Issues of trade came to renewed attention in 2019, as the global trading system was rocked by upended agreements and cries for economic populism. Anthropology has long been concerned with trade. The December 2019 issue of Open Anthropology made free to read 15 articles on trade and exchange until December 2020.

The rest of this post describes the feedback I received as I gathered articles for the issue. Soon after the issue was published, it was pretty much superseded by the coronavirus, which completely upended many trade agreements.

Search Engine Trade & Anthropology

Interestingly, search engine hits for combinations of trade and anthropology produce three scholarly articles:

  • Adams, Robert McC., et al. 1974. “Anthropological Perspectives on Ancient Trade.” Current Anthropology 15(3):239-258.
  • Grimes, Kimberly, and Dvera Saxton. 2003. “Anthropology and the Fair Trade Movement.” Practicing Anthropology 25(4):33-36.
  • Brøgger, Benedicte. 2009. “Economic anthropology, trade and innovation.” Social Anthropology 17(3):318-333.

While these are all important selections, one of the goals of Open Anthropology will be to broaden the accessible search-engine academic literature on anthropology and trade.

Anthrosource & Trading

In terms of articles currently available from the Anthrosource catalog, a search on trade highlights reviews of Trade, Traders and Trading in Rural Java by Jennifer Alexander. I’ve long admired Alexander’s work on markets, and her work was extremely useful when I was writing my dissertation on markets and trading in rural Colombia.

Searching on “free trade” in Anthrosource brings up Rebecca Galemba’s 2012 article “‘Corn is food, not contraband’: The right to ‘free trade’ at the Mexico-Guatemala border” in American Ethnologist. Galemba’s book Contraband Corridor: Making a Living at the Mexico-Guatemala Border is the featured image for this post.

Twitter Wisdom

From this post, I got feedback via Twitter:

And here’s a recent article by Demet Dinler:
Dinler, Demet Ş. 2019. “Market, Morality and (Just) Price: The Case of the Recycling Economy in Turkey.” Research in Economic Anthropology 39:27-47.

Society for Economic Anthropology List-serv

One of the great things about the Society for Economic Anthropology is the SEA Listserv, where you can throw out a request and get thoughts and references. Here’s what I received:

One could argue, taking clues from a world-system perspective, that the international system is like a gift system, as Gregory, in Gifts and Commodities, defines them. That is, different kinds of things exchanged establish the rank-order of places in the system. If you produce primarily finished products you are at one level, raw materials at another. Currency exchange rates more or less mediate those rank orders. The ‘problem’ for the last few decades is that the Asias, and East Asia in particular, are making rapid progress in successfully competing as producers or finished products. The whole system is about establishing rank orders.

It is not clear to what extent “trade” should focus on material things, as opposed to services. Apple makes its money not by manufacturing products, which it subcontracts to Foxconn, but by designing them and by offering services (iTunes, Music, etc.). Clothing and shoe brands (e.g. Nike) also make their money via design and marketing, not manufacturing. Think “global cities” a la Saskia Sassen, which have prospered since the 1980s while manufacturing cities (e.g. Detroit, Manchester, Osaka) have suffered. The question is whether this is sustainable for national economies. In any case, any discussion of trade wars needs to focus also on services, since one of the US complaints against China is that China protects its market for banking, legal, and other services. Sorry if this complicates Jason’s request; I don’t have any suitable anthropological reference to suggest on this.

Aren’t goods desirable primarily as intermediaries for services? Shoes provide the service of keeping feet warm, dry, and safe. The services of the homemaker are as necessary as goods provided by the field or wage worker. Is Apple mostly the return of the old putting-out system? Any current arrangement can be undone by the solvent of capitalism, but otherwise yes, trade in services is sustainable.

Conflating goods and services into a single category as an intermediary for services obscures a range of meaningful interactions and relationships. Goods were exchanged for goods just as services and labor were exchanged reciprocally. Similarly, goods were exchanged for services and vice versa. From the perspective of an archaeologist the labor invested in the manufacture of an item raised its value (e.g. textiles) but they were still were traded as goods.

For historical purposes, Voltaire on trade: Voltaire gives a striking formulation of this in three different texts: in the “Sixth Letter on the Presbyterians,” in the article “Tolerance” in his Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, and in the article “Tolerance” in the Philosophical Dictionary. Tolerance, he observes, is to be found in the “stock exchanges of Amsterdam, London, Surat, or Basra.”23 Although adversaries or strangers to one another, these merchants (Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Chinese, etc.) get along fine because they have bracketed their differences. Trade, by definition, is not a proselytizing activity but a utilitarian act of exchange. Each individual trusts the other and receives a promise of delivery for a certain quantity and for a certain price. The stock exchange, therefore, is that magical place where “the Jew, the Mohammedan, and the Christian negotiate with one another as if they were all of the same religion, and the only heretics are those who declare bankruptcy.”24 Commerce produces tolerance, but it also prospers in places where religious tolerance has already taken root. This is the case in the British colonies of North America, where, according to Voltaire, freedom of conscience is well established, and “thanks to this trade flourishes and the population increases.”25

From my work on elite socio-political economic engagement across sectoral or sectarian boundaries (more specifically across color boundaries in Haiti, where I did the fieldwork), I’d take Voltaire to be, here, a [proto-]modernist thinker who fails to grasp the process of elite subjects controlling defining and otherwise operative differences toward the collective reproduction of their respective class situations, and, as the case might be, the class situations of their related subaltern populations. In the labor market of the system of slavery in the (16th-19th c.) Americas, a market of radical power asymmetries, trade, it seems to me, if it remains a utilitarian act, cannot be separated from the proselytizing activity of racism.

Two recommendations:

  1. Are you familiar with work by Magnus Marsden? Check out his work on Trading Worlds: Afghan Merchants Across Modern Frontiers.
  2. Check out a recent Ethnos volume focused on Salescraft.

Back to the original request, I was thinking about Douglas Rogers’s article “Petrobarter” published in Current Anthropology several years ago. This paper is about a special form of international trade (as well as inter-personal and inter-regional) where oil is bartered with other commodities in the context of socialism and postsocialism. Despite these specificities, I think it relevant to international trade in general by showing how trade is closely linked with accumulation of wealth, power, and status. The published comments following this article are also highly useful.
Rogers, Douglas. 2014. “Petrobarter: Oil, Inequality, and the Political Imagination in and after the Cold War.” Current Anthropology 55(2):131-153.

Just a note on the the current trade war: When I took students to China early this summer we visited Shenzhen — China’s tech hub, and Dongguan — a major manufacturing city. While Shenzhen appears to be flourishing, Dongguan is in decline. One shoe factory we visited had already shifted two thirds of its production to Cambodia.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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