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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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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...

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