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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

  VOLUME 8 (2001)

 

Haugerud, Angelique, M. Priscilla Stone, and Peter D. Little, eds. Commodities and Globalization: Anthropological Perspectives. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers (2000), vi + 249 pp.

 

Reviewed by Eriberto P. Lozada Jr., Anthropology Department, Butler University, Indianapolis, IN.

This collection of essays examines the impact of globalization on the social life of commodities in a wide variety of ethnographic sites (with the notable exception of Asia). The essays, originally presented at the 1995 meeting of the Society for Economic Anthropology, are thematically unified in exploring how theoretical definitions of commodities must be re-worked because of the increasing everyday interdependence of local communities on other communities throughout the world. The ethnographic examples include three from Africa, three from Latin America, two from the United States, and one each from Europe, the Middle East, and Oceania. Each essay focuses on a different commodity, from music and beer to cheese and grapes, as the starting point for theoretical reflections. Overall, this book is a solid contribution to the field of economic anthropology and, with its diverse range of case studies and methodologies (including two archaeology essays), can provide a valuable research and teaching resource for readers examining globalization, consumption, labor, development, and other theoretical topics in political economy.

Theoretical perspectives on the impact of globalization on commodities are explored in the introductory essay coauthored by the volume's three editors. They start with a discussion of an idea that has already become widely accepted in anthropology, namely that globalization – or more specifically, global economic integration and inequality – is not new to the postwar era. It is in this discussion, however, that their shared reliance on Arjun Appadurai’s models of both commodities (from his 1986 volume The Social Life of Things) and globalization (from his 1996 book Modernity at Large) becomes explicitly clear, as do the implications of the theoretical problems raised by Appadurai. From Appadurai’s and others’ examination of the social life of commodities, the analytical boundaries between "gift" and "commodity" become blurred when examining the social and cultural impact of exchange. The editors of this volume valiantly seek to disentangle the complexity of this kind of economic analysis by offering a definition of a commodity: "A commodity is any good that can be exchanged for other goods. Commodities existed in precapitalist economies, are culturally defined and molded, and are embedded in political and social systems which they both reflect and help to shape" (p. 9).

The remaining eleven essays are divided into two thematic sections. The first theme examines commodities in a globalizing marketplace, starting with Bob White’s essay on Congolese popular dance music (soukouss). White immediately pushes the analytical boundaries of commodities through an examination of the global movement of a cultural commodity. White shows how the consumer listening to soukouss, a cultural commodity, is continually reminded of the musicians/producers – a property quite different from other commodities today where global labor remains hidden. In the last ethnographic essay in this section, Jane Collins uses a commodity chain approach to examine large-scale and small-scale grape producers in Brazil, and shows how unlike a cultural commodity, the appeal of this agricultural commodity is product homogenization. Such product homogenization masks the identity of the primary producers, and perhaps this is the key perspective from which commodities and globalization must be understood. Collins concludes that "the homogeneity of quality and supply that we experience in our supermarkets, as a product of global procurement strategies, depends on the creation of new forms of differentiation in the labor force in other parts of the world" (p. 106). The way that global economic structures create and maintain this differentiation of local producers is clarified by the other two essays in this section. In a study of a "nontraditional commodity" (chili peppers in Gambia), Little and Dolan show how the very cultural unfamiliarity of the commodity to the producers serves to reinforce European hegemony through development agencies and transnational agribusiness companies. Local resistance to such global structures are shown by Lois Stanford, in a study of Mexican farmers, to be ineffective because of national complicity in global market processes.

The second thematic section consists of seven studies of a variety of different commodities, including American art, hybrid corn, Kenyan home-brewed beer to Sardinian Pecorino cheese. Two of the essays specifically examine the role of specialized knowledge and professionalization in the commodification process. In a study of the art market in St. Louis, Stuart Plattner illustrates how art dealers, critics, artists and respected art consumers help translate subjective aesthetic value to market value. In a similar vein, Randy Ziegenhorn describes how the value of hybrid corn seeds is shaped by the state (through judicial intervention and fair market rules governing labeling, patents, etc.), seed companies (including industry associations), and experts (researchers, universities, professional organizations and journals). With the increased technical specialization of farming, individuals and groups hide and contest knowledge such as the identity of particular strains of hybrid seeds to make a profit. Ziegenhorn’s description of the hybrid corn industry highlights the close connection between the structures of science and global capitalism. Science itself is complicit in the penetration of global capitalism throughout the world because it both naturalizes market economic ideology and structurally supports business companies in their accumulation of knowledge and profit.

This penetration of global capitalism, however, does not come free of cost to those who adopt market practices. Nicole Polier’s essay on changes in kinship and community relations resulting from the commoditization of labor and food has resulted in a destabilization of everyday life in Papua New Guinea. Similarly, Bruce Roberts shows how the commoditization of beer both helps and is harmful to local Kenyan society. The strategies selected by local communities to meet the challenges of global capitalism, however, are dependent upon distant, impersonal forces. Relying on such nonlocal vagaries make local strategies, such as the highly specialized Pecorino cheese export by highland Sardinians as described by Gabriela Vargas-Cetina, may be inherent to the expansion of the global market system itself. In her essay, Vargas-Cetina lays out a macroeconomic model of the commoditization process that implies social dislocation through the emergence of disparities of wealth and access to opportunities. The two archaeological contributions to the volume by Winifred Creamer and Mitchell Rothman give historical depth to the significance of economic processes of commoditization and globalization.

The essays in this volume contain solid ethnographic description and theoretical discussions that clearly delineate the local social issues of the world of goods. The variety of anthropological methods used by the authors can help others in different disciplines contextualize a variety of economic phenomena. One limitation that I would point out is the absence of any cases where the processes of globalization and commoditization are situated outside the West, such as what has happened in East Asia (such as Japan, the second largest economy and a major national agent of globalization). Nonetheless, this volume is well worth reading by those examining the cross-cultural impact of commodities and globalization.