LRCCS Spotlight: Postdoctoral Fellow Will Thomson

Dr. Will Thomson   LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow Anthropology

Dr. Will Thomson

LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight series, I sat down with Will Thomson, LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow.  In it, Dr. Thomson talks about his time working as a construction worker in China and about rethinking architecture

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: Where do you call home?

Dr. Thomson: I grew up near Boston, but my family moved from Arkansas, and we returned every summer to visit my grandparents.

Couillard: How did you initially get interested in China?

Dr. Thomson: I took a poetry class in high school, where there was a Chinese exchange student who spoke very little English. Our teacher involved her by working together to translate Tang dynasty poetry. We read them in class, beginning from the original Chinese characters, moving to a direct phonetic transcription in pinyin, then reading the literal word-for-word translation, and finally the more literary interpretation. Something amazed me about watching the poem’s meaning emerge out of incomprehensible Chinese characters and forming something beautiful.

The next year, in college, at UMass, I enrolled in Chinese language as a major. I also studied journalism and started an independent college radio station. 

Couillard: When did you decide to become a scholar?

Dr. Thomson: After graduating, I worked in media, first at a digital video startup and then in online reporting for the NPR station in Boston. I like talking to people, so having conversations and capturing people’s stories was fascinating work. However, I wanted to develop a career related to China. When I left Boston, I started a writing project on food and culture in rural China. I quickly realized that I lacked the tools for the kind of project I had in mind. That is when I started considering returning for grad school. Though I didn’t have any background in anthropology, it seemed to me to be closest to journalism, as a discipline where you go out and engage with people. And it is true that the best anthropology and the best journalism start to converge. I want my work to be comprehensible and non-jargony, and also to describe cultural dynamics without losing subtlety and accuracy.

Couillard: Sounds like a difficult balance.

Dr. Thomson: It can be, but I think that if you treat your audience with respect, everyone can understand complicated topics when explained carefully. For me, the fun part of long-term research was discovering how you end up being led in different directions. In my current project, I started off with questions about migrant workers and urbanization, but the deeper I got, the more I turned towards the outside conditions that affect and define those workers, in this case, architecture and design.

Couillard: Tell me more about your current research.  What was your field work?

Dr. Thomson: My fieldwork was in Xi’an, one of the first places in China I lived in and a city that I watched grow over the years.  The project focuses on the lives of rural construction workers who build the cities’ infrastructure but then are prevented from making the cities their homes.

Couillard: How did you research that?

Dr. Thomson: I started off with an elegant, almost poetic design for research, but like most plans made from far away, reality never conforms to your imagination. I planned to get to Chinese construction sites through architects to study interactions among workers, designers, and management.  The problem was that sporadic site visits with architects wasn’t enough to make for deeper relationships.  There’s no space on a construction site for someone who doesn’t have a technical role. After months trying to gain access, I met a construction boss who “hired” me as his construction worker – which was not part of the original plan. I ended up installing steel frames on a high-rise building for three months.

Couillard: You were a construction worker?  Like with the 6 day weeks, living in a dorm, that sort of thing?

Dr. Thomson: Yeah. I figured construction would be heavy labor, but actually, I discovered that the work was physically easier but also more tedious than I expected. Mostly, I just prepared frames and handed tools to others.  We lived together in a dorm in an urban village across the street from the construction site, six to a room, two to a bed.

Couillard: So you didn’t just share a room, you shared a bed?

Dr. Thomson: Yes—and I also went back with them to their hometowns for harvests and the Spring Festival.  For 11 months of the year, they work in the city, putting their life on hold, in some ways, sacrificing to earn money to improve the future for themselves and their families. 

Dr. Thomson harvesting wheat with one of his coworkers from the construction site

Dr. Thomson harvesting wheat with one of his coworkers from the construction site

Couillard: How did this happen?  How did you get that job?

Dr. Thomson: I suspect the construction boss was bored and thought that having a foreign worker might change things up.  On first day I showed up, I was kicked out. A site inspector saw me and asked, “Who are you?  You can’t be here.”  And I thought to myself, of course I can’t be here. It ended up working out, and I was back at work the next day. I was really thankful to the boss and the crew who I joined. I learned a lot from them and my experience there. 

Couillard: What were some interesting stories that happened during your research?

Dr. Thomson: Well, we were working 19 floors up on a platform like a window-washing cart, and I’m afraid of heights. I put all my trust in the safety gear. Then, one day, the motor on our cart malfunctioned, and we had to remove our harnesses to climb in through a window. To the other workers, it was nothing. I realized how accustomed they were to bodily risk, but I was terrified. 

The view from Dr. Thomson's work site

The view from Dr. Thomson's work site

Couillard: What kind of an impact would you like for your research to have on the world?

Dr. Thomson: I want my ethnography of construction to start a conversation within architecture that could help change the design-labor relation.  Right now, there’s no space in architecture for labor, and that’s a curious absence.  Consider the word ‘architecture’ in English. It refers both to the design process and to the completed product, but the intermediate phase of construction–that’s not considered part of architecture.  There’s a big gap.

But, the Chinese language suggests a different relationship—a continuum of designing and building.  An architect is 建筑师and a construction worker is 建筑工 (Editor’s note – for those who don’t read Chinese, both words contain the same root 建筑, the only difference is the character that follows: for architect, that word is 师, or master, and for construction worker that word is 工, or worker).  

The tendency in western architecture has been to commodify and objectify labor. My hope is to help people see workers in a different light by rethinking architecture from the construction site.

Construction workers are not seen as authors with any claim on the finished form. If architects instead thought more about the social collaboration between design and labor, they could improve working conditions for construction workers. 

For all of us, when we go around thinking of the world as a product of design, we marginalize laborers. On the other hand, if we look at the world as the combination of design and of physical labor, we will start to see workers in a different light as well.

Thanks for reading!  Stay tuned for more