Exploring Commodities

An Anthropologist on the Trails of Malinowski and Traven in Mexico

by Scott Cook (Author)
©2021 Monographs X, 246 Pages


Commodities of one type or other have been produced, transferred and consumed in the economic life of humanity through every epoch of its development and forms of sociocultural organization, but are pervasive in the varieties of capitalism dominating contemporary world economies. Even labor, a necessary element in all forms of commodity production, has itself been commoditized. Embodying three kinds of potentially realizable value – use, exchange, and symbolic – commodities reflect and affect various facets of humanity’s sociocultural life. They have been investigated by knowledge producers ranging from Aristotle and Ibn Khaldun through Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx down to a whole host of twentieth-century economists and others like the anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, and the storyteller, B. Traven.
In this book noted economic anthropologist Scott Cook draws on many decades of fieldwork in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Tamaulipas to take on the challenge of crafting an academic memoir designed to provide insights into the role of commodities in his own life and times and especially in his anthropological career. He undertakes this project in conjunction with a running interpretation of the contrasting approaches of Malinowski and Traven to the topic of commodity production and exchange in Mexico.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Photographs
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 From Pennsylvania to Texas, Places in Between, and Back Again
  • Chapter 2 Graduate Study in Anthropology at the Universities of Puerto Rico and Pittsburgh
  • Chapter 3 Appointment to the Professoriate: Negotiating the Labyrinth at a Midwestern Megaversity
  • Chapter 4 Back East to New England: Anthropology, Puerto Rican, and Latin American Studies at the University of Connecticut
  • Chapter 5 Malinowski and Metates in Four Oaxaca Communities, 1965–1974
  • Chapter 6 OVSIP, the Inflation Crisis Study and the Shoot, 1978–1990
  • Chapter 7 Traven, Handmade Bricks, and the Texas-Mexico Border
  • Chapter 8 Global Change, Information Overload, and Trends in Economic Anthropology
  • Chapter 9 Commodities and Unresolved Issues of Theory and Analysis
  • Chapter 10 An Uncertain Future for Economic Anthropology
  • Conclusion
  • Endnotes
  • List of References


This project had modest beginnings several years ago when I wrote a brief statement for the Society of Economic Anthropology newsletter regarding my role in establishing that organization. At the time it occurred to me that a broader initiative leading to a series of memoirs might be in order to stimulate intergenerational communication among the field’s practitioners. Mike Chibnik was supportive of the idea which was then floated among a few members of the American Anthropological Association but it was stillborn possibly due to a consensus that was expressed by one of my well-known senior colleagues that “Nobody gives a rat’s ass about the history of economic anthropology.” Yet, somehow as I reviewed some of my early contributions to the field – especially the critique of substantivism (Cook 1966) and a review of the development of the field that included an exploration of epistemological issues (Cook 1974a) – I decided to forge ahead with my own project, if only for my own engagement and possible enlightenment. Thanks to Leigh Binford’s recommendation I read Peter Worsley’s memoir-autobiography (2008) and was provided with a model of how one might undertake such an endeavor – admittedly, with regard to a much different career, subject matter, and a more limited agenda. I was privileged to meet Worsley when he was a visiting speaker at the UConn Department of Anthropology during his “Three Worlds” period when he was in residency in New York City and relied on his textbook in my undergraduate teaching.

Many other persons, in addition to those already mentioned, read parts or all of many previous versions of this writing project, and made useful comments for fixes or new avenues to explore. Davydd Greenwood and Eileen Kane who were members of my graduate student cohort at Pitt standout in this regard, as do Yvan Breton since his days as my doctoral student at Michigan State and afterwards through collegial and friendly relationships in Quebec and Mexico, and Jorge Hernández Díaz my doctoral student at UConn and a long-standing colleague, friend, and communicant ←x | 1→in Mexican and Oaxacan studies. Also, Manuel Esparza, my longtime friend, colleague, and communicant on things Mexican and Oaxacan, was kind enough to read and comment on my project which overlapped with his own (Esparza 2020).

I owe special thanks to my wife Hilda for tolerating my obsessive devotion to this project during the past five years and for regularly drawing upon her memory bank to confirm facts about people, places, and events. She patiently did her best to help. Also, all three of my offspring – my daughters Dana Lyn and Lisa Veronica, both school teachers living and working in Austin, and my son, Scott Allen, a public health officer in Connecticut, did the same – and also were especially helpful in evaluating the Introduction and Conclusion. My two grandkids, Alexandra and Andrew, now undergraduates at Trinity University and the University of Texas, respectively, were very helpful in that regard as well. Also, my sister, Beverly Ann Newell, confirmed some of my recollections regarding family relationships and experiences.

Finally, I am indebted to the publisher’s anonymous reviewers who appreciated the difficulty of one of the hardest narrative challenges one can take on namely, as one of them expressed it, “how to craft an academic memoir that’s a good story that distills people, events, and insights into a narrative that will illuminate the power and importance of a ubiquitous economic pursuit for a broader audience of literate non-specialists.” My hope is that I have benefitted from their constructive critiques enough to have fashioned a narrative that has merit in meeting the formidable challenge.

For the record, having completed this book as a Covid-19 ‘long-hauler’, I am entitled to commiserate with all those whose lives have been impacted by this global pandemic. ←1 | 2→


Some of my fondest memories involve things that were given to me. When I was 2 and 3 years old living in Pittsburgh it was a wagon and a big red fire truck given to me on my birthday by my parents which enabled me to say, “Oh boy, I’m a fireman!” When I was 5 years old wintering with my grandmother in Florida to escape the punishing Pennsylvania climate which was damaging my health, it was a set of chrome cap-firing cowboy six-shooters. Later on my sixth birthday in San Antonio, Texas where my parents had relocated, it was my dream present, a Daisy Red Ryder carbine-style BB rifle given to me by a business associate of my dad. That rifle, like the six-shooters, put me right in there with all the cowboys, outlaws, and Indians fighting it out in the Wild West especially my heroes, the Lone Ranger and Tom Mix, that I listened to with rapt attention on the radio. What adult doesn’t remember the thrill of opening a gift-wrapped box and being transported by what in economics parlance is known as a “commodity.”

My parents certainly did. From those days to the present, my life has been associated with useful, satisfying, and valuable products which either I or someone else paid for and which had meanings beyond their material forms.

The list went on and became imposing if not overwhelming as my life-cycle progressed from childhood to adulthood. The range and type of commodities multiplied to encompass everything from prosaic items like food, clothing, equipment, books, furniture, appliances, and vehicles to more substantial items like dwellings. Most of us remember when we came into possession of our first vehicle, either a tricycle or bicycle – I remember getting my first bike, a Roadmaster, in San Antonio when I was 7 or 8, and graduating to a Schwinn around my eleventh or twelfth birthday in Austin. Even more etched in our memories is to transition from renting to taking out a mortgage for our principal dwelling – and, as a consequence, being forced to deal with money market rates, investment depreciation and ←2 | 3→appreciation, property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, and so on. Those of us who produce documents for a living are apt to remember favorite typewriters (in my case a portable and wide carriage Swiss-made Hermes) and, of course, the computerized word processors that replaced them (mine was a Texas Instruments Pro, an IBM PC clone) and greatly simplified and amplified document production. Once they enter our lives many commodities generate subsequent economic involvements (e.g., buying car or home insurance policies), evoke memories, or have cultural implications.

I remember my first vehicle, a well-used 1940 Ford coupe, which I drove from Texas to Oklahoma and back again in 1952, and the first new vehicle I purchased, a 1962 Volkswagen beetle. Then there was the Volkswagen minibus that took my family and I from Connecticut to Oaxaca and back again in the 1960s, and the four-wheel drive Jeep Cherokee that did the same in the 1970s. Today, I drive a Toyota RAV-4 hybrid SUV, a fuel-efficient, high-tech marvel compared to all the other vehicles I have owned. All of these vehicle-commodities carry associations with important relocations at crucial times in my life – the Ford to an unwelcome change of schools during my high school years; the VW Beetle to a career-altering period, following my marriage to Hilda Almenas, a teacher from Puerto Rico who I met at American University in 1958, that involved graduate study and research work in her native island; and the Toyota RAV 4 to my late period of retirement in Texas when this book was written.

The VW minibus and the Jeep Cherokee evoke years of fieldwork in the Oaxaca Valley, Mexico – one of the key areas in the development of Mesoamerican civilization and its world- historically unique peasant-artisan market economy. These latter two vehicles carried me in both periods to and from numerous communities of indigenous peasant-artisans, and with peasant-artisans and their craft commodities back and forth to marketplaces where their commodities were sold. Thus, commodities of modern industrial high-tech origin provided me with the means to observe the production and circulation of low-tech craft industrial commodities.

My office and the walls, shelves and other spaces throughout our home in San Marcos are adorned, and storage facilities stuffed, with craft commodities my wife and I acquired in Oaxaca over the years – wooden masks and figurines elaborately carved and painted; ceramics of various sizes, ←3 | 4→shapes, colors, and textures; textiles woven on backstrap and treadle looms of handspun wool and cotton threads, some (dresses, skirts, and shawls) worn by indigenous women as ethnic identifiers; and with metates, manos, mortars and pestles cut from quarried stone. Also, on display are varieties of handmade brick, and the hand-crafted wooden molds used to mold and position them on the drying floor, and two commissioned landscape portraits of brickworks on the Texas-Mexico border.

Hidden away under lock and key in a storage closet in my home office is my extensive collection of precision airguns and target pistols displaying the skilled craftsmanship of twentieth-century manufacturing in Germany and Connecticut (Colt and High Standard factories in Hartford and New Haven) – all of them with machine-crafted and hand-polished wooden stocks and grips and highly polished blued and case-hardened steel receivers, barrels, triggers, and hand-polished and fitted internal steel parts. On the shelves and spaces of the walls to the right, left and above my computer desk and intermixed with a wide assortment of pre-Hispanic and later Mexican craft products, are several late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century weight-driven and mechanical clocks manufactured by the Seth Thomas factory in Connecticut, and a series of photographs and paintings. I feel attached to them all equally but with different associations.


X, 246
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (June)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. X, 246 pp., 10 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Scott Cook (Author)

After completing undergraduate studies at the University of Texas and American University (BA Economics, 1959), Scott Cook did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin (economics), the University of Puerto Rico, and completed his doctoral studies at the University of Pittsburgh in 1968. Subsequently, he served on the faculty at Michigan State University (1968–1971), and at the University of Connecticut (1971–1997) where he is currently a Professor emeritus. At UConn he also directed the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (1987–1992) and the Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Institute (1996–2000). His most recent book is Land, Livelihood, and Civility in Southern Mexico (2014). Several earlier books, including Understanding Commodity Cultures (2004) and many journal articles dating back to the 1960s address various themes in economic anthropology, peasant-artisan studies, Mexican studies, and border studies, and draw upon extensive fieldwork in Oaxaca, Mexico and the Texas-Mexico border.


Title: Exploring Commodities
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