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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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Chapter 1 From Pennsylvania to Texas, Places in Between, and Back Again


I was born in Oil City, Pennsylvania on June 16, 1937. My parents, Howard Allen Cook and Anna Lucille McKelvey, were also natives of Pennsylvania but in 1944 we moved to San Antonio, Texas where my dad had been promoted to assistant branch manager for the meat packer, Armour and Company. After graduation from high school in 1929, the year of the GREAT CRASH, he became a full-time employee of Armour and Co., slowly working his way up the ladder in jobs like running smoking operations and route salesman. He was promoted from Oil City to the Pittsburgh branch in 1939–1940, prior to Pearl Harbor, where he was in charge of fresh beef operations.

Regarding class-background and income-status, my dad probably was more ‘working class’ early on but moved quickly into middle-class managerial ranks when still in his 20s. He was never a union member – although his stepfather, John H. Cook, as a Pennsylvania Railroad engineer, was. My biological paternal grandfather, Howard E. Huff, died of an apparent aneurism before my dad was born, and dad later assumed his stepfather’s surname. Life circumstances have a way of blurring the idealized boundaries between consanguinity and affinity. After his stepfather’s death in a railroad accident, a union pension helped to support my widowed grandmother, Margaret Mary Blackburn, and her five offspring – but dad still had to work to help supplement her widow’s pension. She had immigrated to the US in 1904 from her birthplace in Enniscorthy, Ireland (arriving at...

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