Cultural Exchange: New Developments in the Anthropology of Commodities

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Essay Excerpt

The recent publication of Arjun Appadurai's edited collection The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (1986) is a milestone in the development of a new, culturally informed economic anthropology. Here, I hope to use a general discussion of this book, especially the challenging and ambitious theoretical introduction by Appadurai, as an opportunity to reflect not only on this exciting collection, but at the same time on a number of important new developments in the anthropology of commodities. These developments, I believe, point the way toward a fruitful integration of cultural and economic analysis. In the conclusion, I add a few observations on the theoretical moment that makes such new developments possible. (Ferguson, 488)

About the Author

James Ferguson is the Susan S. and William H. Hindle Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology. His research has focused on southern Africa (especially Lesotho, Zambia, South Africa, and Namibia), and has engaged a broad range of theoretical and ethnographic issues. These include the politics of “development”, rural-urban migration, changing topgraphies of property and wealth, constructions of space and place, urban culture in mining towns, experiences of modernity, the spatialization of states, the place of “Africa” in a real and imagined world, and the theory and politics of ethnography. Running through much of this work is a concern with how discourses organized around concepts such as “development” and “modernity” intersect the lives of ordinary people.

Professor Ferguson recently completed a sabbatical year at the Stanford Humanities Center researching emerging trends in social assistance to alleviate poverty in southern Africa. While welfare programs in the West have been pared back in recent years, there has been a surprising expansion of social payments to the poor across much of the developing world. In South Africa, for instance, nearly 30 percent of the population today receives some kind of social grant. Tracing emerging new rationalities of poverty and social assistance, the new research aims to illuminate both the dangers and the possibilities presented by new mechanisms of “social” government and emerging forms of politics focused on the question of distribution. This new research will be published in a forthcoming book, provisionally titled, Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution.- See more at:

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