Tracking Globalization: Commodities and Value in Motion

Robert Foster. Handbook of Material Culture. Editor: Christopher Tilley, et al. Sage Publication, 2006.

The rhetoric of economic globalization invokes the movement of goods, money, information—usually rapid, sometimes promiscuous, always expanding. Images of hyper-mobility abound, for example, across the ‘landscapes of capital’ depicted in corporate television advertising since the 1990s (Goldman et al. n.d.; see also Kaplan 1995). Likewise, academic literature on the cultural dimensions of globalization, typified by Appadurai’s influential 1990 essay, deploys the liquid trope of ‘flows’—non-isomorphic movements of images, people, and ideas that describe shifting configurations or ‘scapes’: mediascapes, ethnoscapes, ideoscapes, and so forth. While questions have rightly been raised about the intensity, extent, and velocity of these movements, what concerns me here is how the current fascination with border-crossing mobility has prompted investigations into the social and geographical lives of particular commodities (Jackson 1999). This detective work is not restricted to specialists. Consider, for example, the spate of popular books devoted to tracking through historical time and geographical space such commodities as cod and salt (Kurlansky 1997, 2002), potatoes and diamonds (Zuckerman 1998; Hart 2002), coal and tobacco (Freese 2003; Gately 2001). (For global flows in the art market see Myers in the previous chapter.) It is as if renewed interest in the sociospatial life of stuff—in following tangible, ordinary things such as glass, paper, and beans (Cohen 1997)—has emerged as a therapeutic defense against the alienating specters of globalization.

Inside the academy, it is undeniable that ‘the commodity is back’ (Bridge and Smith 2003: 257). Commodities from bluefin tuna (Bestor 2001) to maize husks (Long and Villareal 2000) have provided material vehicles for narrating economic change, political power, and cultural identity. Improvising upon Kopytoff’s (1986) rich idea of ‘commodity biographies’, researchers have traced the movement of everyday things through diverse contexts and phases of circulation. Many of these exercises begin with the aim of demonstrating how such movement links geographically separate locales and connects producers and consumers stratified by class, ethnicity, and gender; they end with an argument about how the meaning of things shifts as a function of use by human agents in different social situations. Researchers thus do not simply trace the movement of commodities in the mechanical manner of a radar or a bar code scanning device; more important, they trace the social relations and material linkages that this movement creates and within which the value of commodities emerges.

At the same time, researchers emphasize the ways in which the active materiality of non-human things—the heterozygosity of apples (Pollan 2001) or the erucic acidity of rapeseed (Busch and Juska 1997)—constitute these very social contexts of use. That is, researchers acknowledge how materiality is an irreducible condition of possibility for a commodity biography—a condition that sometimes challenges or exceeds the attribution of meaning to things by human agents (Keane 2005). The overall result is a paradoxical form of self-aware, critical fetishism—an attitude of inquiry well suited to making sense of economic circumstances in which accumulation of wealth and creation of value seem mysterious and occult (Comaroff and Comaroff 1999). This attitude responds, moreover, to a world in which people’s perspectives on distant others are often filtered through commodity consumption and/or its denial. Hence, tracking commodities and value in motion becomes a means for apprehending the ‘global consciousness’ (Robertson 1992) and ‘work of the imagination’ (Appadurai 1990) often associated with globalization.

Critical fetishism—a heightened appreciation for the active materiality of things in motion—entails certain methodological questions and challenges, which recent writings in anthropology and geography address. For anthropologists, the exigencies of tracking commodities define a mode of fieldwork that Marcus has identified as doing ethnography ‘in/of the world system’ (1995). This sort of fieldwork requires ethnographers to work in and across multiple field sites, to follow people (e.g., scientists and traders), images (e.g., Rambo and Pokémon), and commodities of all kinds (e.g., coffee and flowers) as they move from place to place and/or from node to node within a network of production and distribution. Marcus asserts that ‘Multi-sited research is designed around chains, paths, threads, conjunctions, or juxtapositions of locations in which the ethnographer establishes some form of literal presence, with an explicit posited logic of association or connection among sites that in fact defines the argument of the ethnography’ (1995: 105, my emphasis). Tracking strategies thus bring anthropology closer to geography at the same time as they introduce an element of radical contingency into the ethnographic project, especially in cases ‘where relationships or connections between sites are indeed not clear, the discovery and discussion of which are precisely in fact the main problem, contribution and argument of ethnographic analysis’ (Marcus 2000: 16).

Geographers—long used to following things and mapping distributions as culture areas—have debated what sort of understanding of far-flung commodity networks critical fetishism ought to accomplish. Harvey’s (1990: 423) exhortation to ‘deploy the Marxian concept of fetishism with its full force’ has been met with sympathetic rebuttals that ‘getting behind the veil’ of the market implies both a privileged position for the unmystified analyst and an undue emphasis on the site of production as the ultimate source of a commodity’s value (see, e.g., Castree 2001). Instead of tracing a line from acts of guilty consumption to the hidden truth of exploited producers, some geographers have taken up anthropological preoccupations with symbols and meanings in order to emphasize the strategic interests and partial knowledges with which particular actors encounter and construct a commodity at different moments in its circulation (for a brief review, see Bridge and Smith 2003). Critical fetishism, in this approach, begins with ‘acknowledging the fragmentary and contradictory nature of the knowledges through which commodity systems are imagined’ (Leslie and Reimer 1999: 406; see, e.g., Cook and Crang 1996a).

Critical fetishism, in short, challenges a geographical view of globalization as ‘a spreading ink stain’ and instead promotes a spatial recognition of globalization as ‘partial, uneven and unstable; a socially contested rather than logical process in which many spaces of resistance, alterity and possibility become analytically discernible and politically meaningful’ (Whatmore and Thorne 1997: 287, 289). This view is an effect of switching metaphors, of abandoning the opposition between ‘local’ and ‘global’ in favor of the idea of networks—longer or shorter networks, always in the making, composed of people, artifacts, codes, living and non-living things (Law and Hetherington 1999). In this regard, both anthropologists and geographers extend the work of Bruno Latour’s (e.g., 1993) science studies, including his emphasis on the role of nonhuman ‘actants’ in lengthening networks and sustaining connectivity. Tracking commodities in motion perforce becomes part of a larger strategy designed to identify the collective agency, distributed within a network, that enables action at a distance—one of the hallmarks of globalization (or global modernity) according to theorists such as Giddens (1990; see also Waters 1995).

Network methods and concepts have emerged as flexible means for historians and sociologists as well as geographers to question both the concept of globalization as a single, uniform process and the assumptions underpinning talk of a ‘global economy’ (see, e.g., Cooper 2001; Long 1996; Dicken et al. 2001; see also the journal Global Networks). At the interface of anthropology and geography, network methods and concepts have been used to bring exchange value and use value, markets and meaning, within a single analytical framework (Bridge and Smith 2003). An expanded definition of value creation is instrumental in this regard (see Munn 1986). Value creation refers to the practical specification of significance, that is, to actions that define and make visible relations between persons and things. Value creation, in this expanded sense, encompasses both the political economist’s preoccupation with human labor as activity that produces measures of (quantitative) value and the cultural anthropologist’s apprehension of (qualitative) value as the product of meaningful difference.

What is at stake, then, in the strategy of tracking specific commodities in motion is the promise of a revised approach to culture and capitalism. Cultural analysis becomes less a matter of formulating a distinctive logic or code shared by a group of people living in one location and more a matter of tracing a network in which the perspectives of differently situated individuals derive both from their different network experiences and from their perspectives on other people’s perspectives—‘their approximate mappings of other people’s meanings’ (Hannerz 1992: 43). This sort of analysis enhances appreciation of how commodities in motion engage desires and stimulate the imagination in the construction of both personhood and place (see, e.g., Weiss 2002). Economic analysis, in turn, becomes less a matter of charting the operations of institutions—whether transnational corporations (TNCs) or nation states—and more a matter of tracing a network of dispersed and disparate value-creating activities and relationships. This sort of analysis enhances appreciation of the extent to which culture figures in the construction of commodities (through design, branding, and marketing; see Cook and Crang 1996a) and in the production of monopoly rents (Harvey 2001). Following commodities in motion thus also leads to a politics of consumption emerging around contests over control of the knowledge intrinsic to value creation (see Maurer).

Commodity Networks

The metaphor of the commodity network aims, above all, to foreground the connections between commodity producers and consumers, especially unequal connections between Northern shoppers and Southern growers of, for example, flowers (Hughes 2000), coffee (Roseberry 1996; Smith 1996), bananas (Raynolds 2003a) and tomatoes (Barndt 2002) (see also Redclift 2002 on chewing gum). Yet the metaphor lends itself to multiple glosses. I here discuss three overlapping interpretations: commodity chains or value chains; commodity circuits or commodityscapes; and hybrid actor networks. The second of these interpretations, which I discuss in greatest detail, marks a convergence between anthropology and geography grounded in ethnographic practice and close attention to the meanings that people attribute to things.

Commodity Chains/Value Chains

Commodity chain analysis remains strongly associated with the world-systems theory of historical sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein (1974). Hopkins and Wallerstein (1986: 159, quoted in 1994a: 17) define a commodity chain as ‘a network of labor and production processes whose end result is a finished commodity’ (see also Hartwick 1998, 2001). For Gary Gereffi, a sociologist and prominent proponent of global commodity chain (GCC) approaches, ‘A GCC consists of sets of interorganizational networks clustered around one commodity or product, linking households, enterprises and states to one another within the world economy’ (Gereffi et al. 1994: 2). Global commodity chains possess three main dimensions: an input-output structure; a territoriality; and a governance structure (Gereffi et al. 1994: 7; see Dicken et al. 2001: 98-9 for a summary). Gereffi’s work has concentrated on governance structures, introducing an important distinction between producer-driven and buyer-driven chains. Buyer-driven chains, which Gereffi suggests are becoming more common in more industries, are chains in which ‘controlling firms do not, themselves, own production facilities; rather they coordinate dispersed networks of independent and quasi-independent manufacturers’ (Dicken et al. 2001: 99). These chains characterize and effect the spatial and temporal reorganization of production and exchange networks often associated with contemporary capitalism—just-in-time manufacturing systems and, more generally, the transition from high-volume, vertically integrated corporations to distanciated, high-value enterprise webs (Harvey 1989; Reich 1991). It is the contract structure of these chains that interests Gereffi, for this structure invests the ability to govern the chain not with firms producing the commodities, but rather with large retailers, brand-name merchandisers, and trading companies. Accordingly, the lead firms in buyer-driven chains focus on product development and marketing while outsourcing production and production-related functions to subcontracted suppliers.

Gereffi has been criticized for underemphasizing the other dimensions of commodity chains. Dicken et al. (2001), for instance, argue that Gereffi envisions the input-output structure of commodity chains in a way that obscures the complex vertical, hierarchical, and dynamic organization through which flow materials, designs, products, and financial and marketing services. Similarly, Smith et al. (2002; see also Friedland 2001) accuse Gereffi of ignoring the role of state regulation and organized labor in affecting the governance and location of commodity chains. These critiques form part of a larger effort to complicate the understanding of commodity networks by recognizing territorially embedded strategic actions ‘internal to the “nodes” or sites of production and retailing within any chain’ (Smith et al. 2002: 47) and by underscoring the ‘complexities and contingencies that exist within and between actors’ (Pritchard 2000: 789). This effort has been especially a feature of research on the global restructuring of agrofood industries (see, e.g., Arce and Marsden 1993; Busch and Juska 1997). Long (1996) accordingly proposes a model of ‘global actor networks’ that form and reform in response to the interests, options, and knowledge of the actors who comprise the networks. These ‘interface networks’ in turn form part ‘of complex food chains that link producers to traders, state agencies, transnationals, supermarket businesses, agricultural input suppliers, research enterprises and eventually the consumers of the products’ (Long 1996: 52).

One of the great virtues of commodity chain analysis besides its emphasis on process is that it puts the question of value creation and appropriation front and center; indeed, the term ‘value-chain analysis’ has been proposed as more inclusive of the variety of scholarly work being done on inter- and transnational economic networks (Gereffi, Humphrey et al. 2001; see Porter 1990: 40-4), and the privileged geographic scale of Wallerstein-inspired commodity chain analysis (see Smith et al. 2002). Nevertheless, Gereffi does not give explicit attention to the conceptualization of value in the input-output structure, that is, the ‘value-added chain of products, services, and resources linked together across a range of relevant industries’ (Dicken et al. 2001: 98-9). Gereffi, like other proponents of GCC approaches, imagines the repeated movement from input to output as essentially linear, a sequential process of value addition—of adding more products and services. In this sense, of course, Gereffi’s view is consistent with that of Hopkins and Wallerstein’s (1994b: 49) view that any commodity chain contains a total amount of appropriated surplus value—a total amount of wealth that is unevenly distributed along the length of the chain. This uneven distribution practically distinguishes the periphery of the world system from the core, where surplus value is by definition accumulated.

The conceptualization of value addition in GCC analysis derives from the same ‘continuist narrative’ of value found in many Marxist accounts, as Spivak (1985/1996) has noted (see Anagnost 2004). This narrative—a narrative of incremental growth—is meant to identify inequalities and, in its development policy versions, to recommend how firms and/or countries can ‘upgrade’, that is, gain access to higher-value activities in a global commodity chain. For this purpose, it is of clear importance to measure value (or value-added increments) precisely, for example in terms of profits or prices. In doing so, however, the narrative privileges exchange value over use value or, put differently, quantitative value (unequal shares of the total appropriated value in the chain) over qualitative value (the meaning of commodities to the user/consumer). The continuist narrative refuses the possibility of bricolage, of putting commodities to uses for which they were not designed (Spivak 1985/1996; 128). This refusal effectively strips the definition of value of its historical and affective charge (Spivak 1985/1996: 126). In addition, I suggest, the continuist narrative obscures important aspects of value creation in commodity chains, especially in the buyer-driven chains becoming more common in complex assembly industries such as electronics and automobiles as well as consumer goods industries that produce food, clothing, and toys. The circuits of culture or commodityscape approach to commodity networks address this shortcoming directly.

Circuits of Culture/Commodityscapes

Gereffi has identified a reorganization of the input-output structure of value chains resulting from ‘an increase in the importance of activities that deal with intangibles such as fashion trends, brand identities, design and innovation over activities that deal with tangibles, the transformation, manipulation and movement of physical goods’ (Gereffi, Humphrey et al. 2001: 6). Put differently, tracking commodities and value in motion now requires far greater attention to culture—the transformation, manipulation, and movement of meanings. This requirement is obvious in the case of mobile commodities such as ‘world music’ (White 2000) and ‘aboriginal art’ (Myers 2002) which entail validations of cultural authenticity. But it is equally compelling in the case of commodities that now circulate in increasingly differentiated consumer markets, such as coffee and fresh fruits. The symbolic construction of these commodities through intensive marketing activities, including market research into everyday consumption practices, directs attention to both ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ meanings. While ‘outside’ meanings refer to the setting of the terms within which a commodity is made available, ‘inside’ meaning refers to the various significances that various users attribute to a commodity (Mintz 1986: 167, 171). The exercise of power impinges upon the shaping of both kinds of meaning. Hence the call of Cook and Crang (1996a: 134) for a ‘focus on the cultural materialization of the economic, such that the cultural is increasingly [recognized as] what is economically produced, circulated and consumed’.

Within geography and cultural studies, a ‘circuits of culture’ approach has emerged for studying how the movement of commodities often entails shifts in use value, that is, shifts in what commodities mean to users (including producers) situated at different nodes in a commodity network (see Hughes 2000; Leslie and Reimer 1999 for discussions). This approach diverges from GCC analysis in three related ways. First, it refuses to treat production as the privileged moment or phase in the story of a commodity and instead traces the articulation of several distinct processes. For example, in their study of the Sony Walkman, du Gay et al. (1997: 3) contend that ‘to study the Walkman culturally one should at least explore how it is represented, what social identities are associated with it, how it is produced and consumed, and what mechanisms regulate its distribution and use’. A prime concern of this strategy, which derives from media studies (Johnson 1986; see Jackson and Thrift 1995), involves demonstrating that the uses and meanings intended or preferred by a commodity’s producers and designers are not necessarily the same meanings received or endorsed by a commodity’s consumers/users. Consumption, in other words, is neither a terminal nor a passive activity, but is itself a source and site of value creation. In this sense, the ‘circuits of culture’ approach adopts a view of consumer agency characteristic of polemics in material culture studies that put consumption in ‘the vanguard of history’ (Miller 1995a).

Second, as the metaphor of a circuit implies, the movement of a commodity is treated as reversible and nonlinear, without beginning or end. The circuit, moreover, is not a simple loop, but rather a set of linkages between two or more processes that is not determined or fixed. For example, advertisers and manufacturers convene focus groups and employ ethnographic fieldworkers in order to anticipate and modify how consumers will respond to product representations and designs; unanticipated consumer responses ensure that the research never ends and instead applies ever new techniques (Gladwell 1997; Cook, Crang and Thorne 2000b). Cook and Crang (1996a: 132, 141) have thus argued for new cultural material geographies by developing the idea of ‘circuits of culinary culture’. They view foods ‘not only as placed cultural artefacts, but also as displaced, inhabiting many times and spaces which, far from being neatly bounded, bleed into and indeed mutually constitute each other’ (Cook and Crang 1996a: 132-3). The notion of displacement emphasizes movement and interconnection, questioning any essential link between cultures or peoples and bounded places (Crang et al. 2003). More specifically, the notion of displacement emphasizes how although consumption (of food, for example) takes place in localized contexts, the definition of these contexts emerges through connections to spatially expansive networks or commodity-specific ‘systems of provision’ (Fine and Leopold 1993; Fine 1995). Furthermore, the materials moving through these systems are themselves represented (by retailers, for example) geographically—as of particular ‘origin’ or ‘provenance’: Jamaican papayas or Sumatran coffee (Crang 1996; Cook, Crang and Thorne 2000a; Smith 1996).

The trope of displacement also implies historical and spatial variations in knowledge among people linked within a circuit of culture (or commodity network). Some geographers, such as Harvey (1990), treat these variations as the result of ignorance or mystification whereby consumers become oblivious to the traces of labor exploitation occurring at distant sites that mark the items on display in supermarket ‘fresh’ produce sections or on clothing store racks. The segmentation of knowledges (Arce 1997) is, in this view, effectively a result of suppression—a lack or absence of knowledge about, say, where a product comes from and why it is such a bargain. By contrast, the circuits of culture approach views situated or segmented knowledges as the contingent outcome of a variety of practices, including the active desires of consumers, the symbolic work of marketers, and the imaginative agency of producers who hold ideas about the people for whom they grow carnations or the places where the garments they stitch end up. This approach enjoins researchers to identify the means by which the whole variety of actors in a commodity network create and contest what any one actor in any one location knows. As a result, these researchers explicitly eschew the role of ‘legislator’—of revealing an unknown structure visible only to the eyes of a trained social scientist, of exposing as a veil of illusion what most people regard as truth (Latour 2000: 118-19). Instead, these researchers assume responsibility for representing things—things-in-motion—in all their complexity and uncertainty. As Cook and Crang (1996a) argue, critical intervention (or critical fetishism) here takes the form of working with the fetish rather than attempting to get behind it.

Lastly, while the GCC approach is not entirely indifferent to the place of consumption (‘consumer demand’) in a commodity chain (see, e.g., Collins 2000; Goldfrank 1994; Korzeniewicz 1994), the circuits of culture approach shows decisively how consumption matters. Empirically, this emphasis on consumption, along with the recognition of segmented knowledges, translates into a focus on the definition of ‘quality’, or what might be called the construction of qualitative value—value produced within a system of differences (see Myers 2001; Foster 1990). Cook (1994), for example, documents how trading managers working in the headquarters of major food retailing companies such as Safeway mediate the introduction of new, exotic fruits to UK shoppers by producing instructional materials. Glossy brochures and manuals ‘re-enchant’ food commodities, qualitatively distinguishing kiwi and mango from ordinary fruits while simultaneously educating consumers about the proper features and uses of these foods. Furthermore, the bare fact of availability of exotic foods distinguishes some retailing outlets from others, thus generating qualitative value along another dimension of comparison.

The processes of constructing qualitative value ramify in circuit-like fashion, connecting retailers not only with shoppers but also with agricultural producers. Arce (1997: 180-2) relates the story of a group of women flower growers from Tanzania who were brought to the Netherlands in order to see firsthand the operation of flower markets and thus to learn well the importance of ‘quality’, that is, to learn well the perspective of Dutch flower consumers, as mediated by flower retailers (see Hughes 2000). Tracing the commodity network through which their flowers move, the women were invited ‘to internalize the value of flowers’ (Arce 1997: 181) and perforce to recognize as irrelevant criteria of texture, size, and so forth which informed their own enjoyment of flowers. Arce’s commodity story indicates how dominant definitions of ‘quality’—routinely attributed to the tastes and preferences of sovereign consumers—percolate through the often fragile links in a distanciated commodity network (Raynolds 2003b). The control by retailers over the definition of quality displaces growers from any privileged position in such a network; the local production of globally competitive and marketable carnations, grapes, mange-tout, etc. requires awareness and knowledge of other actors in other places, what Hannerz (1992) calls a ‘network of perspectives’. If re-enchanted commodities incite consumer fantasies about faraway people and places, then the product specifications of trade managers likewise incite producers to imagine their location in a spatially extensive network of relations.

Definitions of quality entrain unequal social, political, and environmental consequences, especially for contract farmers. Images of healthy eating in the United States and Europe translate into the use of health-damaging pesticides by Caribbean peasants and Central American proletarians striving to produce unblemished yellow bananas (Andreatta 1997; Striffler and Moberg 2003). The quality standards applied to export grapes from Brazil intensify labor requirements, which employers meet by hiring temporary, nonunion female workers at low wages to do the culling, trimming, harvesting, and packing—tasks with ‘the most significance for the product’s final quality’ (Collins 2000: 104). Nevertheless, as Long and Villareal (2000: 743) insist, we ought not to lose sight of how the movement of a commodity within a network of relations entails myriad ‘negotiations over value and its definition’. Quality as defined by retailers and trade managers is one among many definitions; other use values struggle to be realized. By adopting an actor-oriented perspective on transnational commodity networks, then, we are able to recognize the ‘moments of value contestation that take place at critical interfaces wherein normative discourses and social interests are defined and negotiated’ (Long and Villareal 2000: 726; see also Arce 1997; Long 1996). These contests might hinge on a collision between incommensurable knowledges—say, the knowledges of scientists, bureaucrats, and peasants linked in a commodity network (Long 1996). But, more generally, multiplicities and ambiguities of value inhere in the workings of all commodity networks. A maize husk might thus have value for US consumers as an artifact of ‘traditional ethnic cuisine’; for Mexican peasants as a flexible currency for securing harvest labor; and for Mexican migrants in the United States as festive reminders of home (Long and Villareal 2000). Ethnography—multi-sited or not—of a sort unassociated with the GCC approach is thus necessary to apprehend how ‘the use and meanings of specific products’—their qualitative value—‘are continuously reassembled and transformed’ within ‘situated social arenas’ (Long and Villareal 2000: 747).

By highlighting the construction of qualitative value, the circuits of culture approach both unites economy and culture within a single analytical framework and defines a point of intersection between current work in cultural/economic geography and rural sociology on the one hand, and anthropology, on the other. Anthropological attempts to track commodities and follow objects in motion derive from a rebirth of material culture studies during the 1980s that gave new attention to contexts and practices of consumption (see Miller 1995b for a review). Similarly, Appadurai (1986) and Kopytoff’s (1986) use of the notion of commodity biographies, with its emphasis on the circulation of commodities, recovered consumption as an important activity through which people negotiate and renegotiate the meaning—or qualitative value—of things. To a large extent, this emphasis on circulation recalled classic anthropological discussions of exchange epitomized in Malinowski’s famous (1922) account of kula. Appadurai (1986) not surprisingly drew explicitly on more recent ethnography of kula exchange in formulating his ideas about the ‘paths’ along which things moved and the ‘diversions’ to which they were subject.

Appadurai’s essay also aimed to undo the conceptual dichotomy between gifts and commodities that informed many analyses of exchange in and beyond Melanesia (see, e.g., Gregory 1982; Strathern 1988). Instead of asking what is a commodity, Appadurai (1986: 13) asked when is any ‘thing’ a commodity, that is, in what situation or context is a thing’s exchangeability a socially relevant feature. A thing’s ‘commodity candidacy’ thus varies as it moves from situation to situation, each situation regulated by a different ‘regime of value’ or set of conventions and criteria governing exchange (see Bohannan 1955; Steiner 1954). Accordingly, ‘all efforts at defining commodities are doomed to sterility unless they illuminate commodities in motion’ (Appadurai 1986: 16). Control over this motion—its trajectory, speed, transparency, and very possibility—marks the parameters of a politics of value (see also Wiener 1992).

The notion of ‘regimes of value’ allows for the possibility that exchange situations differ in the extent to which the actors share social conventions and cultural criteria for evaluating commodities. Thomas exploits this possibility in his study of how Europeans and Pacific Islanders appropriated each other’s things to satisfy divergent agendas; he thereby renders an historical account of these ‘entangled objects’—muskets and soap, barkcloth and shell money—as a particular example of the ‘succession of uses and recontextualizations’ (1991: 29) that characterizes the social life of most things. Thomas, moreover, underscores ‘the mutability of things in recontextualization’ (1991: 28); and this theme of mutability pervades the work of many anthropologists who have tracked globalization through the movement of commodities across cultural boundaries. A good deal of this work, including Thomas’s book, concerns the recontextualization of colonized people’s material culture in the museums or homes of metropolitan art collectors and tourists (see Myers 2002; Steiner 1994; Phillips and Steiner 1999). But other work deals with everyday consumer goods that take on new meanings as they travel from their original sites of production/consumption. Weiss, for example, juxtaposes the lived experience of coffee in Tanzania and Europe, and situates the consumption of African-American hip-hop styles in the lives of Tanzanian youth (1996, 2002). Mankekar (2002) illustrates how brand-name commodities such as Hamam soap and Brahmi Amla hair oil enable diasporic shoppers at Indian grocery stores in California to create variable notions of homeland and family. Even branded commodities that commonly portend an imperialistic cultural homogeneity, such as McDonald’s fast food (Watson 1997), Coca-Cola soft drinks (Miller 1998), Disney theme parks (Brannen 1992), and Barbie dolls (MacDougall 2003) have all been shown to be pliable, subject to domestication by users from Taiwan to Trinidad. Indeed, a double goal of anthropologists studying cross-cultural consumption has been to recover the agency of people often represented as passive recipients of foreign imports and to demonstrate, if not cultural resilience, then the emergence of new forms of cultural heterogeneity (Howes 1996; Tobin 1992).

Appadurai’s conceptual framework easily lends itself to following ‘roving commodities’ (Inda and Rosaldo 2002) across spatially distinct social realms, to delineating a ‘commodity ecumene, that is, a transcultural network of relationships linking producers, distributors and consumers of a particular commodity or set of commodities’ (Appadurai 1986: 27; see Eiss and Pederson 2002). This sort of exercise in composing a commodityscape results in the mapping of a network of perspectives (or circuit of culture) that offers insight into how people’s livelihoods and imaginations are shaped—rarely reciprocally—by the livelihoods and imaginations of people elsewhere (see Collins 2003). Multi-sited ethnographies organized along these lines are still few and far between—Mintz’s groundbreaking historical (1986) study of sugar remains a model for many anthropologists—but their contours are becoming clearer. Hansen (2000), for example, explores the world of secondhand clothing as a system of provision, that is, a ‘comprehensive chain of activities between the two extremes of production and consumption, each link of which plays a potentially significant role in the social construction of the commodity both in its material and cultural aspects’ (Fine and Leopold 1993: 33). Her research took her to Salvation Army thrift shops in Chicago, sorting plants in Utrecht, warehouses and wholesale stores in Lusaka, and retail outlets and markets throughout Zambia. Accordingly, Hansen well recognizes the constraints involved in choosing vantage points from which to consider and compose the commodityscape of secondhand clothing. Hansen’s own theoretical interests in the recontextualization of cast-off clothing as desirable fashion and in the ways in which Zambians selectively use clothing to construct and contest social identities lead her to foreground the ‘hard work of consumption’ (2000: 183).

Steiner resolves the problem of studying the spatially extensive circulation of African art objects by focusing ethnographically on the activities of African traders, ‘middlemen who link either village-level object-owners, or contemporary artists and artisans, to Western collectors, dealers and tourists’ (1994: 2)7 This focus accommodates Steiner’s interest in documenting a crucial phase in the commodity biography of African objects, namely the moment in which traders move objects from ‘a “traditional” sphere of value as ritual or sacred icon’ to a ‘“modernist” sphere of value as objet d’art’ (Steiner 1994: 13). In so doing, Steiner effectively illustrates how the commercial pursuits of traders simultaneously bridge and divide the segmented knowledges of producers and consumers. In other words, Steiner locates himself as a field researcher in the market places of Abidjan and the supply entrepots of the rural Ivory Coast in order to trace the interface of two distinct value regimes. Similarly, Myers (2001, 2002) has documented the emergence of an ‘Aboriginal fine art market’ by tracking the circulation of acrylic-on-canvas paintings through a transnational network of persons (Aboriginal artists, government advisors, gallery owners) and institutions (state agencies, mass media, art museums) that uneasily articulates radically different understandings of ownership, creativity, and personhood.

Anthropologists are deliberately applying a ‘follow the thing’ method to an ever-widening range of commodities—from mineral specimens (Ferry 2005) to marriage beads (Straight 2002) and shea nuts (Chalfin 2004). Bestor’s (2001) ambitious research program mimics the movements of its highly migratory object, the bluefin tuna, propelling the anthropologist from the docks of Maine fishing villages to commercial tuna farms off the coast of Cartagena to Tsukiji, Tokyo’s massive wholesale seafood marketplace. Like Steiner, Bestor focuses on middlemen, the various traders (buyers, dealers, agents) whose activities connect producers to markets and, through markets, to distant consumers. In this sense, his ethnography makes visible the political economy and fragmentary social structure of the global tuna commodity network. Like Hansen, moreover, Bestor chooses certain sites from which to compose the commodityscape, privileging Tsukiji because of its dominant effects in governing both the economic and cultural terms (i.e., the dominant definition of ‘quality’ bluefin tuna) of the global tuna trade. The creation of value, qualitative and quantitative, revolves around the management of segmented knowledges, that is, around the strategic deployment by traders of an image of superior Japanese culinary tastes and essentially inscrutable expertise in all things sushi (cf. Walsh 2004). Bestor, then, is as interested in describing the work of the imagination as in demonstrating the work of consumption, that is, in describing ‘the imagination of commodities in trade, as items of exchange and consumption, as well as the imagination of the trade partner and the social contexts through which relationships are created, modified, or abandoned’ (2001: 78). Foster (2002) similarly describes the ways in which transnational advertisers, Australian corporate officials, and Papua New Guinean consumers all variously imagine themselves and each other as part of a global soft drink commodity ecumene. Ramamurthy (2003) juxtaposes the contradictory yearnings of rural Indian women for polyester saris with the simple view of the ‘needs’ of these female consumer-citizens held by the male managers of the TNC which produces the saris. The big promise of multi-sited ethnography thus lies in its capacity to combine a synoptic view of commodity networks (the system) with the situated views of people whom the networks connect (multiple life worlds) (Marcus 1995). The contingency and contradictions of the situated views qualify the stability and coherence of the synoptic view.

Composing commodityscapes and tracing circuits of culture present a paradox. These approaches distinguish themselves from the GCC approach by their thicker descriptions, often ethnographically based, of the ramifying social processes and relations that generate and transform the value of commodities in motion. But the conventional methods of thick description—what Geertz (1998) calls ‘localized, long-term, close-in, vernacular field research’ and Clifford (1997: 58) dubs a ‘spatial practice of intensive dwelling’—are at odds with the demands of following mobile things across multiple sites occupied by very different sorts of people speaking very different sorts of vernaculars. The risk, as Bestor (2001: 78) puts it, is that multi-sited research eventuates in ‘drive-by ethnography’, thin and superficial description. As ethnographers—geographers (Cook et al. 2004) as well as anthropologists—take up the challenge of tracking globalization, they will more and more confront the question of revising their field methods (Gupta and Ferguson 1997). They may perhaps even conclude that the conceit of the solitary and heroic fieldworker no longer serves well (Foster 1999) and that following commodities in motion inevitably invites team-based fieldwork (see Banerjee and Miller 2003 for an instructive example).

Hybrid Actor Networks

Constructing hybrid actor networks requires the researcher to thicken description beyond even the density of circuits of culture or commodityscape approaches. This requirement stems from the radically deconstructive and nonessentialist (semiotic) approach of actor network theory (ANT), which recognizes no discrete and independently existing entities but, rather, only relational effects or outcomes. These effects of network relations might include such familiar units of social analysis as ‘firms’ or ‘nation states’ (or even ‘persons’) as well as familiar everyday objects such as ‘telephones’ and ‘tea’. Networks are, in other words, materially heterogeneous or hybrid, built of both human and non-human elements, each of which exercises agency (as ‘actants’) in affecting the length and stability of the network. Constructing hybrid actor networks is thus a way of telling stories, of narrating how networks take and hold shape (or not), enrolling new people and things. It is the ongoing and uncertain performance of networking—the network as actor—rather than the fixed morphology of networks that occupies the attention of the storyteller.

As a framework for thinking about globalization, ANT first of all provides a way of accounting for how action at a distance happens. Instead of postulating global forces or institutions (such as TNCs) that affect local situations, ANT encourages researchers to investigate empirically how networks of relations hold and extend their shape through geographical space. (Put differently, ANT encourages researchers to show how networking produces or makes space as a material outcome (Law and Hetherington 1999).) It is the creation of more or less lengthy networks, enabled in part through new communications technologies, that effects and sustains global reach—the connection of ‘separate worlds’ into a ‘single world’. For example, Law (1986) has described the fifteenth and sixteenth-century Portuguese expansion in terms of the capacity of documents (maps and tables), devices (astrolabes and quadrants), and drilled people (navigators and sailors) to hold each other together in a continuous network. Since networking always occurs specifically and materially, following it step by step never takes one from the ‘micro level’ to the ‘macro level’ or across ‘the mysterious limes that divide the local from the global’ (Latour 1993: 121). Actor network theory thus obviates familiar binary distinctions between the global and the local—or between core and periphery; questions of network connectivity eclipse questions of spatial scale (Whatmore and Thorne 1997: 289-90).

By no means all ANT-inspired research on globalization adopts a strategy of tracking commodities in motion or delineating commodity networks (see, e.g., Olds and Yeung 1999). But such work that focuses on agrofood networks begins by recognizing that ‘breaking down the global-local binary … is intricately tied up with breaking down the nature-society binary’ (Whatmore and Thorne 1997: 292; Whatmore 2002). For example, Busch and Juska (1997) narrate the emergence and decline of the network that grew around post-World War II efforts of the Canadian Defence Board to change industrial rapeseed into edible (canola) oil, thereby securing a self-sufficient national market. The material properties of rapeseed, however, objected to the enrollment of rape plants in this network. That is, the desirable quality of the rapeseed was ‘bundled’ (Keane 2005) together with an undesirable but copresent quality, erucic acidity. Hence, as an effect of the rapeseed’s materiality, the enrollment in the network of agricultural researchers who developed techniques for breeding low erucic acid rape (LEAR). In turn, the successful production of LEAR enabled the extension of the rapeseed network during the 1970s when, under pressure, Japan opened its domestic market to imported oilseeds. The story of the rapeseed network thus traces shifting combinations (or hybrid collectif; Callon and Law 1995) of differently constituted ‘actants’ with varied material properties; neither nature nor culture, but states-of-being that fall somewhere in between. The notion of hybrid actor network consequently expands upon Marx’s vision of nature as a product and condition of the labor of human beings—a product and condition that ‘strikes back’ (Latour 2000).

In one significant sense, ANT confounds the strategy of tracking commodities, for only as an entity—a rapeseed—comes to be ‘enrolled, combined and disciplined within networks’ (Murdoch 1997: 330), does it gain shape and function; its shape and function—materially as well as semantically—are not fixed. For example, Whatmore and Thorne (2000) narrate stories of ‘elephants on the move’ that show how the bodies of nonhuman animals become enmeshed in extensive networks of wildlife conservation and science. At different moments or nodes in these networks, the bodies of African elephants materialize as digital records in a computer database, romantic images in travel brochures, and corporeal presences in zoos and game reserves. Nevertheless, ANT is potentially applicable to commodity networks of the sort studied by GCC and circuits of culture approaches. Whatmore and Thorne (1997) describe the Fair Trade coffee network which links UK consumers and organizations with Peruvian cooperatives and producers. Their concern, besides identifying the heterogeneous actants—both human (customs officials, banking clerks) and non-human (coffee beans, earthworms)—in the network, is to demonstrate how, despite their differences (see Raynolds 2002), alternative agrofood networks enroll many of the same actants as dominant commercial networks in attempting to extend their reach and to keep their components ordered and strongly related.

As the discussion of Fair Trade coffee indicates, the hybrid actor network approach is not indifferent to issues of power, largely understood as asymmetries within or between networks. Actors do not always enjoy equal options with regard to enrolling in a network, and some actors may function more as intermediaries (enrollees) than as agents (enrollers) within a network. Some networks reach farther and endure longer than others. Unlike the GCC or circuits of culture approaches, however, the vocabulary of hybrid actor network studies does not formulate questions of value creation or accumulation (but see Busch and Juska 1997). Instead of adumbrating a theory of value adequate to the patterned inequalities of distanciated commodity networks, the political economy of hybrid actor networks risks becoming an account of the masculinist strategies of (mostly human) actants to position themselves as efficacious agents. As Busch and Juska (1997: 704-5) note, because the hybrid actor network approach is empirically driven, it is ‘relatively “modest” in its scope (what is explained) as well as in its potential for generalization (what can be explained)’. The most significant critical import of the approach might well lie in its capacity as a sophisticated language for challenging the knowledge practices and ontological dualisms performed by powerful people—politicians, scientists, and bankers—and encoded by authoritative nonhuman entities—laws, machines, and the engineered bodies of plants and animals (Whatmore and Thorne 1997: 301).

Conclusion: Politics and Prospects

All three approaches to commodity networks imply a politics of knowledge. For example, all three approaches offer the strategy of tracing networks as a tool for undermining representations of globalization as an inexorable totalizing process, and of ‘the global economy’ as an integrated whole. By treating the activity of building commodity networks as contested and contingent, these approaches counter representations of capitalism as a juggernaut or leviathan that induces hopeless acquiescence and political passivity. They open up other ways of knowing and perforce identify possibilities for active resistance—for destabilizing dominant networks and building alternative ones. It is in this general sense that following commodities and value in motion accomplishes critical fetishism.

Similarly, all three approaches offer network solutions to the problem of connecting consumers with producers, of overcoming spatial distance and gaps in knowledge in order to produce an ethical, more equitable relationship. Yet each approach raises worries about the potential of the others to effect progressive change—either in the working and environmental conditions of producers or in the everyday consciousness of consumers. In particular, critics wonder whether the thickened descriptions required by both circuits of culture and hybrid actor network approaches blunt the critical edge of commodity chain analyses informed by labor theories of value and committed to explaining social inequality. Leslie and Reimer (1999: 407) ask if circuits of culture accounts, by not foregrounding exploitation and its causes, lose sight of the political motivation for tracing commodity networks. Hartwick goes further, characterizing as uncritical fetishism ANT’s preoccupation with nonhuman actants and hybrid networks: ‘another device for hiding the real relationships between consumers and producers’ (2000: 1182). What, then, are the political dimensions of each approach to commodity networks, especially the implications for a new politics of consumption? What sort of alternative commodity networks does each approach envision? How might researchers intervene practically in the commodity networks that they track?

The political rhetoric of commodity chain-inspired analysis is one of unmasking and exposure, of revealing a network of connections hidden by spatial distance or the magic system of advertising or even, as in the case of hybrid corn seed (Ziegenhorn 2000), by the state-sanctioned force of trade secrecy. This rhetoric points to how the ‘tension between knowledge and ignorance’ determines both the trajectory and the value of commodities in motion (Appadurai 1986: 41; see Hughes 2000). Hence researchers and activists alike attempt to repair the disjuncture in knowledge that renders consumers of expensive apparel or toys or fresh fruits ignorant of the abuses suffered by the poorly paid producers of these commodities. The awareness and concern of educated consumers in the North can thus be harnessed to empower exploited workers in the South through a range of efforts to improve labor conditions. These efforts include various promising ‘fair trade’ and ‘organic’ labeling schemes that guarantee minimum producer prices as well as corporate campaigns to pressure retailers into ensuring that brand-name commodities are made under non-exploitative conditions (Gereffi et al. 2001; Hartwick 2000). Such schemes inevitably involve political contests over the definition of fair labor and environmental standards and remain vulnerable to cooptation by corporate niche marketing (Murray and Raynolds 2000). They rely, moreover, on faith in public education—on the belief that educating consumers about their responsibilities and educating producers about their rights are necessary if not sufficient means for creating long-distance cooperation and achieving social justice. Connecting and educating consumers and producers in this way will therefore require new forms of pedagogy and curriculum (for example, see Miller 2003; McRobbie 1997), media activism (Klein 1999), and labor organizing among workers, unions, NGOs, religious groups, and student activists (see, e.g., the Web site of the National Labor Committee).

There is much work to be done in mapping commodity networks that function without publicity, including networks of non-agrofood commodities such as pharmaceuticals (van der Geest et al. 1996) and recycled goods such as used tires and scrap steel. The goal is not to compile an exhaustive inventory of commodities, but rather to devise ways of understanding the worldwide circulation and accumulation of value that do not presume and privilege either nation states or TNCs as central actors (Dicken et al. 2001). There is even more work to be done tracking flows of illicit commodities such as drugs, ‘blood diamonds’ and weapons (van Schendel and Abraham forthcoming). The anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes (2000) has begun to expose the networks that link organ donors, doctors, and transplant recipients in a shadowy transnational trade of human livers, kidneys, and other body parts. Scheper-Hughes has also created Organs Watch, an international human rights and social justice organization dedicated to producing and disseminating ‘an accurate and evolving map of the routes by which organs, surgeons, medical capital, and donors circulate’ (Organs Watch, Her efforts have brought the operation of organ trafficking worldwide to the attention of a wide public audience (Rohter 2004).

If commodity chain analyses encourage defetishization by exposing the network to consumers, then circuits of culture/commodityscape approaches suggest how consumers enchant the network by reembedding it in relations of trust. In this sense, Fair Trade initiatives enable consumers and producers to overcome the disem-bedding effects of the impersonal market and to relate to each other in terms that go beyond price, terms that reembed an ‘abstract system’ (Giddens 1990) in social relations predicated upon other values (see Foster 2002). (Likewise, organic or Green standards enable consumers to reembed commodity production and consumption in ‘natural processes’ (Raynolds 2000, 2002).) Fair Trade brings consumers and producers closer together—not in pursuit of a common understanding of quality, as in the case of the Tanzanian flower growers, but in pursuit of an equitable distribution of value. Fair Trade thus engages the imagination, enabling consumers to situate themselves in a spatially extensive commodityscape. Cook et al. (2004) have argued that geographers require new techniques to provide consumers with resources to imagine their location in commodityscapes, especially given that retailers and marketers compete to provide resources of their own design. These techniques might entail unconventional forms of writing commodity networks (compare Clifford and Marcus 1986)—forms that, like Cook’s multi-sited ethnographic description of a papaya commodity network, might mimic strategies of montage pioneered by film makers (Cook and Crang 1996b). Similarly, Cook, Evans et al. (2004) also advocate new forms of non-didactic public education (see Miller 2003); they are as skeptical of the persuasiveness of the demystifications advocated by Hartwick (2000) as Hartwick is dubious about the obfuscations of ANT. The challenge Cook, Evans et al. (2004) identify is one of enabling consumers themselves (Cook’s geography students, specifically) to deal with their own ‘perplexity’ (Ramamurthy 2003)—an awareness that their subjectivity exceeds and confounds all appeals to shop ethically, patriotically, or hedonistically.

Every hybrid actor network approach emphasizes the porosity of boundaries between people and things, and thus provides a consistent analytical language for discussing many of the anxieties provoked by contemporary commodity networks, such as concerns about genetically modified food and Mad Cow Disease (Whatmore 2002). This language similarly provides a way of discussing the efforts of many Fair Trade and Green activists to create alternative commodity networks—assemblages of people and things that exclude certain actants: chemical pesticides, growth hormones, voracious middlemen, and so forth. These efforts often encounter limitations imposed by working within and against dominant market arrangements such as commercial practices of certification (Raynolds 2003b). The emergence of community-supported agriculture (CSA)—in which community members share the harvest and its risks with local organic farmers (Henderson 1999)—can thus be understood as an attempt to shorten the network, that is, to shorten the food supply chain through which households provision themselves. In other words, hybrid actor network approaches potentially re-present ‘things’ to the public in such a way as ‘to modify the representation the public has of itself fast enough so that the greatest number of objections have been made to this representation’ (Latour 2000: 120). It is thus potentially a political language, one that motivates action based on a relational ethics (Whatmore 2002).

The language of hybrid actor networks—like the encompassing metaphor of commodity networks—offers a way of thinking critically about the flows of objects (and people) so often associated with globalization. But dialects of this language are also spoken across the ‘landscapes of capital’ conjured out of less critical representations of globalization. Hence a promotional text for the NYK (Nippon Yusen Kaisha) Group about the challenges of global shipping: ‘Today the logistics of moving goods around the world is coordinated on an increasingly complex and immense scale. To answer specific customer demands, the NYK Group has expanded its global network while evolving its services and means of transport.’ The NYK Group claims to focus always on gemba—‘it’s Japanese for “on site,” where goods are actually put in motion’. Here, then, is the language of ANT—lengthening the network, which always remains local, in order to effect action at a distance—spoken in a New Yorker magazine advertisement. Can, indeed, the study of commodity networks move fast enough in modifying the representation the public has of itself when it is only one of many competing ‘global connectivity discourses’ (Ramamurthy 2003)?

As techniques for tracking globalization, mapping commodity networks and following things in motion are not ends in themselves. The initial methodological emphasis on discrete things must give way to an emphasis on relations. Theoretically, the method ought to explicate how value—quantitative as well as qualitative—is variably created and unequally distributed in and through contingent relations or assemblages of persons and things. Politically, the method ought to extend the insights of material culture studies about consumer agency, moving beyond a celebration of the capacity for creative self-fashioning through recontextualization of commodities and toward a vision of responsible consumer-citizenship. This vision entails articulating consumer agency—in the practical form of Fair Trade or CSA—with networks of people and things that perform social justice and environmental care. Making both these conceptual and ethical linkages will redeem the promise of commodity network analysis as critical fetishism and avoid a devolution into unreflexive cartography.