Workshop Boys of Coimbatore: A Study of City and Tacit Knowledge

Abstract: This paper is an attempt to understand the notion of technical knowledge, technical training and technology management in relation to small scale industrial production at Coimbatore, Tamilnadu. I am trying to analyze the factors which are considered to be important in deciding the quality of worker and product and also other sociological factors involved in this production process. As far as the workers concerned I am trying to analyze the notion of experience, and their actual experience in these workshops. I am also trying to compare the workers in mechanical engineering workshops and automobile workshops. The paper also attempts to bring the theoretical discussion on social constructivist argument on technology and to arrive at a frame work for analyzing technological process in a post colonial region. Through-out this paper I am trying to question the concept of technology as an objective and universal knowledge system.
Bio: After completing B-Tech in Production engineering and MA in Sociology from Keralam, I joined Centre for Studies in Science Policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi where I submitted my MPhil. My dissertation was on narratives of material production in Thiruvithamkoor 1850-1920, where I tried to analyze the relation between caste and technology and the governmentalization process during this period. Now I am leaving for Emory University, Atlanta, USA, for my PhD. I will be working with Dr. Gyanendra Pandey in the History department. I am planning to work on artisan caste of Malabar from 1900 to current period.
Email: knsunandan @, knsunandan @

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Hello all,

I am Sunandan and this is my first posting as Sarai independent fellow. I am a Malayalee and now I am doing PhD at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University , New Delhi.

I have an (much clichéd) interdisciplinary background: B-Tech in Production cum Plant Engineering, MA in Sociology and MPhil in History of Technology…..

Now the research project:

The very idea of city is indiscernible with some or other aspect of technology; and city is the place where technology ‘happens’. If somebody wants to mention technologies in other places it could be represented only through hyphenated words: rural-technology or indigenous-technology. My attempt is to focus on this ‘normalization’ of the relation between city and technology.

I am planning to analyze the ‘informal training process’ (which is usually mentioned as ‘apprentice form’ against professional training) of workshop boys who work in different type of workshops such as small foundries, automobile engineering etc. at Coimbatore. We know that the role of the workshop boys is critical in maintaining the transport system in any city. But they are usually not trained in the ‘modern’ institutional centers; and their knowledge is usually considered as tacit knowledge. I wish to explore through this study the nature of the training, the question of power in production of this knowledge and in general the question of relevance of the dichotomy of modern and nonmodern practices.

The study will start with direct interaction with the workshop boys who are at different stages of their training and expertise. I will try to gather information regarding their background – formal educational, caste and economical – through informal interviews. At this stage I am also looking for the comments of workshop owners regarding their expectation and method of training of these ‘technicians’. I would also like place this technical training in comparison with other type of formal trainings.

In second stage I would analyze the life of the workshop boys outside the workshop. What are the expectations at home and what are their responses to those expectations? As earners, even though meager amounts, at an early age, how do they view job, leisure, city-life and politics? These are some of the questions that could be raised at this stage. The most important point I am trying to put forward is that, the two processes – their life as technicians and their life as city dwellers – are not separable.

I wish to visually document some of these moments – especially of their work, and different locations of their presence – and then partially describe it through written narratives. These narratives in different Media would form the basis of this study and they themselves could become an archival source for further interpretations.


Hi all,

As explained in my first posting, I plan to trace the

informal training processes in small scale industries

at Coimbatore. I haven’t yet conducted a proper field

study but I was looking the archival materials to map

the history of industrialization process. In this

posting I wish introduce some theoretical aspects of

this study.

In the nationalist and Marxist histories, the

transformation from artisanal production to factory

production is considered as a development in the mode

production which is again thought as inevitable. One

of the fields of their struggle against colonialism

was located on the complaint that the British

government is hindering this historical process: the

development of capitalism in its ‘proper way’.

But if we look into the history of artisanal

production, we can see that another form of resistance

has been going on against colonialism, which I think

was profound but silent and unnoticed.

Many historians have already noted that various

institutions like universities, museums, and courts

reproduced and disseminated the colonial domination in

multiple forms. These institutions were considered as

independent, secular in character and objective in

nature. The nationalist who demand for the

representation of Indians in these institutions some

way presupposed that these are neutral forms of

‘modern’ governance and so our independence is

directly connected to ‘capturing power’ in these


Now we are clearer about these institutions:

especially how they perpetuate the dominant

discourses. Hence we know that resisting to

participate in these institutions itself is a form of

struggle. What I found in artisans is this form of


Alfred Chatterton, the industrial secretary of Madras

during the first years of 20th century tried his best

to bring the traditional weavers into the powerloom

mills by offering better wages and other amenities. He

says that he was not surprised to note that not a

single weaver accepted these offer because this was

not a question of wages but a question of freedom. The

director of the Madras School of Arts, E.B. Havell

also notes in 1897 that the weavers were very specific

and careful to the modernization of their machinery.

They accepted some if they found it useful (not in its

economic aspect) but rejected those that restricted

their freedom of movement. For example they rejected

the new weaving machinery which could be installed

inside their home or workshop. They preferred to do it

in open air. Here the question of ‘method’ was very

much intertwined with the question of freedom and

hence it was a political choice.

These factors are important to my study because I am

looking how different forms of knowledges are

reproduced even within the ‘modern’ forms of

production practices.  I don’t want to use the word

‘tacit’ knowledge to represent the skills developed in

the so called apprentice training because then we are

presupposing that there is some other form of

professional, objective knowledge. What I would try to

focus is this aspect of method or absence of method in

all forms of knowledge production which is also a

political question. Is there a subversion taking place

or is it just domination: exploitation, child labour,

unhygienic working conditions, low wage etc., etc.



Hello readers (and writers)

As the third part of my posting I want t share some thoughts on

disciplines and interdisciplinary tendencies in human sciences. The

great confidence of the 19th century positivism had been loosing its

omnipotence by the early 20th century. In the first half of the 20th

century this was reflected as self reconstitutions within disciplines.

For e.g. many philosophers argued that medicine or biology in general

could not be considered as ‘Science’ (Karl Popper). By the 1970s

withering away of disciplines become more prominent once the modernity

itself became a problematic. The solution offered (by the self claimed

modernists) was interdisciplinary programs. In universities and

outside this became fashionable word.

Just look in to the example of Economics. Starting from Adam Smith

economics was and is not just a form of understanding human exchanges

but a conscious and different way of organizing people and natural

world (Foucault). In India from the colonialist started to make,

understand re-constitute all human activities within the realm of

economics. Of course there were fissures within colonial practices but

this was the dominant discourse. Nationalist and Marxists historians

followed the same episteme and started to explain all events based on

economic rationality. Even communal riots, festivals, myths, caste,

and say what not, were explained on the basis of economic rationality.

No need to say how history and sociology of industry was constructed.

If this was just a misunderstanding of ‘actual’ situations’ then we

could have solved it by more accurate knowledge, but it is not.  This

is a way of governing, disseminating power and controlling human

beings. But human world is too complex and interwoven with multiples

inseparable streams of thoughts, ideas, objects and relations among

all these.  So the human activities always wriggled away from the

control and knowledge

When I start to analyze the activities of boys working in various

workshops at Coimbatore, I am not supposing an over-determination any

factor: economy, caste or technology. Moreover, it is also not an

interdisciplinary approach. My interest is the overlapping areas of

all these which is ‘more than inter-disciplinary’ which might be

explainable only through new categories. So the major task is in this

project is that of developing a new ‘language’ to express these

activities. Finally there is no claim that this language will be more

perfect but there will be an attempt to make it more democratic.