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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 5 Malinowski and Metates in Four Oaxaca Communities, 1965–1974


My romance with metates began with my reading of Malinowki’s Oaxaca market system study, first published in 1957, where in two paragraphs he identified the “grinding-stone or metate” as “the principal pre-Columbian article which appears in the modern market” and noted a “seasonal variation in sales connected with the custom that at every marriage a metate painted and decorated in gaudy colors has to be presented ritually to the bride.” He also described how “When buying a metate on behalf of the donor, the woman – for grinding is women’s work – would examine the surface, assess the size, and carefully look for any defects…”, and that “A handful of maize is usually supplied by the vendor, so as to make a trial assessment possible. ” Finally he observed regarding bridal metates, that the “godfather of the bride, who is the usual donor, will dance ritually at a certain stage of the marriage ceremony with the metate held on his back” – a ritual actually observed by Malinowski himself at a marriage ceremony in the village of Abasolo (Malinowski and de la Fuente 1982:169–170). Information was also given about metate price determination through haggling, and how the size and decorative quality of metates influenced their pricing.

Even though no information was presented in that publication about the production of metates or about their producers, the metateros, Malinowski’s insightful comments defined these craft commodities’ double role as utilitarian objects whose price was determined by haggling in the market and as gifts...

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