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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 3 Appointment to the Professoriate: Negotiating the Labyrinth at a Midwestern Megaversity


In late August 1968 I, Hilda and our children (Dana, Scott, and Lisa) moved into a rental house on MAC Avenue in East Lansing which was only two blocks from the central business district and the campus. Many graduate students were living nearby in rental houses and were constant visitors – especially attracted by our youngest Oaxaca-born daughter, Lisa Veronica, who was quite the charmer. The campus was immense with many impressive modern and older buildings and very well landscaped with an impressive mix of flower beds, shrubbery and trees. It had a student population of 42,000, and the physical plant and bureaucratic management was state of the art. MSU functioned like a large multinational corporate enterprise – which, in fact, is what it was. It had, among other things, a hotel management school with an operating hotel, an eighteen-hole golf course, and an impressive international program and foreign student constituency heavily involved with the schools of agriculture, education, communication, and the large department of agricultural economics; and a typical range of departments in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences. The president at the time was Clifton Wharton, a well-known agricultural development economist from the Rockefeller Foundation, who happened to have been an associate of Raymond Firth in development circles in southeast Asia.

During my second year there, the anthropology department invited Raymond Firth to campus as a guest speaker. President Wharton was delighted to support this initiative, and Firth was a guest on campus for a few days....

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