehensive appendix explains his research methodology including the involved extensive fieldwork and participant observation as a customer, intern, or worker in each of the roles.

Masters of Craft is about how workers experience their jobs rather than about the macroeconomic impact of these jobs, but it is difficult to put such questions aside. The workers interviewed for the book are employees in small workplaces and, while these issues aren’t discussed in any detail the implication is that wages are low, benefits are few and union representation is non-existent. These issues are important because Ocejo places the workers at the edge of a significant societal change that workers and policymakers alike are struggling to come to terms.[2] Traditional models of employment have been the conduit through which governments provide incentives or deliver benefits such as pension savings, health insurance, and minimum wages. The workers and the self-employed portfolio workers—which several of them go on to become—lose these protections. This is perhaps a greater threat to their social status than the colour of their collar.

Ocejo doesn’t define “middle class” but often uses the term in relation to family relations—how workers justify their choices to their parents who expected them to take up other roles; or how their social status provides middle-class graduates with a range of employment options. He doesn’t follow this thread to consider whether the workers are giving up a salient attribute of their class identity which is the ability to pass one’s status on to one’s children, even if they do not experience their jobs as downward social mobility. Ocejo also acknowledges that these reconfigured occupations exclude those without the social background to confidently perform the cultural repertoires required.

The book is a fascinating glimpse into what might happen as the production of material goods and professional services such as law and finance become more automated. Ocejo suggests that workers will employ cultural knowledge and technical skills to create meaningful work that satisfies the omnivorous tastes and curiosity of city dwellers in an urbanizing world.


[1] Elizabeth Currid-Halkett. The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[2] See, for example, Matthew Taylor. Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. United Kingdom Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, 2017.


Virginia Webb is a doctoral candidate in Social Anthropology at Massey University College of Humanities and Social Sciences, New Zealand. She received a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Auckland University, a post-graduate diploma in Development Studies from Massey University and master’s degree in International Relations from Victoria University of Wellington. She is interested in social policy and the politics of food. She is currently researching the cultural politics of community gardens in New Zealand.