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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 4 Back East to New England: Anthropology, Puerto Rican, and Latin American Studies at the University of Connecticut


A major factor in my move from Michigan to Connecticut was that it took us much closer to Puerto Rico’s two island homelands – the Caribbean island itself and the diaspora island of Manhattan. Moreover, I had never been to New England, was flattered by the University of Connecticut anthropology department’s interest in recruiting me, and in its program potential. Also, I was attracted by the relatively small size and somewhat rustic, archaic, provincial nature of the UConn campus – in sharp contrast with the huge, bureaucratically efficient, highly corporate, heavily internationalized, megaversity that was MSU.

So, we moved to Connecticut which Hilda found to be suited to furthering her career in bilingual education. She was able to combine teaching in the Migratory Children’s Program and the public school system with study for an MA degree at Eastern Connecticut State University and, later, for an additional graduate degree at the University of Connecticut School of Education. I, of course, was able to resume my interest in Puerto Rican studies without lessening my involvement in Mexican studies and economic anthropology. We also benefitted from the fact that Puerto Rico was only three-hours away on non-stop flights from Hartford. In the 1980s we decided to acquire a small farm property in Yabucoa (Barrio Guayabota) not far from the properties of Hilda’s mother and maternal relatives; we went there regularly over a twelve-year period during the Christmas-New Year’s break and, when possible, during the summer. Maintenance was rather costly, if tax deductible thanks...

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