Current Institutional Affiliation
Doctoral Candidate, Anthropology, The New School

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2015
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Anthropology, The New School
A Commodity of a Certain Taste: An Ethnography of the Ceylon Tea Industry

While studies have looked at "taste," its composition and social effects, in the context of the circulation and consumption of goods, this project seeks to locate taste within the production process of Sri Lanka's national commodity: Ceylon tea is a brand name of immense export value, of historical, financial and symbolic significance to the island. However, while tea enjoys growing global popularity, demand for the high quality but costly Ceylon brew is in decline. While individual stakeholders stand divided on how to address this conundrum, the industry persists in its longstanding practice of laboriously carving and safeguarding a niche-like brand identity around the so-called "purity" and "superior taste" of Ceylon tea, despite the fact that the latter remains a widely circulating, mass-produced commodity. This project theorizes taste as a value creating entity, the effects of which are central to the production of commodities, rather than solely to their consumption and in doing so rethinks the commodity form. Furthermore, it posits that the analytic of taste can enrich our knowledge and understanding of the Ceylon tea industry, and by extension contemporary capitalism and the location of Sri Lanka therein. At the same time, it interrogates the very nature of taste making itself as a labor of collaboration and negotiation between different groups of actors. Ethnographic research will integrate the various sites that comprise the Ceylon Tea industry as a whole while attending to the diverse individuals that animate them, extending a novel approach to the study of commodities as ethnographic objects. Fieldwork will be conducted within two tea estates, the Sri Lanka Tea Board, the Colombo Auction House, the Tea Research Institute, as well as a small number of export companies.