08 Apr

Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: commodities and the politics of value” (1986)

Appadurai examines the social life of things within systems of exchange. Exchange is the source of commodity value, not commodity forms and functions. For Appadurai, commodities refer to things that “at a certain phase in their careers and in a particular context, meet the requirements of commodity candidacy” (16).

Appadurai defines commodities as “things with a particular social potential, that they are distinguishable from ‘products,’ ‘objects,’ ‘goods,’ ‘artifacts,’ and other sorts of things – but only from certain respects and from a certain point of view” (6). A commodity can be “any thing intended for exchange” (9). Appadurai wants to get away from relating commodities to products and production. This allows him to consider things bartered for and things gifted as commodities. Defining commodities as things exchanged “means looking at the commodity potential of all things rather than searching fruitlessly for the magic distinction between commodities and other sorts of things. It also means breaking significantly with the production-dominated Marxian view of the commodity and focusing on its total trajectory from production through exchange/distribution, to consumption” (13).

Appadurai argues that the commodity situation “in the social life of any ‘thing’ be defined as the situation in which exchangeability (past, present, or future) for some other thing is its socially relevant feature” (13). The commodity situation can be broken into three features. 1) The commodity phase, which is the idea that commodities can move in and out of the commodity state. The movements can be fast and slow, reversible or terminal. Things may not always be commodities. 2) The commodity candidacy, which is a conceptual feature. It refers to the “standards and criteria (symbolic, classificatory, and moral) that define the exchangeability of things in any particular social and historical context” (14). Commodity candidacy can refer to a price set by humans or the conditions under which humans exchange things. 3) The commodity context, which refers to the “variety of social arenas, within or between cultural units, that help link the commodity candidacy of a thing to the commodity phase of its career” (15).

Commodities are exchanged via paths and diversions. Politics is seen in moments of exchange. Politics is relations, assumptions, and contests of power. Politics is “what create the links between exchange and value” (3). Politics examines the demand-side of the commodities rather than the production-side to describe their value. Within the paths of exchange, commodities are agents. Examining politics in the moment of exchange allows scholars to see and analyze the social life of things in terms of their “socially relevant features.”

Appadurai’s emphasis on exchange as the source of a commodity’s value overlooks certain aspects of the life of things. By focusing only on exchange, Appadurai dismisses the value in other moments in the life of a thing. The important moments are only the “socially relevant” moments when a commodity is exchanged between humans. This seems to dismiss the notion of the life of a thing. It is only important and an agent when it interacts with humans. But, the thing does exist and has a life even when it is not exchanged. Focusing too much on exchange obscure the life of a thing.