Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Social Life of Things

Book Cover

Book Title

The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986

Author

Appadurai, Arjun (ed.)

Synopsis

This book emerged as the result of consultation between anthropologists and historians on the subject of commodities. The commodity, however, as proposed by the editor, has a social life; just like a human being. Using Simmel’s view that “exchange is the source of value and not vice versa”, the book explores the commodity as a thing intended for exchange-with all its social implications. Politics is explored conceptually, as a tension between a current framework of value (bargaining, etc.) and the commodity itself breaching such a framework. The book proposes a few ways to understand and categorize ‘politics’, such as the politics of authenticity and authentication, related to objects of conspicuous consumption: an example given is the production of oriental carpets.

By incorporating and exploring processes and myths behind production and consumption, the book proposes that we understand capitalism as a complex cultural system, rather than just as an economic system. By being an assessment of commodities, the book is a study of the “stuff of ‘material culture’”- being more than just things that circulate in the economy; there is a deeper cultural understanding behind the visible economy that meets the eye. This is a study that extracts broader social meanings behind seemingly ordinary trends, and explores human societies through a deeper ideological significance generated in the exchange of commodities: a simple cloth could, in the case of Indian society, evoke symbols of moral duty and also transmit values.

The book also finds common ground in many societies by situating the commodity as a phenomenon that exists as a feature of human life- this giving the book the potential to examine both the particular cultural context of commodity exchange but also giving it relevance as a larger universal phenomenon.

By incorporating Baudrillard (1981), the book treats demand and consumption as integral to the political economy of societies, using concepts such as ‘tournaments of value’ to understand exceptional events such as the auction as a site for the production and exchange of sign values. Thus, whilst the understanding of the exchange of commodity is understood- it must be qualified in different ways; the book posits rather clearly that it is an attempt to investigate social constructions through the lens of different contexts; it also compares different ways to articulate the event of commodity exchange within a theoretical framework.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

This book is a volume of essays, and deals with the concept of value and commodity by exploring themes of understanding ‘things’ within an anthropological framework, and expanding on it with articles on the social functions these play. These functions vary and the range of writing includes studies on medieval relics, quasilegal commodities in Africa (qat), cloth in France before and after the French Revolution, among others. The contributors are grounded in the disciplines of history and anthropology, and in this collection present a multi-disciplinary approach to decode the relationship between politics, production and consumption.

The book is divided clearly into five parts considering different themes. By situating commodities within the context of social values and ritual, as well as deriving meaning from commodities, including relics, the book investigates cultural activity in real environments of human life.

Whether the transformation of a craft such as handloom weaving into a movement for spiritual regeneration in India, or the insistence on all adult men to be carpenters in the Eastern Solomon islands, this volume covers a plethora of themes, contextualizing the commodity within many different realms of cultural reality.

The conflation between temporal, cultural and social factors in this volume provide for an apt point to understand the commoditization process, and it is thus significant as it gives a dynamic perspective to, and expands upon the idea that the economic system cannot just be seen as a mundane arena of exchange.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Arjun Appadurai argues that the volume gives a new perspective on the circulation of commodities in social life, because it takes the object of economic value and the act of exchange creates a mutual valuation of objects. He begins by identifying notable theorists, specifically Marx, on the subject of fetishism of commodity, and puts forward that eventually, all social analysis will entail a degree of methodological fetishism; the tendency to read things in themselves. The volume itself deals with goods mostly, and lacks an analysis of services, but the editor sets this out from the beginning.

The impetus for writing the volume could be seen in the idea that most work that is contemporary on the economy limits the commodity to “material representations of the capitalist mode of production”, but the book is aimed at displacing this Marxist understanding by taking a cross-culturally and historically relevant approach: it returns to a way of defining production by not asking what is a commodity? But instead asking “What sort of exchange is a commodity exchange?”- giving an impetus to understand exchange rather than an economic process of production.

Instead of looking for a distinction between the commodity and other things, the book looks at the “commodity potential of all things”, thus, things could move both in and out of a state of being a commodity.

By using the term regimes of value, the book clearly indicates that the degree to which values are understood is situational, but also that commodities could spill over to other cultures (crossing boundaries).

On the whole, the combination of material and immaterial values contribute to a broader understanding of social values for us to read commodities in cultural perspective. The book espouses a distinct understanding of the commodity, but more coherence in establishing a central aim for all the chapters, rather than presenting many different themes (whilst they do acknowledge that “the genealogy of any multidisciplinary volume is likely to be complex” in the foreword), would be helpful to a reader interested in understanding the subject of value and exchange with clarity.


Annotated by Sandeep Singh