Like Kerim wrote in the post introducing me, my ongoing dissertation is on the trade in second-hand clothing. I am trying to tease out the relations that surround the trade as it moves from the United Kingdom to Nigeria through Benin, and I am trying to deal with the pieces of clothing as what they are wherever they are. This in effect means dealing with what are at some point described as gifts (at least that is how the ‘donors’ of second-hand clothes describe what they drop in clothes banks) at other points as commodities, fundraising tool, a source of livelihood etc. Of course, Appadurai’s Social Life of Things, and Kopytoff’s cultural Biography of Things lend themselves as a framework for approaching things of this nature. The Social Life of Things was a groundbreaking work. Read what James Ferguson wrote about it in a review article:
But following the last decade’s preoccupation in anthropology with production […] on the one hand, and consumption [...] on the other, Appadurai’s approach to commodities as “objects in motion” has the feel of a new departure, even while appearing at the same time as a kind of homecoming.
In short, what it did was to put culture back in the analyses of things. Ferguson writes further:
The key claim here is not that things are “social” but that they have lives; the suggestion is that the social dimension of things can be narratively approached through the conventions not only of traditional historical exposition, but through that venerable anthropological device, “life history”.
That was really groundbreaking in so many ways, and thinking about it as I am writing this, I don’t see any reason why that should not be enough for studying the trade in second-hand clothing. Save for the fact that, as a friend noted, writing a doctoral dissertation is as if one were producing an affirmation of ones existence – an affirmation that needs to be underscored by the discovery of something original. In this case, I suppose that it is not as much a desire to discover something original as it is a desire to do as much theoretical exploration as possible (although I know that I would not live up to this expection). There, of course, have to be some more recent anthropological theorising on commodities in particular and things in general so why settle for a framework from 1986?
The product of that question is what I will be blogging about during my period as a Savage Minds guest blogger. I am currently digging into the literature on commodities and things, since I see commodities as a form of things (see Keith Hart’s explication of Marx’s conceptualisation of commodities as resulting from a historical dialectic). I will be sharing and discussing some of the stuffs I read. It is an ongoing process so I welcome suggestions on where to look and what to look at.