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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 2 Graduate Study in Anthropology at the Universities of Puerto Rico and Pittsburgh


One evening in our Greenwich Village apartment Hilda called my attention to an announcement posted in a Spanish-language newspaper El Mundo (San Juan, Puerto Rico) regarding the availability of fellowships for a graduate program in the social sciences, under the auspices of the Department of Social Affairs of the Pan American Union/Organization of American States, at the University of Puerto Rico. I immediately applied and was accepted to enter that interdisciplinary program with a tuition-waiver and fellowship. That acceptance shifted my career trajectory onto a new and different path. I had already determined by then that the export-import business was not for me, and was exploring ways to further my graduate education including at The New School for Social Research which was only a few blocks from my apartment.

In the early 1960s, Puerto Rico was in the midst of its Operation Bootstrap/Showcase of Democracy phase under the leadership of Luís Muñoz Marín and his Popular Democratic Party. It was a staging area for US government, OAS, and UN developmental and foreign technical assistance programs. The University of Puerto Rico under the leadership of its dynamic chancellor Jaime Benítez, a protégé of Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago, was hosting academic involvement in Third World-focused development projects.

One manifestation of this role was a collaboration with the OAS/PAU through the newly established Institute of Caribbean Studies and its founding director, the historian Richard Morse. The OAS/PAU program, officially designated as...

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