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Exploring Commodities

An Anthropologist on the Trails of Malinowski and Traven in Mexico

Scott Cook

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.

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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,...

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