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for an international conference

Commodification and identities:

Social Life of Things revisited

Amsterdam, 10-13 June, 1999

convenors: Wim van Binsbergen & Peter Geschiere

sponsored by: The WOTRO (Netherlands Foundation for Tropical Research) Programme on ‘Globalization and the construction of communal identities’; The African Studies Centre, Leiden; The Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences; The Amsterdam School of Social Research; The Centre for Non-Western Studies, Leiden University; The Trust Fund, Erasmus University Rotterdam


The last in the series of conferences organized by the five-year NWO/WOTRO programme1  ‘Globalization and the Construction of Communal Identities’ will focus on the theme of ‘commodification.’ It is, indeed, relevant to focus on the ambivalences and the enigmatic aspects of this apparently unilineal and global process — in a time characterised by the almost undisputed rule of the market, reinforced by an increasing obsession with consumption and consumerism, both in popular imagination and in scientific analyses. In this context, we are happy to relate this conference more specifically to one of the recent milestones in the debates on commodification and culture: the collection The Social Life of Things, by Arjun Appadurai and others (1986). Fifteen years after the symposium which led the basis for that book, it will be rewarding to take stock once more. Here our leading question will be: In what respects did subsequent theoretical debates and empirical studies enrich our understanding of the crucial but often enigmatic links between commodification and culture? Relating our conference to The Social Life of Things is all the more tempting since our programme closely collaborates with Chicago, notably with Arjun Appadurai, in the Interdisciplinary Network on Globalization (ING) — together with University of Stockholm and several institutes in the South (CEBRAP, Sao Paulo; CODESRIA, Dakar; MEA, Cairo; CSSS, Calcutta). Besides Arjun Appadurai, we intend to invite other contributors to the 1986 collection, together with colleagues who in other contexts have contributed to the commodification debate — whether within the ING network or otherwise.

       At the time, Social Life of Things highlighted several important developments in anthropology and cultural studies in general. Of crucial importance was the effort to break away from the unilineal implications of the term ‘commoditization,’ as the inevitable and irreversible thrust of North Atlantic, and increasingly global, society under conditions of capitalism. Instead of contrasting commodities with things that are not (yet) commodities — the Marxian juxtaposition of exchange value versus use value — the attention was rather directed towards the varying commodity potential of all things. Whether things are turned into commodities or, inversely, withdrawn from commodification processes was argued to depend on their ‘social history’ or their ‘cultural biography’2. The emphasis on possible shifts and reversals, and in general on cultural and historical aspects, indicated that ‘the politics of value’ are as important as so-called economic ‘laws’ for an understanding of the vicissitudes of commodification processes in various parts of the globe.

       For anthropology in particular, Social Life of Things signalled also a remarkable return to objects as a focus for research. The increasing uncertainty in the discipline due to the collapse of the various unilineal meta-narratives led to a rehabilitation of ‘material culture.’ In the sixties and seventies this had become, in many anthropology departments, a somewhat quaint specialization, which main-stream anthropologists tended to relegate to museums, not to say to ‘reservation anthropology.’ But in the eighties there was a renewed interest in objects. They turned out to be apparently solid starting points for understanding the paradoxes of accelerated global flows and an increasing obsession with fixing identities and cultural closure.3 Things became once more an object of fascination for social scientists, but now as markers of the varying ways in which people mapped their itineraries in a changing and uncertain world. In this perspective, the notion of commodification helps to understand crucial transitions and experiments, provided due attention is paid to its culturally determined limits, reversals and improvisations.


The question is to what extent subsequent debates along these lines have opened up new insights. Several focal points emerge for the papers and the discussions at the conference:


  1. An obvious question is to what extent the lively debates on cultural aspects of globalization4 of the late 1980s and the 1990s have nuanced and deepened our understanding of commodification and the role it plays in the ‘politics of value.’ Two aspects may be of special importance:  the paradox of apparent cultural homogenisation combined with a continuing emphasis on cultural heterogeneity; and, related to this, the emphasis on locality as a laborious construct.5 Global commodities play a key role in marking cultural differences and the delimitation of local communities. These processes of (a) localization of commodities and (b) globalization of ‘local’ products offer a strategic starting point for enhancing our understanding of the precarious balance between the homogenising tendencies of globalization and the emphatic reproduction of cultural difference.


  1. This relates to the many-sided question of the relation between commodities and social identities. There have been a rich array of studies of the role of global commodities, re-appropriated and re-interpreted, in the marking of identities.6 Yet, this link is beset by a basic ambiguity which merits closer attention. Objects — whether old ‘prestige goods’ or imported commodities — may be used to confirm or even to freeze identities. However, the involvement of these goods (also the local ‘prestige goods’) in processes of commodification, related to a market which is in principle open-ended, always undermines such efforts at closure, thus aggravating the struggle for access to these goods. As Birgit Meyer (forthcoming) notes in her study of ‘consumption and conversion’ among Pentecostalists in Ghana:  the new consumption goods are not only identity-markers for the people involved; paradoxically they view them, at the same time, as threats, undermining or even dissolving identities. The link between commodities and identities leads to a fetichization of goods, to efforts to ‘de-commodify’ them, which are, however, seldom completely successful. The trajectories of witchcraft beliefs in Africa and Latin America today can be highlighted in these terms. The difficulties in controlling access to commodities — in other words to restrain processes of commodification — allows for continuous re-interpretations of communal boundaries and constantly changing modes of in- and exclusion.7


  1. While we note, in passing, the intriguing relationship between commodification and monetarisation as problematised by Simmel, Nigel Thomas, Bloch & Parry, we specifically highlight as an urgent question whether the attention to ‘tournaments of value’ (Appadurai 1987) does not lead to an overemphasis on consumption.  This was hardly a danger fifteen years ago, but in the meantime consumption — even though relatively under-theorised by professional economists — has eclipsed production as a central focus in the popular world-view as propounded in the media and in politics. Even the poorer parts of the South seem now to have become only of economic interest as potential markets for consumer goods (rather than as suppliers of productive resources). Are there any limits to the consumerism that seems to become the hallmark of modernity?8 Analyzing the vicissitudes of commodification processes through the ‘politics of value’ turns consumption into some sort of Prime Mover. In this respect it is characteristic that popular fantasies on the new consumer goods — both in the poorer and the richer parts of our globalized world — emphatically relate these enigmatic commodities to speculations on their production.9 The proliferation of ‘economies of the occult,’ highlighted in a recent lecture by the Comaroffs (forthcoming) — not only witchcraft in Africa, but also pyramid games, or the obsession with the ostentatious consumption of Satanic sects in the North — seems to focus precisely on this opaque relation between consumption and production. The question is, therefore, how to relate consumption, demand and ‘the politics of value’ in a meaningful way to relations or even modes of production?


  1. Finally we hope to confront the renewed anthropological interest in things and their commodification with alternative perspectives on objects. In art and art history — for instance, in the debates on (illicit) appropriation of objects in the context of art — other views on valuation and commodification are formulated.10 These developments can be seen as specific application, in the field of aesthetics, of the sustained struggle — throughout modern philosophy since Kant — with the ontological and epistemological status of things, their relation to human subjectivity, and the critiquing of such subjectivity as is still taken for granted in the dominant social science perspective. Objects are far more problematic than that perspective makes them out to be, and their commodification has ontological dimensions whose appreciation may deepen not only our understanding of the ‘Social Life of Things’, but also the social sciences in general.


With these complementary and contrasting contributions from a variety of disciplines, we are confidently looking forward to a conference which will not only advance our theories and comparisons beyond the position taken in Social Life of Things, but which will particularly enhance our understanding of the many ramifications of the role of things in processes of globalization and the (un)making of identities in the world today.


Proposed participants will be invited by the organisers to submit the title and abstract of their proposed paper by 1st October, 1998. Upon acceptance, they are invited to submit their paper for circulation by 1st May, 1999.


The convenors


Wim van Binsbergen and Peter Geschiere




1        This programme, organized under the auspices of Netherlands Foundation for the Advancement of Tropical Research (WOTRO), is financed until the end of 1999. Previous conferences in our series addressed issues of identity, development, ethnicity and popular culture, all in relation with globalization. For the last conference in this series, we prefer the term ‘commodification’ rather than the more common ‘commoditization’ — without, however, intending to be dogmatic about this -, since the former term lacks the implication of a unilineal, more or less automatic process.

2        Appadurai (1986: 34) proposes to distinguish the ‘social history of things’ from their ‘cultural biography’ (a notion developed by Igor Kopytoff in the same volume). The latter refers to the Werdegang of a specific thing, while the former is more general, referring to a type of things.

3        Cf. Appadurai (1986: 5) on ‘methodological fetishism’ (‘Thus, even though from a theoretical point of view human actors encode things with significance, from a methodological point of view it is the things-in-motion that illuminate their human and social context’). See also Douglas & Isherwood; Miller; Meyer & Geschiere. For a parallel rehabilitation of the role of things in western culture:  see Baudrillard, Bourdieu.

4        Appadurai, Hannerz, Robertson, Featherstone; van Binsbergen, Meyer & Geschiere, van der Veer.

5        Appadurai on the production of locality; Robertson on ‘glocalization’.

6        van Binsbergen, Hannerz, van der Veer passim

7        Cf. Appadurai (1986: 57): ‘It is in the interest of those in power to completely freeze the flow of commodities (...). Yet since commodities constantly spill beyond the boundaries of specific cultures (...) such political control of demand is always threatened with disturbance.’

8        Cf. the International Conference on ‘Globalisation, development and the making of consumers: Or what are collective identities for’, The Hague/, March 13-16, 1997, which our programme organised jointly with EIDOS (‘European Interuniversity Development Opportunities Study-Group’) and the African Studies Centre, Leiden; meanwhile, an extensive volume Modernity on a shoestring (eds. R. Fardon, W van Binsbergen & R. van Dijk), based on this conference, has gone to the press.

9        Cf. the papers for another conference of our programme on ‘Fantasy Spaces — The Power of Images in a Globalizing World’, organized by Bonno Thoden van Velzen and Birgit Meyer for August 1998.

10      Cf. Jewsiewicki.


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