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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 6 (1999)

Capitalism: An Ethnographic Approach, Daniel Miller, Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 1997, ix + 357 pp.


Reviewed by Josiah McC. Heyman, Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Michigan

Capitalism is, of course, a topic of great interest to anthropologists and other scholars. Yet our efforts in its study resemble a crowd of blind men describing an elephant by feeling its different parts (here, I speak especially of empirical research more than deductive model building). In the main, anthropologists have described those parts of capitalism having to do with commodity production for national and world markets and its effects on social and economic relations, largely in rural areas. We have also described, to a lesser extent, work for wages and in the informal economy. These mainly address capitalism as production. Also, we study capitalism in important, indirect ways, when discussing regions, migration, urbanism, political coalitions, etc. And, as I understand it, one aim of political ecology is to do theoretically informed empirical research on the capitalism/natural systems interface.

Miller also does empirical research on capitalism, and importantly, he is feeling somewhat different parts of the elephant. In this sense, his catchy title promising an ethnographic view of "capitalism" as a whole is a bit deceptive, but this is no great criticism, because he is feeling a part that we have largely neglected and which ought to be very informative for political ecologists. In Capitalism, like his previous, and highly recommended Modernity: An Ethnographic Approach (Berg 1994), he studies consumers and consumption in Trinidad. The most important contribution made in the present book is Miller's consistent empirical investigation into consumer businesses, including soft-drink firms, advertising agencies, and shopping centers. Miller draws a key argument from Ben Fine and Ellen Leopold's The World of Consumption (Routledge 1993) that links (in a mutually causal fashion) the specific characteristics of commodities, their production, the structure of firms, the ways they are marketed, and the specific relations of consumers with these commodities. This perspective is helpful in going beyond abstract production and consumption of nameless commodities. In applying the Fine and Leopold approach, Miller emphasizes the "feedback" effects that consumers and local businesses have on the wider capitalist economy (not his phrasing).

Without an ethnographic study of capitalism, it is easy to assume that business is motivated by the pursuit of profit always -- and in the same way -- and that transnational corporations operating in small nations like Trinidad run rough-shod over local wishes in search of that profit. It is not idealizing business to see how debilitated this assumption leaves our research. Instead, Miller explores "Local 'Global'" companies (the local operations of transnationals like Nestlés) and the "Global 'Local'" companies (two substantial Trinidadian conglomerates that operate throughout the Caribbean). He shows, for example, how the need for independence of local offices from home offices of transnationals sometimes make these "Local Globals" more distinctive and nationally oriented than the Trinidadian conglomerates. The parts of the book that explore this theme are richly ethnographic and present a highly useful model for other researchers to follow.

Miller follows his work on the in-house side of marketing and advertising businesses by examining the reception of their products (largely soft drinks, and ads for them) by consumers. He seeks to overturn the stereotype of passively manipulated purchasers, bamboozled by advertisements into buying goods that they don't want, and too many of them to boot. His methods in this research are admirably ethnographic -- a careful study of how ads are actually written and produced, and another study of consumer's reactions to viewed ads. What he avoids, thankfully, is the disconnected, non ethnographic "reading" of advertising images so pervasive in cultural studies. However, I feel that he leans too far toward "consumer sovereignty" in refuting the passive dupe stereotype.

Miller's evidence comes from choices among specific options in the soft drink category. No doubt, consumers largely hold the initiative over marketers and advertisers in this narrowly conceived domain of product competition. However, as I have argued elsewhere (Carrier and Heyman, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 1997; Heyman, Research in Economic Anthropology 1994), to understand "choice" we must delineate, historically, how consumers come to uses those types of items in the first place. The question of "how do people become consumers?" has important political ecological components, of course. I also argued that small discretionary expenditures emphasize individualistic "choice" readings of consumption, by contrast with studies of consumption than begin with the major categories of household reproduction and material provisioning (e.g., housing, energy sources, appliances, foods sources in general, etc.). I suspect Miller would not disagree, and it also should be said that Miller's perceptive reading of the domain of consumer choice builds on a line of thought he has developed over many years about how people actively objectify themselves into social categories and cultural stances (see his Modernity book and his 1987 volume, Material Culture and Mass Consumption [Basil Blackwell]).

Trinidad underwent a very rapid boom caused by the advent of extensive oil revenue and then an equally drastic depression caused by neo-liberal so-called "structural adjustment." One of the very smart aspects of this book is Miller's distinctive critique of this process. "Pure capitalism," according to Miller, is the coercive application to vulnerable nations of abstract neoclassical economics, done in an ideological fashion oblivious to local relations. By contrast, local capitalism is richly and profoundly impure, bound up in compromises and reciprocities with society and culture, as the ethnography of Trinidadian businesses shows. This polar contrast is inadequately contextualized, since the island's active consumer capitalism developed with the income from a state-capitalist oil industry that produced a simple commodity for the global market; in this Trinidad resembles nations whose import substitution industrialization has had similar characteristics (i.e., local-transnational hybrids premised on consumer income from export sectors). The idea of "pure capitalism" is promising, however. Neo-liberal restructuring is not just global financial policing, though it certainly is that; it is the academic, unquestioned, almost theological application of neoclassical economic tautologies unbidden into people's lives. In this fanatical sense, the purity of the model has great causal force. In political ecology we are aware of the power of sacred models through the work of Roy Rappaport. Miller's arguments about "pure" versus local capitalism thus ought to interest us, if suitably contextualized in historical political economy; it is one of those fertile ideas that will stimulate research and analysis for years to come.

Capitalism reads well, conveys a lively ethnographic feel for Trinidad, grapples with important issues in original ways, and will stimulate thinking about business and consumption long into the future.

References Cited:

Carrier, James G., and Josiah McC. Heyman,

1997. Consumption and Political Economy, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 3: 355-73.

Heyman, Josiah McC.

1994. The Organizational Logic of Capitalist Consumption on the Mexico-United States. Border, Research in Economic Anthropology 15: 175-238.