Open only to doctoral students based at universities within the U.S.

Workshop dates:

Spring - May 29-June 2, 2013 in Chaska, Minnesota

Fall - September 18-22, 2013 in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Commodity studies highlight the historical, environmental, and political contexts of commodity flows. The commodity emphasis offers a way to think about contemporary globalization and historical capitalism, connecting shifts in the global economy to diverse peoples and practices grounded in specific localities and environments. Ecological, socio-economic, cultural, spatial, and multi-scalar considerations are foremost in recent academic and popular writings on commodities. The entry of novel commodities into the global marketplace, along with repurposed traditional ones like chocolate and coffee for specialty niche markets, is receiving considerable research attention. So, too, is the commerce in medicinal plants of specific cultural heritages, the commodity chains of illegal drug production and consumption, and the commodification of nature—from selling “place” through bottled water to carbon credits and debt-for-nature swaps. By unpacking the processes by which goods, markets, and consumption are historically defined, constructed, peopled, and changed—the “social life of things”—commodity studies make an exciting entry point for innovative proposal writing.

There is no single ”method” in commodity studies, as we see it, except the guiding principle of tracing in depth the spatial and social pathways and geographies of goods. There are, however, many questions posed by both classic approaches (such as economic anthropology) and emerging interdisciplinary scholarship. How do subsistence or natural products become over time exchangeable and tradable goods? What are the ecological parameters that give birth to new commodity chains? In which ways does commodification change the environments where they are grown, their meaning and usage? How do labor processes of production and social processes of consumption become linked over extended geographies? How are these geographies of goods structured, segmented, or inflected by politics, culture, environment, conflict, and power? How are meanings, representations and value vested in material or consumable objects? How do commodities act as signifiers of gender relations, race, region, or religion? How do goods absorb and reflect science, technology, culture, and practice? How is global consciousness of the social life of goods raised or erased in emergent commodity chains?

We welcome applicants from a wide range of fields in the humanities, social sciences, environmental sciences, and science studies. Proposed dissertation topics might cover, but are not limited to, themes such as: the ecologies and local knowledge systems embedded in new commodities; the globalization of “traditional” regional food products (e.g., quinoa, açaí, rooibos tea); bio-prospecting, property rights, and the marketing of ethno-medicines; the formation of illicit goods such as drugs and counterfeits; conflict politics and social movements along specific commodity chains; biofuel production, land access, and inequality; the globalization of taste; environmental, labor, or gender impacts of commodity chain development; discourses and institutions, such as “Fair Trade,” devoted to labor rights or conservation issues; the role of new commodities on consumption styles, foodways, and health fads; and the frontiers and boundaries of new commodity chains such as corporate control over local water sources and struggles over property rights and commons.


  • Melissa H. Beresford

    Arizona State University, School of Human Evolution and Social Change

    Governing Distinction: Collective action and the globalization of value for South African rooibos tea in the world capitalist system
    This project examines the social processes through which local, culturally specific commodities acquire global value. I start by asking how is local value translated to a global audience, and how do people collectively act to create this value? Anthropologists unravel the social and cultural process of value creation for commodities, but few of these studies explain how these processes work across a diverse group of actors. Political scientists often analyze the institutions that govern collective action, but these studies take the rules, norms, and cultural beliefs that make up governing institutions as a priori factors in their analyses. In order to better understand how cultural and economic value is understood, created, and articulated to an international market, this project analyzes how diverse peoples in the South African rooibos tea industry undertake the political and social act of valuation for rooibos tea with often competing interests but a common goal.
  • Pierre L. du Plessis

    University of California / Santa Cruz, Anthropology

    Commodities In Process: The partial commodification of bush products
    My research explores commodities in process rather fully formed or stable entities. By looking at commodities in relation to their incompleteness instead of their successful commodification, I suggest that we may be able to learn something new about how commodities work. The practices and ecological relationships involved in collecting bush products in the Ghanzi District, Botswana provide an excellent space to track the emergence of such commodities in process. My work follows how gathered products in the Kalahari move in and out of commodity status through their relationship with those who gather them, as both product for consumption and sale. By focusing on multispecies relations and the practices of gathering, I argue that these products always exist in relation and not as commodities alienated from their life-worlds. Commodification is presented as a process whereby certain species are tracked, collected, and moved, but never entirely translated into fully commoditized products.
  • Gregory Ferguson-Cradler

    Princeton University, History

    Science, Industry and the Concept of Sustainable Fishing
    This project traces the history of sustainability and collapse as scientific concepts in a global context. Taking fisheries science as the field of investigation, I explore how scientists have sought to understand the causes of collapses and envision and model sustainable fisheries over the last 150 years with particular emphasis on the postwar twentieth century. I argue that fisheries science has treated fish as both natural populations and as commodities, often with no clear line separating the two. Science and the global market economy together produced the unstable concepts of collapse and sustainability. Some of the core questions of this project are how global commodity chains affected the way fisheries science conceived of and modeled collapse and sustainability; how adoption of mathematical models, frequently borrowed from other disciplines and subject matter, influenced conceptions of equilibrium; and how ideas about fisheries science and management were intertwined with social theories.
  • Nicole Labruto

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), History, Anthropology and Science, Technology and Society

    The Biofuel Atlantic: Standardizing Sustainability in a Global South Energy Regime
    As petroleum becomes a less viable fuel source, Brazil has invested in a massive 'biofuel economy' that has positioned it as the world's primary producer and consumer of sugarcane ethanol. Brazilian industrialists are currently investing hundreds of millions of dollars in developing advanced biofuels from the waste products of sugar production, and in creating new ethanol markets in Mozambique through postcolonial South-South transfers of technology and expertise. Sugarcane ethanol is tied both to historical capitalist flows in which sugar and labor were commoditized in transoceanic exchanges, and to the economics and ethics of sustainability under 'green' capitalism. This dissertation will examine the production of ethanol as a standardized and 'sustainable' energy commodity by investigating the scientific, agricultural, and economic actors whose labor makes possible a new, transatlantic alternative energy market—one that traverses and reshapes familiar colonial trade networks and power relations.
  • Janna L. Lafferty

    Florida International University, Global and Sociocultural Studies

    Salmon Productions: Race, Hunger and Commercial Fisheries in the Pacific Northwest
    My dissertation will trace the co-production of a global commercial salmon industry and racialized geographies of food insecurity, poverty, and chronic illness in the Pacific Northwest. The success of commercial salmon fisheries in this region relied on the incorporation of indigenous knowledge and exclusions that transferred environmental wealth from native inhabitants to British and Euro-American settlers. To date, indigenous land claims, food insecurity and social health disparities tend to be addressed as separate issues with distinct etiologies. Using ethnohistorical methods, ethnography and archival data, I will trace how state sponsored assimilation projects interacted with industry in ways that forged racialized exclusions of markets and environmental resources. I aim to illustrate how colonial relationships, racial taxonomies, and social inequalities are (re)produced by this globalized food economy, and to establish more integrated frames for responding to the economic, environmental and health crises experienced by Native North Americans.
  • Lowery Parker

    University of Georgia, Joint program: Integrative Conservation (ICON) and Geography

    Governing Life: Understanding African “sovereignty” in the context of genetically modified crops
    This dissertation proposes to investigate the creation of national biosafety legislation in the first three African states to ratify formal laws - South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Kenya - in order to illuminate the historical and political context of the flow of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Conceptually, this means addressing the intersection of knowledge production and capital flow as it relates to agricultural "development" in Africa. This project is driven by the larger question of why this particular technology (the genetic engineering of seeds and crops) is seen as a development tool as well as how smallholder farmers are constructed as objects in need of these commodities. In particular, this project will explore both geopolitical and biopolitical concepts of sovereignty in the relationship between philanthropic capital and African governments, as well as the relationship between this capital/state entity and life – in this case, the seed.
  • Anna C. Revette

    Northeastern University, Sociology

    Avoiding the Pitfalls of Resource Extraction: Lithium and Development in Bolivia
    The current development agenda of Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, has ostensibly rejected neoliberalism and prioritized state control over natural resources. While this has proven to be economically advantageous for Bolivia, dependence on primary commodities has historically never proven to be a panacea for the country's development issues. The controversial role that mineral extraction can play as an agent of development is well documented, but existing perspectives are limiting in their ability to fully elucidate the complexity found in the current development terrain. Can the pitfalls of resource extraction, widely referred to in the literature as the "resource curse", be avoided by Morales' new development strategies? I propose a multi-scalar ethnographic study of Bolivia's newly established lithium industry as a means to consider a comprehensive framework for understanding the contentious relationship between natural resource commodities and development.
  • Jordan Buchanan Smith

    Georgetown University, History

    Inventing Rum in the Early Modern Atlantic World
    From shortly after rum was invented in the 1640s, until the end of the British slave trade in the early nineteenth century, the Atlantic world was linked by an insatiable thirst for rum. My project seeks to understand how people in Africa, the Americas, and Europe learned how to produce, trade, and consume rum, and negotiated the meanings for these processes. While previous studies have sought to understand the significance of rum or alcohol in a specific place or context, this project would constitute the first comprehensive study of rum's role in the early modern Atlantic world. In the process, I hope to offer new interpretations about the role of subaltern participants in commodity chains, the interplay between knowledge and commodity circulation in the Atlantic world, and the circumstances motivating both the rapid growth, and subsequent collapse, of the rum industry. My research will combine archival work in the Caribbean, the Americas, and Europe.
  • John B. Soileau

    University of Illinois / Urbana-Champaign, Anthropology

    Tensions of Practice: Açaí and the Commodification of Subsistence Agriculture
    The Amazon's açaí palm fruit has been elevated to a global commodity through internationalization as a "fashion food" over the past 30 years. Açai historically has been a dietary staple for Amazonian people. Its harvesting embodies the principles that permeate the discourse of environmental sustainability—one of its global selling points. However, intensified production to meet the demands of a growing market has been socially and ecologically detrimental. Yet açai remains a staple food for rural Amazonian communities—among the small-scale producers where the global açai commodity chain begins. This project will study how global demand is transforming açaí's symbolic and economic values and reshaping local people's relation to and care for the larger landscape in which it is harvested? How has the açaí commodity boom and the embedding of these communities in larger markets and symbolic systems effected social equity, perceived value, and the ecological sustainability of açai extraction?
  • Alexios Tsigkas

    The New School, Anthropology

    A Commodity of a Certain Taste: An Ethnography of the Ceylon Tea Industry
    While studies have looked at "taste"- its composition, its causes and its effects - in the context of the circulation and consumption of commodities, this project seeks to locate taste within the process of production of a legendary colonial commodity: Ceylon Tea. Through an ethnographic engagement with the various sites and professionals that constitute the Ceylon Tea Industry, this project will investigate the ways in which practices and discourses of "taste" and "tasting" guide the production of tea in Sri Lanka. As the global tea market expands and diversifies, the Ceylon Tea Industry is faced with the challenge of safeguarding the carefully preserved quality of its national commodity in the face of a shifting and increasingly demanding economy; concerns and anxieties over the future of the industry are articulated in the language of taste. What is, then, the role of taste in the making of Ceylon Tea?
  • Jacques B. Vest

    University of Michigan, History

    "Networks of Sound: Phonograph Records and the Spatial Logics of Capitalism."
    In 1877 Thomas Edison turned the crank on a machine atop his work bench and shouted a nursery rhyme into it's upturned funnel. After a few modifications he placed his ear to the funnel, turned the crank again, and stared wild-eyed as the device recited "Mary Had a Little Lamb." By World War I a handful of corporations controlled "the recording industry," a global network of manufactures, distributors, and retailers peddling pre-recorded sounds and the machines on which to "play" them. The standard narrative casts the second of these moments as the consummation of the first, but these commodities actually embodied the contingent contours of specific historical circumstances. My research will situate sound recordings as commodities shaped by the corporate-capitalist mode of their creation and distribution, as well as the global cultural and geographic contexts through which they circulate.
  • Adrien P. Zakar

    Columbia University, History

    Provincial Commodities, Environmental Thinking and the Making of Nation States in the Middle East
    My dissertation project offers a new narrative on the history of the Middle East in the early 20th century by following two commodities, gallnuts and liquorice, through the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of nation states. These commodities were traditionally collected in the Ottoman provincial hinterland by a variety of settled, semi-nomadic, and transhumant communities who took part in an intricate urban fabric linking cities such as Aleppo, Mosul and Urfa, as well as religious networks and family ties. The rise of nationalism disrupted the life of the populations involved in the gathering, transportation, and exportation of gallnuts and liquorice. By examining the policies deployed by the Turkish Republic and the mandate states of Syria and Iraq to dismantle the Ottoman Ecoumene, this project reflects on history of environmental thinking and its impact on the Middle East in the wake of World War I.