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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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1.According to Marcus and Flannery (1994:67–70) a pair of jade statues, one measuring 49 cm and the other 15 cm were found in offering boxes below Structure 35 at the San José Mogote site, and dated to the middle of the Monte Alban II sequence around 50 BC. They speculate that these statues could have been representations of “sacrificed elite males” (ibid. p. 69). They describe the statues as “spectacular artifacts” involving “many hours of invested craftsmanship” – but, in accordance with prevailing archaeological thinking, not as “commodities.” In any case, my presumption is that these references are to the statues I saw in 1980.

2.“Culturalism” and “culturalist” are terms that identify any approach in anthropological thought that tends to break the interactive connection between agency or action from its cultural products such as symbols, meanings, or inscribed texts. Culturalism does remind us that “meanings persist beyond events” and that “symbols … outlast and transcend the intentions of their creators” (Roseberry 1989:25) but easily lapses into a reification of those products and a de-emphasis on the process of cultural production under conditions of social differentiation. As Roseberry expressed it: “Interpretation cannot be separated from what people say, what they do, what is done to them, because culture cannot be so separated” (1989:29).

3.This document has been written as an exercise in combining (1) memory bank extraction assisted only by my publications and internet retrieval from Google searches or contact with...

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