Understanding Commodity Cultures: Explorations in Economic Anthropology with Case Studies from Mexico

Understanding Commodity Cultures: Explorations in Economic Anthropology with Case Studies from Mexico

by Scott Cook
     
 

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For the past century, the anthropological study of the Mexican economy has accentuated the cultural and historical distinctiveness of its subjects, a majority of whom share Amerindian or mestizo identity. By selectively reviewing this record and critically examining specific foundational and later empirical studies in several of Mexico's key regions, as well as the

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Overview

For the past century, the anthropological study of the Mexican economy has accentuated the cultural and historical distinctiveness of its subjects, a majority of whom share Amerindian or mestizo identity. By selectively reviewing this record and critically examining specific foundational and later empirical studies in several of Mexico's key regions, as well as the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and the new trans-border space in the U.S. and Canada for Mexican-origin migrant labor, this book encourages readers to critically rethink their views of economic otherness in Mexico (and, by extension, elsewhere in Latin America and the Third World), and presents a new framework for understanding the Mexican/Mesoamerican economy in world-historical terms. Among other things, this involves reconciling the continuing attraction of concepts like 'penny capitalism' with the realities of a world ever more subjected to continental and global market projects of 'DOLLAR CAPITALISM.' It also involves concentrating on the production and consumption of commodity value.The key concept 'commodity culture(s)' serves as a thread to loosely integrate the separate chapters of this book. It is conceived as a way to operationally immobilize two contradictory tendencies: first, the tendency to understand an economy like Mexico's as a separate reality from its sociocultural matrix thus distorting its influence; and, second, the tendency to submerge 'economy' in its sociocultural matrix thereby diffusing its influence. This double immobilization promotes a focus on the interconnectedness of economy, society, and culture, but also makes it possible methodologically to approach themes like cultural survival, subsistence/livelihood security, use value, ecological degradation, human rights, or the sociocultural connectedness of the economy from the perspective of a commodity-focused analysis that privileges use- and exchange-value production and consumption. Such an approach provides a unique perspective in demonstrating how lived experience is informed by and shapes the diversifying funds of knowledge that enable Mexicans under economic stress to make culturally-informed choices in their material interest. The focus on deliberative decision-making, understood as involving utilitarian means-end reasoning necessarily influenced by social and moral considerations, promotes a balanced approach to the economy/culture relationship and to the role of agency in processes of economic transformation. The challenge to economic anthropology in seeking to understand processes of livelihood and accumulation in societies like Mexico with uneven development, persisting cultures of precapitalist origin, yet pervasive involvement in continental and global capitalist markets, is to deal with an unusually diverse array of capital/labor relations, as well as with significant sectors of the rural population with combined, if alternating, involvement in capitalist, petty commodity, and subsistence circuits of value production and consumption. The common denominator of this activity is deliberative choice by Mexicans regarding the acquisition, use, and/or accumulation of commodity value calculated in money terms. This market-responsive behavior, since the early 1980s, has been generated by conditions of subsistence and/or accumulation crisis in Mexico. There is an important message here that should be comforting to those in the United States who are threatened by or uneasy about the growing presence of Mexican migrants in our midst. It should also give pause to others who are quick to emphasize, even exoticize or romanticize, the cultural or ethnic differences between Mexicans and Americans. With regard to fundamental aspirations and considerations related to making and earning a living, including sociopolitical understandings, there is really very little difference between us. Too much has been made in the past of the concrete economic differences between our two countries represented in abstract, statistical terms (or in systemic terms regarding politics/political culture) as an asymmetrical First World-Third World divide. This notion of economic (and political) difference or 'otherness' has been reinforced by a conflictive and controversial history that has shaped the international border between the U.S. and Mexico, and reverberated in our respective national identities, since the middle of the 19th century. It has also been accentuated by the impersonal, instrumental discourse of international capitalist development which has made 'maquiladora,' 'indocumentado,' and 'cheap labor' household words in both countries. Against this litany of economic (and political) difference, the lesson to be gleaned from the record of study of Mexican/Mesoamerican commodity culture, from the highlands of Guatemala to the Valleys of Oaxaca or Guerrero to the coasts of Veracruz and along the Rio Bravo side of the border, is that its bearers and fashioners, the peoples of this vast region south of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, think and act about making and earning their livelihood just as we would in their space. It is this fundamental recognition of our common humanity that should be uppermost in all of our minds as we negotiate and struggle our respective ways together through NAFTAmerica in the twenty-first century.

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Editorial Reviews

Michael Chibnik
Understanding Commodity Cultures is a theoretically sophisticated, provocative overview of economic anthropology studies of Mexico and Guatemala. Cook forcefully argues that because Mesoamerican societies have long been involved in production for exchange, they must be understood as 'commodity cultures' where individuals pursue their own self-interest. These societies, Cook notes, have been inextricably tied to national and global economies for hundreds of years. He therefore strongly disagrees with the many scholars who have regarded Mesoamerican communities as small-scale 'natural economies' where subsistence production and the collective good are of paramount cultural importance. Cook supports his arguments with remarkably detailed, critical analyses of both the work of such prominent scholars as George Foster, Sol Tax, Julio de la Fuente, Robert Redfield, Eric Wolf, June Nash, and Michael Kearney and the writings of numerous less well-known anthropologists from the United States and Mexico. This book will be an essential addition to the libraries of economic anthropologists and scholars interested in Mexico and Guatemala.
Keith Hart
Scott Cook combines a universalizing approach with a regional focus on Mexican ethnography that takes in the latest developments in NAFTA and world economy. The result is a landmark in economic anthropology from someone who has been a central player since the theoretical wars of the sixties.
Robert M. Carmack
This is one of the best reads I have had in anthropology in a long time. The book is well-written, clear, interesting and, above all, educational. I found myself anticipating each new chapter with pleasure. Professor Cook brings life to economic anthropology, teaches us a great deal about Mexican society, and critically summarizes the key literature on the topic. I am deeply impressed with the quality of the research, the depth of analysis, and the breath of the coverage. The book adheres closely to the formalist theoretical position, but the case studies and careful exegesis of the work of other scholars avoids some of the vagueness that characterized formalist arguments in the past. The basic concept of 'commodity production' is central to the main argument, and the distinction between petty commodities and capitalist commodities is crucial throughout the work. Students of social and economic processes will be enlightened by the fine-grained analysis of the positions taken by such major scholars as Marx, Weber, Wolf, Tax, Kearny, and numerous specialists in Mesoamerican economics. Cook's theoretical review is nicely complemented by numerous specific case studies of Mexican economies, especially those carried out within the highly variable economy in the
Daniel Little
Scott Cook makes a major contribution to peasant studies and to the economic anthropology of rural Mexico with the publication of Understanding Commodity Cultures. The book will take its place with works by James Scott, Robert Netting, and Marshall Sahlins as one of the truly insightful contributions to peasant studies in the past several decades. Cook brings together analysis of the material conditions of life of rural Mexican people along with astute treatment of the global economic forces that are transforming rural life world-wide. He is intimately familiar with the very best theorizing available on the economic culture of rural people, and he deploys this knowledge to good effect in shedding new light on behavior, causes, and meanings within rural Mexican society. A central thread in his discussion turns around the social construction of the 'commodity,' and the ways in which production, social relations, and rationality weave together to frame rural life as we enter the 21st century.
CHOICE
The volume is conceived as a collection of self-contained essays. In the introduction, the case is argued for a common foundation: indigenous peoples have shared an economic template since at least the Spanish conquest. While this is something more than a collection, readers are bound to favor particular chapters. For this reviewer, the discussion of B. Traven's fictional Mexican stories offers valuable insights on time, place, and ideology. Also noteworthy are the chapters devoted to the work of Sol Tax, Robert Redfield, and other pioneers, and chapters on the consequences of border industrialization, not simply for small-scale producers but for migration, identity, and human rights. Recommended.
Comparative Studies In Society and History - Chris Gregory
The book is not only a comprehensive intellectual history of the prominent anthropologists who have written on the economy of Central America, it is also an original theoretical treatment of commodity culture. The book is a very impressive achievement: the synthesis of a lifetime's work that draws heavily on Cook's extensive fieldwork in Mexico and his wide reading of the ethnographic and theoretical literature. . . The book will be of specialist interest to Central Americanists but also of general theoretical interest to economic anthropologists. Economic anthropology is going through something of a renaissance and this important erudite work can only give impetus to that movement. Cook's gift to economic anthropology has been to synthesize the one hundred years of economic thought and ethnographic analysis from one of economic anthropology's 'sacred' sites.
Josiah Heyman
Cook is a major figure in economic anthropology, and this is his culminating work of synthesis and reflection. This book excels in combining a sense of common people as intelligent and thoughtful economic actors with attention to unequal power within capitalist development (or underdevelopment) in the wider economic field. In his focus on commodity culture, he rescues the study of small producers from both disdain as backward sectors and romantic notions of them as microcapitalists, viewing them instead as a crucial, culturally distinctive part of world capitalism. Grounded in the rich literature on indigenous Mexicans, this book will be of interest to anthropologists, institutional economists, and students of development from all geographic areas.
Choice
The volume is conceived as a collection of self-contained essays. In the introduction, the case is argued for a common foundation: indigenous peoples have shared an economic template since at least the Spanish conquest. While this is something more than a collection, readers are bound to favor particular chapters. For this reviewer, the discussion of B. Traven's fictional Mexican stories offers valuable insights on time, place, and ideology. Also noteworthy are the chapters devoted to the work of Sol Tax, Robert Redfield, and other pioneers, and chapters on the consequences of border industrialization, not simply for small-scale producers but for migration, identity, and human rights. Recommended.
Comparative Studies In Society and History
The book is not only a comprehensive intellectual history of the prominent anthropologists who have written on the economy of Central America, it is also an original theoretical treatment of commodity culture. The book is a very impressive achievement: the synthesis of a lifetime's work that draws heavily on Cook's extensive fieldwork in Mexico and his wide reading of the ethnographic and theoretical literature. . . The book will be of specialist interest to Central Americanists but also of general theoretical interest to economic anthropologists. Economic anthropology is going through something of a renaissance and this important erudite work can only give impetus to that movement. Cook's gift to economic anthropology has been to synthesize the one hundred years of economic thought and ethnographic analysis from one of economic anthropology's 'sacred' sites.
— Chris Gregory

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780742534919
Publisher:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
08/28/2004
Pages:
368
Product dimensions:
7.38(w) x 8.86(h) x 0.81(d)

Meet the Author

Scott Cook is professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut where his last position (1996-2000) was interim director of the Institute for Puerto Rican and Latino Studies. He is the author of six books, including Mexican Brick Culture in the Building of Texas, 1800s-1980s and Obliging Need: Rural Petty Industry in Mexican Capitalism.

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