CALL FOR PAPERS
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 biography2. 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:
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.
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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