Finding value: Theory, abstraction, and fieldwork

I am still obsessed with the concept of value.  What is value?  What does it mean to say something has value?  How do we decide what something is “worth”?  How are different ideas about value connected to meaning–and action?  How do our ideas about value, worth, and meaning relate to our actions?  How is value connected to money (in its various forms)?  How are different forms of valorization (economic, cultural, moral, political) connected?  Where and when are they disconnected?

When I started on this exploration of the idea of value, one of my friends told me that if I’m really serious about looking deeper, then I should start with David Graeber’s book on the subject.  I did, and have subsequently read that book–and his book about Debt–and taken tons of notes.  My friend also said that my search for the meaning of value is going to head back to Marx one way or another.  And it did.  But it also led to Adam Smith, Clyde Kluckhohn, David Harvey, Noel Castree, Julia Elyachar, and many others.  This search for value has led me down many different side streets and avenues, and there’s still a lot of ground to cover. The most recent book that I am reading is James Buchan’s book Frozen Desire.  The money/value question, especially as it relates to land, real estate speculation, and development, is what has been keeping me occupied for some time now.  The more I look into value, the more I want to keep looking.  It’s a bit like an endless economic rabbit hole.

Now, I am definitely fascinated with the idea of value, but I am also willing to admit that it’s a massive, if not vague, concept.  Graeber said pretty much the same thing in the beginning of his book.  The word “value” can refer to a range of things: from prices and money values all the way to moral values.  So there’s a bit of fuzziness and abstraction going on, simply because of the wide array of ways in which people use the term.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell when one usage ends and another begins.  There’s a lot of contradiction and overlap going on.  I hate to say it, but the whole idea of value gets complicated–and really, really abstract at times.  Maybe too abstract?

So when I stared my fieldwork I was not sure how well the whole value thing would work out.  I thought, at the outset, that it was far too abstract and that I was in danger of imposing too much theory on everything.  Kind of like casting a bright light upon a scene that completely washes out what’s actually there–that’s the risk of *too much* theory.  You can end up a completely detached from any grounded reality.  This is always a problem with fieldwork, I suppose, and the hard part is finding some sort of workable balance between theory and reality.  In my fieldwork about the politics of development in Baja California Sur, I started looking into value for a very specific reason: I saw that some of the social conflicts over land were connected, at least in part, to rising real estate values.  But there was something more to it–a lot more.  I chased after the concept of value, but kept reminding myself not to get too attached.  I felt I was in danger of letting everything get a bit too consumed by abstraction.

And then, a few months into fieldwork, I went to a meeting about a local community development effort in the small community where I have been living for the past year.  For now, let’s call this community “Pueblo Chico.”  The meeting was led by an organization that focuses on alternative development models.  The meeting itself was about a new community development plan that was created as a counter to some of the large-scale tourism developments in the region.  The basic idea was that residents of Pueblo Chico needed to think about what kind of place–and what kind of market–they wanted to create and maintain.  There were several speakers who talked about various aspects of the plan, and a lot of the conversations had implicit connections with my investigations of value, economics, place, and meaning.  Then the next speaker started to talk, and I was floored because his words pulled the whole question of value out of the theoretical clouds.

His whole presentation was about the different between “price” and “value” (see this post I wrote a while back as well).  His argument was that the community needed to realize the difference between the two, and that the creation of a tourism market was about more than just charging more money to more people.  It was, he said, about creating valuable experiences for tourists that would last.  It wasn’t just about getting money, wasn’t just about price.  He really wanted to drive the point home–and people were listening.  The ensuing conversation was fascinating…but I remember sitting there, writing notes frantically, pretty amazed that such an explicit conversation about value had seemingly dropped in out of nowhere.

Now, the use of the term value, and even a lecture about price versus value, does not a theoretical framework justify.  In fact, I think there is always going to be a certain amount of slippage between any framework and the kinds of situations we encounter on the ground.  It’s good to have things line up, of course, and it’s important to cross-check theory with reality.  But I also don’t think we should ever expect some kind of perfect convergence.  For me, I like to think of theories as tools or lenses through which to view problems–rather than seeing them in more rigid terms.  If the tool doesn’t work, find another one.  So for me the “anthropological theory of value” is a tool and I am going to see how far it goes.  But, like choosing a particular screen size for sifting through soil in archaeology, every tool has its benefits, limitations, and tendencies.

Interestingly, the term value has continued to come up during my fieldwork…here and there, every now and again.  In one instance, I was reading through a set of meeting notes from the meetings of a local conservation organization.  The notes were about some of the local battles against a very large development project that many felt threatened the ecology and community of Pueblo Chico.  The author of those meeting notes and meeting minutes was deeply involved in these local development issues, and incredibly passionate about saving the place she loved.  In her notes she wrote a question to herself: Is this place worth something more than just money?*  She expressed her desire to save the place she knows and loves, to keep it from becoming just another site for mass tourism.  This tension between place, value, development, and money is incredibly pervasive.

Value keeps coming up.  Sometimes in more subtle ways, as with the above example when it’s scrawled in a small yellow notebook, and other times it’s more blatant.  Last month I went to another local development meeting in a neighboring community.  I’ll call it Pueblo Grande.  This community has many residents who have been in favor of many of the large-scale development projects because, in short, people want the jobs.  This makes sense, as there aren’t exactly a ton of employment opportunities, and the developers of the mega-project have been making a lot of promises about jobs and local benefits.  There is a certain amount of tension between Pueblo Grande (approximately 2500 residents) and Pueblo Chico (about 200 residents).  A lot of the conservation efforts are focused on saving the reef system located on the shores of Pueblo Chico, whose residents are for the most part against any of the large-scale development proposals.**  Basically, there are many residents in Pueblo Grande who feel that any conservation efforts really only benefit folks from Pueblo Chico who live near the reef.  This development meeting, hosted by an organization with ties in both communities, was meant to create social bridges and highlight mutual concerns and benefits.

There were several presentations at the meeting.  They focused mostly on things like reef ecology, conservation biology, and the possibilities for creating new local tourism economies.  There were presentations by two marine biologists from one of the local universities.  They both tried to show the residents of Pueblo Grande that the reef in front of Pueblo Chico has meaning, value, and importance that extends much further than many imagine.  Local fisheries at Pueblo Grande, argued the marine biologists, directly benefit from the conservation of the reef ecosystem and fisheries.  It’s a connected ecology.  But they also employed another strategy that really generates all kinds of debate among social scientists: they literally put a financial value on the reef, even going so far as arguing that each fish in the reef system was worth about 400 bucks.  Now, say what you will about the commodification or neoliberalization of nature, one thing was really clear: this tactic sure made the fishermen from Pueblo Grande take notice.  People definitely reacted.  Some laughed about the number, many made side comments.  I am not sure about the long term effectiveness of that tactic, but it was interesting to see it deployed as part of a larger effort that is geared toward creating support and enthusiasm for particular values (based upon science, ecotourism, and conservation) and directly opposed to others (traditional sun and sand, hotel-marina-golf course development projects).  On at least some levels, framing the issues in terms of money really seemed to drive the message home.  At the end of the meeting several people said they had completely changed their minds and now realized that conservation of the reef was not only important, but could have direct benefits for them as well.

In the end, value is partially theoretical, or “in my head.”  But it’s also out there, on the ground, in various forms.  It is a slippery term…but that’s where some of the interesting things are taking place.  One theorist whose ideas have turned out to be tremendously useful for me so far is Julia Elyachar.  In her book Markets of Dispossession she talks about “the production of value,” and this has been a helpful tool/framework for approaching some of the development politics that I am seeing in Baja California Sur.  In fact, one way to look at the range of conflicts is that they are battles between different forms of value production, ranging from people who are advocating conservation and ecotourism to those who are pushing mega-development all the way to people who are only concerned with their personal property and quality of life.  There are many people taking part in producing, promoting, and trying to foment these various forms of value, which are based upon certain hopes about the future of this place.  Money and markets play a key role, but they aren’t everything–as ubiquitous and powerful as they sometimes seem.  This is something that has become more apparent the longer I have been in the field.  When I first encountered the situation, I felt that the driving force was the expansion of tourism market, and that increasing land values would simply erase all other forms of value- and place-making.  But…this hasn’t really been the case, at least not yet.  If nothing else, the production of value is dynamic, and it’s surely a complex, fluid process.  It’s also messy…but it’s an interesting mess.  And I’m in the middle of it all.  I’ll let you know how things go.

 

*Paraphrased.

**Although there are some folks who straddle the fence to a certain extent.

Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently writing up his dissertation, which is about the politics of development in Baja California Sur, Mexico. You can reach him at ethnografix AT gmail dot com or @publicanthro on twitter.

39 thoughts on “Finding value: Theory, abstraction, and fieldwork

  1. @Ryan

    I may have said this before. If so, let me say it again. Social discourse, including in particular the abstractions we label social theory, is filled with ambiguous terms. “Culture,” “religion,” “law,” “economy,” “symbol,” “civilization”…… To approach such terms, of which “value” is a notable example with the assumption that there must be one correct explication is, in my view, a fool’s errand. A better approach is to ask (1) when and in what circumstances does the term appear and (2) what are people trying to accomplish.

    When “value” is approached in this way, it is, I suggest, as self-evident as the world ever gets, that (1) choices have to be made and (2) the argument concerns which of several possible criteria—there may be more than one and those weighted differently—should be taken into account in making the choices in question. When deployed rhetorically “value” generally signals the argument that some things are of greater value than others. Thus, in your example, when “value” is contrasted with “price,” one can be pretty sure that the argument is over the relative importance of economic and other considerations.

    In another context, the upcoming U.S. elections, “Values voters” espouse the idea that certain consideration derived in large part from fundamentalist religion are, in fact, so superior to any other considerations that categorical distinctions based on these “values” are sacred and must not be altered for any lesser reason—the scientist’s pettifogging insistence on evidence as opposed to faith in scripture, for example.

    That the values to which human beings appeal in their debates are various in the extreme is a keystone proposition of anthropological thinking. But instead of the endless agony of theoretical dialectic, the key to progress is, I would argue, the journalist’s questions: Who, What, When Where, Why, and How? Get the answers to those questions and sorting out the “values” in play in any observed discussion becomes fairly straightforward.

  2. Hey John,

    “A better approach is to ask (1) when and in what circumstances does the term appear and (2) what are people trying to accomplish.”

    Ya, I agree. And I definitely agree with you that trying to chase down one ideal or correct explication of value is not only a fool’s errand, but also somewhat beside the whole point. You make good points about what to look for–when does it appear and what are people trying to do with it–and that’s basically what I am trying to do now: look for the competing forms of “value production” out there (from conservation to real estate to certain development efforts).

    “But instead of the endless agony of theoretical dialectic, the key to progress is, I would argue, the journalist’s questions: Who, What, When Where, Why, and How? Get the answers to those questions and sorting out the “values” in play in any observed discussion becomes fairly straightforward.”

    I like how you put that: go for the journalist’s questions, get the 5 w’s (and the h). Get the data, the details, and then sort things out. I guess the other layer going on is that I am of course adding certain uses/understandings of value from an analytical angle. Nobody but me is talking about the “production of value” but me (at least there), even if that’s one reasonable way of looking at a development proposal, or a local community conservation program, or even building a house. So some aspects of the theory/analysis are imposed, and those kinds of details need to be made explicit. In the end though, I agree with you that things can and should be made as straightforward as possible. I think one of the hardest parts is looking at all of the different uses of “value” and making the connections and relationships (not to mention the differences between those uses) as clear as possible.

    Thanks John, as always, for your comment.

  3. In the philosophy of action, ‘value’ is not a slippery term at all. It refers to a disposition towards protecting or acquiring certain things; I value my life, so I protect it from harm. It’s not so slippery. Things like money ‘acquire’ value by being of such great and general necessity to the human beings concerned that they can be given a generalisable rate of exchange – but as you, Ryan, noted in an earlier post, different forms of money actually have different values. Things only ‘have’ value if people value them, and it turns out that kebab shop owners value crisp £5 notes more than they value bags of pennies worth £5. If you think of value as something that objects and ideas have, then of course it seems slippery, but that doesn’t seem to be the way it works.

    Joseph Raz’s Engaging Reason has probably the standard explanation of value in philosophy, from what I remember, but it seems to me that for the purposes of social science, John McCreery has put it best:

    When “value” is approached in this way, it is, I suggest, as self-evident as the world ever gets, that (1) choices have to be made and (2) the argument concerns which of several possible criteria—there may be more than one and those weighted differently—should be taken into account in making the choices in question.

  4. Hi Al,

    “If you think of value as something that objects and ideas have, then of course it seems slippery that doesn’t seem to be the way it works.”

    I agree. I think that the idea of some sort on intrinsic value in things, ideas, places gets really slippery. For example, some people try to argue for some sort of inherent value in “nature,” and I don’t find that very useful. I do think that John has some good suggestions for approaching value. At the same time, I still think the concept gets a little slippery when trying to compare or reconcile different forms of valuation–such as when the same piece of land is valued in 1) monetary terms;2) for moral/political reasons (ie a conservation agenda); and 3) personal/historical terms (eg a piece of land that has been in a family for generations). I don’t always think that one form of valuation can be easily compared or transferred to another. And then, on top of all that, there are cases in which people may make value claims based upon a moral/political agenda while at the same time having certain interests in economic values. So these various forms of value may have certain differences and contradictions, but even so they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive either.

    “In the philosophy of action, ‘value’ is not a slippery term at all. It refers to a disposition towards protecting or acquiring certain things; I value my life, so I protect it from harm.”

    I think that looking at value in terms of action is really useful. What people say they value is helpful…but what do they DO? What do they try to create or acquire–there’s something to really paying attention to that sort of thing. Graeber’s argument about value highlights the importance of action…which of course can be thought of in terms of labor/work. That’s why I like the term “production of value” that Elyachar uses.

    “Things only ‘have’ value if people value them, and it turns out that kebab shop owners value crisp £5 notes more than they value bags of pennies worth £5.”

    I like this point about value–that certain details and contexts matter. It turns out that not all denominations of £5 are equally desired or valued. The same can be applied to other things as well. A Porshe is a desirable, really expensive car. But in some place with no roads or really bad dirt roads, who would pay for such a vehicle. But that’s kind of obvious. Still, the price of such a vehicle only works in certain networks and contexts. And then there’s land: I have seen a lot of case where realtors put prices on pieces of land…and it just sits there with that price tag for years and years. Is the land really “worth” that amount? Well, only when the realtor can convince someone to give up their money for that price, and part of that requires the creation of lots of other things (infrastructure, acquisition of water rights, an attractive community development plan that people believe will actually come to fruition, etc). What’s interesting about land development and real estate is that a lot of the value is based upon the hopes and desires of potential buyers. Realtors have to try to build up certain values to get buy in. I find the speculative aspect of value really interesting.

    Anyway, this comment is getting too long. I enjoy hashing through these ideas though. Thanks for the comments.

  5. @Ryan, Al
    Let’s talk a bit more about the production of value. If we are agreed that value is about (1) choices and (2) the criteria ranked and weighted when choices are made, then we must first identify the choices and criteria in question in any particular case and ask the journalist’s questions about the people who line up on one side or the other and the material circumstances in which their alignments occur. We note immediately two extreme cases: everybody agrees, so there is no conflict, and everybody has different opinions, so no agreement is possible. We note, too, that anthropological theories in the classic functionalist mode assumed the first extreme, focusing on values that seemed to be taken for granted by all adult members of a group, then suggesting various reasons why they were supposed to be taken for granted. Post-functionalist anthropology has grown out of the repeated validation of the observation that conflict is endemic and may, indeed, be a structural factor in the organization of human groups. The recognition that there are usually multiple and conflicting, even contradictory, values in play in most human activity and the question who takes which side and why is always interesting drive reconsideration of assume-a-consensus functionalist theories and point anthropologists toward more careful consideration of the politics in play in all discussions of values.

    I have some more thoughts to share. But let me stop here for now and see how you respond to these musings.

  6. “The recognition that there are usually multiple and conflicting, even contradictory, values in play in most human activity and the question who takes which side and why is always interesting drive reconsideration of assume-a-consensus functionalist theories and point anthropologists toward more careful consideration of the politics in play in all discussions of values.”

    Yep. So a value-as-process kind of framework makes sense.

  7. Could someone do me a favor and spell out what they mean by a value-as-process framework.

    My own views, as I have said in other contexts, are largely shaped by Victor Turner,from whom I learned to examine social processes as dramas played out on material stages with material sets and other circumstances that constrain possible action, taking care to observe that every drama begins with a conflict and that what people do may contradict what they say they are doing (a difference I have recently learned from Ted Fischer economists discuss in terms of what they call stated and revealed preferences).

    I also have a mathematical turn of mind, conceiving of social dramas as situated in multidimensional cultural spaces in which the participants are positioning themselves and trying to move others to where they want them to be (an idea picked up from James Fernandez Persuasions and Performances). The mathematical training is also visible in the way I structured my last comment. I began by asking myself what are the cases (mathematicians would call them degenerate) in which variables go to zero or infinity: here zero disagreement or everyone is a monad locked into his or her differences from everyone else.

    Finally, of course, I have spent a large part of my life working in an industry (advertising and marketing), where debates about value (to sponsors or consumers, in big or little ideas, aesthetic and production values) are endemic and ongoing. In this context the question is always how values articulated in marketing, communication and creative strategies overlap and affect each other.

    Anyway, this is where I’m coming from. What does “value-as-process” mean to you.

  8. Hey John:

    “Could someone do me a favor and spell out what they mean by a value-as-process framework.”

    I just meant that the creation/production of values–whether monetary, aesthetic, moral–is a process. It’s fluid, active, changing. There isn’t some intrinsic value of a thing, place, idea–values are context-dependent, and not static.

  9. Not a bad place to begin. But very hard to think through the implications without some further assumptions.

    Thus, for example, if we agree to treat values as (2) criteria by which (1) choices are made, we are led to ask, first, about the nature of the criteria in question. From mathematics we can borrow a series of ideas about scales: nominal, ordinal, or metric. A nominal scale only assigns choices to categories. To choose between them we need at least a two-valued ordinal scale, higher or lower, better or worse. Where the nominal scale includes more than two categories, they are commonly ranked, e.g., 1, 2, 3. But what if multiple nominal scales are in play? Assume, for example, a racist society in which whites are seen as superior to blacks, but artistic or military geniuses are seen as superior to ordinary folk. How are cases like a brilliant black general or artist handled? Now we need at least a second-order ranking, a ranking of criteria as opposed to members of categories to understand what is going on. In more complex situations, criteria may be weighted—in these cases the logic may be that of integers or real numbers, allowing calculations by which, for example, given values A, B, and C, where A is greater than B and B is greater the C, the combined value of B and C may outweigh A when push comes to shove.

    Here I think of Ted Fischer’s example of German consumers buying eggs. A very high proportion agree that organic, free-range eggs are better than than eggs from chickens locked in cages but fed only organic feed, or, worse, still, the standard industrial agribusiness egg. But when they buy eggs only a much smaller proportion buy the high-priced organic, free-range eggs. A somewhat larger proportion buy cheaper organic eggs from caged chickens, and supermarkets still sell a lot of the cheapest agribusiness eggs. That purchasers of the organic, free-range eggs tend to be well-to-do, while purchasers of agribusiness eggs are more likely to be scraping by introduces other moral and political dimensions to the discussion.

  10. I don’t always think that one form of valuation can be easily compared or transferred to another.

    Why? That’s the point of the word ‘value’, after all. It applies comfortably to all of the things you mention. Finance, fond memories, morality. As John’s comments show, they are all factors that go into the process of deciding upon a course of action. That’s just what value is.

    There isn’t some intrinsic value of a thing, place, idea–values are context-dependent, and not static.

    I do not believe this is all that different from the idea that price is determined by supply and demand.

  11. I do not believe this is all that different from the idea that price is determined by supply and demand.

    Here is where we have to be careful. If anything, the idea that price is determined by supply and demand is an instance of the more general notion the value is context-dependent. In that specific case the context is a market and the relevant metrics are all assumed to be reducible to real numbers. That assumption is essential for the relevant calculations. The conclusion that all choices, in all contexts, can be similarly reduced to quantitative terms is a highly dubious one. Choices made in terms of caste or rank, for example, do not require this assumption.

    A modern example is provided by a classic marketing disaster. A marketing manager new to Japan observed that pricing Johnny Walker Black Label at ¥5,000 a bottle appeared to ensure a certain level of sales. Reasoning from supply and demand, he concluded that reducing the price would sell more bottles of whiskey. He lowered the price, and sales collapsed. Why? He had failed to observe that during the mid-Summer and New Year gift-giving seasons in Japan the number ¥5,000 is not (in a mathematical sense) a real number. It is a signal that a gift is appropriate for a certain category of recipients, typically a boss or client of section or division-chief rank, i.e., a mid-level executive. Reduce the price, and the whiskey is no longer appropriate for this purpose, which accounted for the bulk of Black Label sales in Japan.

  12. @Al

    “Why? That’s the point of the word ‘value’, after all. It applies comfortably to all of the things you mention.”

    Sure, the term value applies well enough. But what I said was that I don’t think it’s always easy to compare or transfer one form of valuation for another. For example, when one person says that a piece of land has tremendous personal and cultural value, and another person says the same piece of land is worth x amount of money, I don’t think the latter necessarily accounts for the former. Like I said–I don’t think that different forms of valuation are easily comparable…but that’s part of the interesting aspect of all this for me.

    “I do not believe this is all that different from the idea that price is determined by supply and demand.”

    I’d say there is something more going on with value than just supply and demand. Supply and demand might explain value/price in some cases, sure. But people don’t place high value on certain ideas, or places, or objects simply because of supply and demand. At least, I doubt people are always thinking in those kinds of terms. That may be one way that value is determined…but even in market settings supply and demand does not necessarily explain price or value.

    @John:

    “The conclusion that all choices, in all contexts, can be similarly reduced to quantitative terms is a highly dubious one.”

    Exactly. And the Johnny Walker example nicely illustrates how there’s often more going on with price and value than just a simple supply and demand metric. That example reminds me of when I worked as a bartender. The management priced drinks based upon costs, supply and customer demand, of course–but also to try to get certain kinds of change from the transaction. If a drink is priced at $3.75 and someone pays with a 5, they are pretty likely to leave the quarter as a tip. If the drink price was $4.00 there is a higher chance that people will leave a one dollar tip, mostly because they have fewer options. Some prices reflect these kinds of strategies.

  13. @Ryan, Al, anyone else tuning in

    In my previous comment, I observed that values may not be quantifiable, by which I meant to say, measurable using real numbers. In the simplest, most basic case, a two-value ordinal scale (good or bad, yes or no) is sufficient to determine a choice. But when multiple value dimensions are in play and the values are weighted (treated as if they are measurable using a real number scale), things get more complicated. If (a purely hypothetical example), the weight of value A is 3.0, while the weights of value B and value C are 2.0 and 1.5 respectively, B+C>A, and an argument based solely on the higher value of A fails. Do note, the numbers are here only for illustration. On the ground, people may say that A is important, but B,C, etc. make it impractical. They just feel that way. We hear these kinds of arguments all the time.

    Here, however, I want to focus on another observation, from a bit of marketing strategy I was recently translating:Timing is important. Appealing to value A may be the right thing to do when you are first trying to get people interested in your proposal. But once they have moved from initial awareness and interest to serious consideration, other values come into play. Think about that. I will offer some examples in a later comment.

  14. Value being processual and relational is not at all the same thing as value being a free choice of autonomous actors in a market, or the result of supply and demand. Sure, there can be contextual negotiations around value in specific exchanges, but I don’t think this is quite the same as social (including economic) values being reducible to the sum of such exchanges. Even if we are talking about value in terms of the quantitative market price of commodities, it isn’t correct to locate the production of value in the individual act of exchange.

    Most people find themselves embedded in systems and relations of value which they did not choose, and which they may not even support in terms of their own expressed social and ethical values, even (or especially) when their own actions nevertheless contribute to the ongoing operation of those systems. A key example is the difficulty people have in resisting the assimilation of various resources and activities to market value in a system set up to prioritise commodity production – only in a very abstract way can this be said to be due to people accepting or choosing such forms of exchangability. Struggles over value are not just a matter of haggling over prices.

    In my opinion, one of the strengths of Marx’s theory of value (and anthropological adaptations of it by people like Terry Turner and David Graeber) is precisely that it gets at the way in which value is both a dynamic and contested social relation and something which is experienced as an external structure or system.

  15. value is both a dynamic and contested social relation and something which is experienced as an external structure or system.

    I couldn’t agree more. But for me the next question is always “And then?” So how do we go about discovering values through ethnographic research? The answer I learned from Victor Turner, a communist and conscientious objector before he converted to Catholicism, is what he learned from Marx, Freud and Max Gluckman, that competition, conflict and contradiction are inherent and pervasive in all human societies. If you wish to understand an individual’s values, look at what they say and do when competing, quarreling, feuding, fighting or negotiating with other human beings. If you wish to understand a society’s values direct your attention to the recurring conflicts in which it’s members engage. That is where values and the contradictions among them are revealed, in comedy or tragedy depending on the outcome.

  16. There has to be a way of ‘locating’ (if you must use such a term) value in individual acts, or else it doesn’t exist. If it’s supposed to be some ‘thing’ aside from individual transactions, then it is not a thing that exists in this universe. The world doesn’t work like that.

    Value in practical reason is the belief that something ought to be protected or conserved. On a walk this morning, I saw a BMW driver slow down and stop to let a ginger cat cross the road; she valued the life of the cat more than arriving at her destination quickly. There are circumstances under which she might have run the cat over – if aliens attacked and she had to flee, or if she were driving her dying child to hospital. I see absolutely no reason to believe that this form of reasoning does not apply at all levels of human action, including ‘social’ actions.

    Most people find themselves embedded in systems and relations of value which they did not choose, and which they may not even support in terms of their own expressed social and ethical values, even (or especially) when their own actions nevertheless contribute to the ongoing operation of those systems.

    It is only because they value other things more highly that they find themselves so embedded. If people didn’t value their lives, then there wouldn’t be any point in having ethical values or abiding by the rules of a society.

    The only way we can have a good understanding of something like ‘value’ is to look at its mental life, because that is where it exists. It is not a thing existing independently of humans. This does not entail endorsing the notion of Homo economicus, but clearly human actions result from human mental states, and there is some process by which decisions are reached that occurs in human brains. Yes, many of the factors that go into decisions are ‘irrational’; I do not believe this changes things very much. It’s not like behavioural economists haven’t accounted for so-called ‘irrational’ actions. Reducing this fuzzy mush of words about ‘value’ to an understanding of how decisions are made by individual humans seems to be the sensible route.

    In the Johnny Walker example, it could be the belief that the recipient of the bottle would find out that the giver paid less than the accepted threshold that makes the ¥5,000 bottle inherently more valuable than one worth ¥4,000. I suspect that some gift-givers would be willing to pay ¥4,000 if they knew that the recipient would never find out – but of course, that depends on how much the giver values the recipient, and they might consider paying less and lying an immoral act.

    There are lots of factors in play, all of them ‘values’. They are factors because of the beliefs that individuals have about the rest of the world and about each other, not because of some web of value that exists independently of individuals.

  17. @John McCreery
    Why emphasise competition, conflict and contradiction over cooperation, solidarity, and agreement, which are also ‘inherent and pervasive in all human societies’? It seems to me that you are universalising a particular set of social values. Sure, I’d agree that the capitalist value system privileges the first set, according to the logic of the market, and that other social systems have their versions of conflict and contradiction as well, but let’s not reduce all values to a market logic. Indeed, I’d argue that one of the things that marks out capitalism is the way that so many of our actions which are motivated by values of cooperation, solidarity, compassion, and so on are harnessed to a system based on quantitative competition. This particular form of alienating objectification, and the associated drive for universal equivalence, is its distinct characteristic.

    @Al West
    My point was not that value exists somehow autonomous from human thought and action, but that value is not located ‘simply’ in individual transactions. Rather, it exists within a whole set of such relations which, taken together, constitute a system which shapes and structures the individual relations, beliefs, and actions. So, of course values are the product of human action, but human action is not reducible to individual (trans)actions. It is not true that there ‘is no such thing as society’ (as Thatcher famously claimed), and value is one of the ways in getting at the nature of the relation between individual actions and the structured set of social relations that are both a product of and a significant determiner of those actions. Value is a ‘real abstraction’ in the sense that it is the result of human processes of abstraction, a ‘social fact’ that we create through collective action. Such things are possible because we are social beings that can and must communicate and form patterned relations with each other.

    These ‘webs of value’ are not of course independent of people, but most of them have a great deal of independence from any given individual. It seems to me that this approach to value is at the core of both Marx’s thought and social anthropology (though they tend to part company when it comes to specifics).

    Trying to locate social value in individual brains is a bit like trying to explain brain chemistry in terms of atomic physics – theoretically it should be possible, and it’s best not to lose sight of the connections between these different levels of analysis, but it really isn’t particularly useful to keep reducing things down to the more fundamental levels.

  18. theoretically it should be possible, and it’s best not to lose sight of the connections between these different levels of analysis, but it really isn’t particularly useful to keep reducing things down to the more fundamental levels.

    The question of whether it’s useful is different to the question of whether it is true. Contrary to your claim, Thatcher was right (in that very specific instance, of course): there is no such thing as society as an independent entity. All of it reduces to individuals, their beliefs, their desires, and their beliefs about each others’ beliefs and desires. The idea that it is something irreducible is bizarre, unnaturalistic, and entirely unnecessary.

    There are already plenty of very clear, concise theories that allow for us to talk about social facts as if they are independently-existing, or at least irreducible, entities while providing a route to link them back to individual human actions. Most of these do not reduce social facts to mere communication – lots of different organisms can communicate, even if the communication is limited to information about sexual availability. Humans are probably unique, however, in being able to think about the thoughts of others, and about the thoughts of others about their own thoughts, and so on, ad infinitum. This is sufficient to explain the ‘social’ aspect of humans without invoking the notion that social facts are somehow separate from individuals. Searle’s theory of social facts is a good example of this.

    And this is useful as well as true. If you take society to be something above individual humans, then you have a problem if anyone acts aberrantly or disregards ‘social’ aspects in their value judgements – if they, for instance, buy a ¥4,000 bottle of Johnny Walker. Maybe they just like the taste.

    Holism is nuts. It is the idea that something is going on other than what is actually going on.

    My earlier comment about supply and demand was intended only to illustrate that the contextual nature of value is something discovered by other disciplines. Most businessmen don’t see value as an immutable thing, I don’t think.

  19. @Al West

    I will absolutely grant you that our ability to think about what other people may be thinking is a vital part of human sociality. That is a good point, and certainly not something I purposefully excluded (nor did I intend to deny non-human communication).

    I thought I was rather clear in my rejection of the idea that society is independent of human action – society is made of people, and it makes people. This does not mean that it is reducible to an individual mind, or to a specific interaction. You seem to be performing the equivalent of trying to locate the human mind in a single neural synapse, or to explain a synapse in terms of the properties of an electron. Yes, of course those different levels can and should be connected, but sometimes it makes logical sense to begin an analysis at the higher level of organisation.

    ‘Society’ refers to a conjunction of complex, emergent systems rather than a discrete, concrete and static ‘thing’. I do think that it is often better to speak adjectivally, in terms of ‘the social’ rather than a discrete ‘society’; my own preference is for speaking in terms of social values, social systems, forms of social organisation etc. But there are times when speaking of ‘a society’ is a useful shorthand, despite the risks of such reification.

  20. Why emphasise competition, conflict and contradiction over cooperation, solidarity, and agreement, which are also ‘inherent and pervasive in all human societies’?

    I would not for a moment deny that examples of cooperation, solidarity, and agreement can be found in most human societies and that understanding how and why they do is an important question. I note, however, that nowhere in history, ethnography, or what is, in my case, a fairly long life’s experience, have they been more common than competition, conflict, and contradiction. They appear, at least on the basis of all of the evidence of which I am aware, to be the exception instead of the rule, treasured because of their rarity.

    But whether or not I am right about this, the reason I emphasize them here is that when we try to understand values as part of our ethnographic research, values emerge more clearly in conflict than consensus.

  21. nowhere in history, ethnography, or what is, in my case, a fairly long life’s experience, have they been more common than competition, conflict, and contradiction. They appear, at least on the basis of all of the evidence of which I am aware, to be the exception instead of the rule, treasured because of their rarity.

    That’s a rather strange and sad worldview, John! I’m often considered a rather cynical and pessimistic person, but I’d still say that the opposite of this is not only more likely but blatantly true. Competition and conflict stand out for being disruptions of the routine, everyday cooperation which is the basic element of human social life. I will agree with you that conflict is often a useful way of highlighting social values, bringing them to the ‘surface’ and showing them in contrast, though I would also add that ‘extraordinary’ acts of compassion do so as well. But, our basic everyday interactions—even under a rather dehumanising social system in which a specific form of callous competitiveness can be said to be politically and economically dominant—are still much more about cooperation and empathy. It is true that we currently live in system in which rewards a certain lack of compassion (or those who prosper develop a lack of compassion – I’m not confident of the causal direction here). But most of us don’t like ‘the 1%’ or see them as ‘normal’; we regard them as greedy assholes, and medical science pathologises them as ‘psychopaths’.

    Certain forms of value may become much more prominent or apparent in situations of conflict, and a lot of social systems are based on the submerging conflicting interests and social contradictions beneath an imposed consensus, but everyday sociality still relies on values and practices of mutual cooperation. But I’ll agree with you that these values often become more apparent when they are violated.

  22. @Sean,

    Instead of “strange and sad” what I prefer is “dramatic,” in which tragedy and comedy, both grounded in conflict, are the basic stuff of life and moments of what we might call heroic cooperation (cooperation that approaches what Vic Turner called “communitas”) stand out as exceptions to the rule.

    You are right, of course, that social life depends on what you call everyday cooperation and that no society continues to exist without what Graber labels “primitive communism,” people exchanging helping hands to get things done without keeping score of who has done what. Another essential element is the institutionalized routines that, for example, allow millions of perfect strangers, largely indifferent to each other’s fate, to ride subways together and get where they want to go in the world’s large cities. But if we read the news, examine popular entertainment (in which I include sport and politics) or simply ask people what’s on their mind choices between conflicting values are almost always on their minds, sometimes with comic, sometimes with tragic consequences, depending on the choices they make. That’s what makes life interesting, including those moments of Zen, communitas or familial bliss in which, always for brief moments, choice is not an issue and conflict disappears.

  23. @John
    Sure, I’ll agree that ‘everyday communism’ is kind of boring, and we do tend to gravitate towards more dramatic moments in our narratives and analyses. But I think it’s still a fundamental aspect of social life and the production of social value, even if it is undramatic. And there are plenty of dramatic expressions of compassion that rise above the standard ‘background’ sociality, too.

  24. @Sean

    I am not, for a moment, saying that everyday communism is boring. Pointing out its pervasiveness and, indeed, that it is absolutely essential for getting the world’s work done when work is done by groups of people working together is, to me at least, one of Graeber’s most striking observations. Neither am I denying that extraordinary moments of compassion and self-sacrifice occur. I am saying, however, that to analyze either as if they could be separated from a world in which competition, conflict, and contradiction are equally, if not more, pervasive, is at best utopian.

    The history of utopian communities is particularly instructive in this regard. By definition they set themselves apart from what is seen as a corrupt and evil world from which their members wish to withdraw—conflict is there from the start. Then, usually in fairly short order, at best a generation or three, they fall apart. If you know of any counterexamples to these generalizations, please let me know.

  25. @John

    I don’t really disagree with your more recent comments, but they seem a long way from your earlier statements that cooperation etc are ‘the exception instead of the rule, treasured because of their rarity’ and so on.

    Yes, I absolutely agree that cooperation and conflict are often entangled. And utopian communities–particularly any recent examples I can think of–are typically founded in opposition to ‘mainstream’ society and social values as well as containing their own internal conflicts. I certainly don’t want to deny social conflict or argue that we’re living in a harmonious social order of organic solidarity – I’m usually the ‘but what about the underlying class conflict’ guy.

    But I don’t think that it is useful to define value solely in terms of conflict, although a lot of social conflict can be understood in terms of value(s).

  26. @Sean

    Two points.

    (1) In my earlier remarks, I was thinking of what I later called heroic cooperation. In my later remarks I was taking on board your observation that everyday cooperation is, like conflict, pervasive in human societies.

    (2) I am not at all interested in “defining” values in terms of conflict. I am observing, however, as Ryan has correctly noted, that examining conflicts is a good way to discover what values are—by which I mean the particular criteria in terms of which people make their judgments—and how they relate to each other. What values are actually in play in particular instances of everyday cooperation is harder to determine. Suppose, for example, an ethnographer observes a husband cooking or doing dishes after supper. Is he doing it because of a generic commitment to cooperation as a good in itself? As a quid pro quo? Because he knows that his wife will be angry if he doesn’t play his part in a division of labor on which, she believes, the couple are agreed? Or some combination of all of the above, weighted differently from day to day, depending on such factors as ambient stress, alcohol consumption, the presence or absence and needs of children or elderly parents…..?

  27. Glad to see all these comments.

    Sean a while back you wrote:

    “In my opinion, one of the strengths of Marx’s theory of value (and anthropological adaptations of it by people like Terry Turner and David Graeber) is precisely that it gets at the way in which value is both a dynamic and contested social relation and something which is experienced as an external structure or system.”

    I completely agree with you that this is one of the real strengths of Marx’s approach to value (and Graeber, etc). It’s not just something that is created in the little idyllic market settings between a buyer and seller. The value–of money, things, ideas–is socially created, contested, and maintained…all within what Graeber called “larger systems of meaning.” A little piece of paper isn’t simply commensurate with a cup of coffee because the buyer and seller agree upon the trade–there’s a number of different factors, symbols, assumptions, habits, and histories behind such a seemingly simple transaction. Graeber’s work is really good for thinking about value beyond many of the usual ‘butcher and baker’ kinds of scenarios.

  28. @John:

    “I am not at all interested in “defining” values in terms of conflict. I am observing, however, as Ryan has correctly noted, that examining conflicts is a good way to discover what values are—by which I mean the particular criteria in terms of which people make their judgments—and how they relate to each other.”

    I think that’s a good point–that sometimes social conflict can make certain value attachments or positions a little more apparent or visible. And sometimes during certain social conflicts people are a bit more vocal or adamant about values, positions, choices. Interestingly, one aspect of my fieldwork is that the larger threat of a massive development project has actually pushed more people to rally around the value of community and the importance of cooperation. This in a community that has a long history of internal conflicts and a serious lack of cooperation. What remains to be seen is what happens when/if the threat is no longer there…will the value of community and cooperation fade away?

  29. This does not mean that it is reducible to an individual mind, or to a specific interaction.

    No; it reduces to a series of specific interactions and a bunch of individuals. Society just is the actions, beliefs, and desires of its members. It isn’t something else. So each interaction is a separate event. It doesn’t make any sense to say that a plurality of events reduces to a single event – that’s not what reductionism is. It does make sense, however, to say that something like ‘society’ or ‘the social’ reduces to a plurality of individual events.

    In each event, we can see the values of the participants. That these values relate to generalisable principles, and to the values held by others, is a feat of the mind, and it is important to bear in mind that humans act on the basis of their own judgements, with those judgements often conforming to, but never being determined by, social considerations. It is for this reason that I suggest examining the mental life of values, or of any social facts. This is why I favour propositions such as Searle’s, although I consider his theory mistaken in several regards.

    Sorry for butting into the conversation at this point – looks like things are getting interesting. I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone that I believe conflict to be a fairly ordinary feature of human life. Cooperation seems very often to be generated by fear – partly by fear of external threats (the threat of a development project, as Ryan says), but also by fear of one another. Bali is famed as a place of peace and cooperation, of the harmonious communal values Geertz identified as prevalent in Java as well – rukun and so forth. But you’ll often see Balinese houses pock-marked from all the stones flung at them by mobs, using aggression to make the inhabitants fall into line. We are fortunate to live in a society governed by positive-sum activity – by trade and democratic government (with a good selection of social welfare programmes to boot). Other people are not. Competition and conflict seem to me to be much less present now than throughout most of human history.

  30. @Al
    “Society just is the actions, beliefs, and desires of its members. It isn’t something else. So each interaction is a separate event.”

    I would say that ‘Society’ is the pattern formed by those interactions, and which also shapes them. Social interactions don’t occur in isolation, but within a pre-existing set of social relations (though they are not strictly determined by it).

    I agree with Ryan that eg. the commensurability of a dollar bill for various commodities depends on a whole lot of factors outside the individual exchange (including the power of the state to issue currency, and the generalised system of commodity production which dictates that a cup of coffee is something that can be produced for sale). Theories of value need to take these into account, rather than seeking causal explanation solely in individual desires and choices.

    Anyway, we seem to be going round in circles a bit with this. I think we may be operating with rather different epistemologies.

  31. I agree with Ryan that eg. the commensurability of a dollar bill for various commodities depends on a whole lot of factors outside the individual exchange (including the power of the state to issue currency, and the generalised system of commodity production which dictates that a cup of coffee is something that can be produced for sale).

    This is both trivially true and not true at all. Look at language: language is clearly the same as money in this sense, as the use of certain words and phrases depends on a lot of other factors, including knowledge of the rest of language. It functions ordinarily as if language were something above and beyond specific instances of language use, and meaning appears to be something more than specific instances of conveying ideas.

    But words can change meaning in an instant, as can the value of money in specific transactions. What matters in communication is that the speaker and the listener understand one another, and this doesn’t necessarily depend on conventional meanings or external factors. If I tell you beforehand, or somehow indicate to you, or have good reason to believe that you believe, that I’m using the word ‘toopf’ to mean ‘cereal bowl’, and then I say ‘my toopf is full of milk’, then I am justified in believing that you’ll understand what I mean. Or, as Donald Davidson put it,

    ‘… you cannot change what words mean […] merely by intending to […], but you can change the meaning provided you believe (and perhaps are justified in believing) that the interpreter has adequate clues for the new interpretation. You may deliberately provide those clues.

    (‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’, 1986).

    Likewise, if I stick a gun in someone’s face and tell them to accept rabbit skins in payment for a pint of beer, then they’ll probably accept them. What matters are the specific circumstances individuals find themselves in, often using their knowledge of the rest of the world, and their beliefs about the beliefs of other people, as a guide. Value and meaning are just about common knowledge – recursive nests of beliefs about one another’s beliefs.

    This means that we shouldn’t expect human actions to form neat patterns, only general correspondences. It means that ‘society’ or, if you prefer, ‘the social’, is merely an abstraction. Public values are nothing more than useful abstractions of individual values – abstractions that are often used by the people themselves in guiding their actions, perhaps, but abstraction nonetheless. In that sense, Thatcher is correct.

    As for different epistemologies, there’s really only one: using observation and inferences to understand the world.

    I want to be clear about ontology, however. The word ‘emergence’ has come to mean several things, most of them mutually contradictory. The way I would use and the way you would are clearly different. I would say that ‘society’ is emergent in the sense that it is a useful abstraction based on the behaviour of individuals, to which it entirely reduces in every respect.

  32. Ryan, I’ve been thinking about this post on value in relation to the movie Django Unchained, which I saw two days ago. I think it is worth thinking your initial questions on value in relation to this movie, and more broadly in relation to the question of slavery.

    First, I wonder what ideas (and genealogy) of value one produces when one is thinking about, conceptualizing value in relation to a history of freedom, versus unfreedom. Especially given the line in your post in which you write that everything eventually goes back to Marx, which I find a fascinating idea in and of itself, both for how and why I agree with this assertion, and for how and why I don’t. Does everything really have to go back to Marx? What if it didn’t? I am not denying the importance of Marx in theorizing value (and political economy), but I am wondering about the ways in which his prominence obscures a kind of limiting Eurocentrism which constricts more expansive conceptualization and analysis of value, and obscures the ways in which value comes to be thought through a certain normative white (and male) experience of embodiment.

    In watching Django–and thinking about slavery (which is something I do quite frequently though none of my ancestors were slaves given my parents recent immigration from Africa)–it is rather hard not to think about the question of value, in its multiple valences, and to notice how black bodies (i.e. bodies ascribed black racial status) were differentially valued in relation to eack other (in relation to color, for example) and in relation to all white bodies/citizens, and were simultaneously valued and devalued (i.e. every slave/black body had a price and could be monetarily valued, and yet all black life ultimately had no real value within white supremacy, and it is worth thinking seriously about the enduring legacy/legacies of this (relational) devaluation, especially post-Newton in relation to Tim Wise’s (and others) comments on the throw-away communities in which we expect violence, because of the disposability (i.e. lack of value) we see those racialized non-white Others as having).

    A constant, de facto, unrecognized thinking through of value through white (or non-black) embodiment produces very different concepts of value, in all its valences. I have to think about slavery–and the ideas of value which made it possible and continue to ramify, through historically-sedimented practices, into the present–because of the ongoing (structural, embodied) realities of epidermalization: I am ascribed black racial status, with all its (negative) assumptions, and am constantly assumed to be the descendant of slaves. So it is race (and skin color), not genealogy (in another sense) which forces me to think about slavery. It is not necessarily a ‘choice’ (for me) to think about value in relation to slavery, especially one when is subjected to certain forms of abuse (e.g. ‘the n-word’, accused of being one of the violent, disposable ‘people’ from one of the places ‘we’ expect gun violence to come from) which make clear the ways in which we continue to (de)value bodies/people in relation to slavery–and in relation to those who ‘we’ understand as having been fit for such (de)valued status.

    Reading you post and comments to it, it was hard not to think about the role embodiment (and normative, privileged assumptions about it) and subject position play in conceptualizing value, including in relation to how one understands Marx and assigns him pride of place (and pride of race, as it were). I think it is also noteworthy that prior to my interjection all the respondents were male. (Please correct me if I am mistaken.) Given my gendered subject position (or more accurately, raced and gendered subject position), it is hard not to think about this conversation of value absent prostitution/sex work (i.e. unvalued and valued labels for sex-for-money) , sex slavery, mail-order brides, bride prices and doweries, sex tourism, prenuptial agreements, and engagement rings. And the racial sexual politics of it all, which are predicated on (global/georacial) hierarchies of worth and value. Buying and selling people, across the spectrum of ‘choice’, individual volition, and ‘free will’–and deeply structured by how we differentially value people, value women, and value women as people.

    And finally, coming full circle and returning to Tarantino’s Django: I found myself thinking about the question of value (the questions you ask at the outset of this post) because of discussions* amongst race critical scholars about race/gender privilege in Hollywood and who gets to tell what story how. One cannot discuss the economics of the movie industry without engaging questions of (differential) value, in the multiple valences of this term. From non-colorblind casting to how films get greenlit (or don’t) to questions to marketing and international marketability to (actors’) salaries to who gets to be an A-list actor to what counts as a ‘prestige’ project worthy of film awards, it is all about (differential) value and the ways in which different forms of value imbricated and co-produce each other.

    So, a different perspective on value, from an unconventional but certainly anthropological source.

    *http://thefeministwire.com/2012/12/django-unchained-a-critical-conversation-between-two-friends/

    and http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/12/28/black-audiences-white-stars-and-django-unchained/

    Actually, one more thing. I should add that in writing this response I was also thinking about the question of who anthropologists value as knowledge producers and theoretical interlocutors, especially in relation to ongoing racist abuse I continue to be subjected to my certain shockingly racist white anthropologists who made clear in writing that because of my race/skin color/gender they consider everything I have to say about race/gender/value/sexual politics to be “meaningless” (i.e. without (anthropological) value). I’d like to think my comments above show what an impoverished perspective this is. So yes, sadly, we still (de)value people in relation to slavery (and who, via implicit bias, continues to be seen as fit for slavery), and we should, as anthropologists think critically about value in relation to this history–including so as to challenge anthropology as ‘white public space’.

  33. @DWP:

    Sorry for the delay–comments on posts more than a couple weeks old have to go through moderation, which just means that I get an email and have to approve them. So the delay is just a matter of me getting to my email.

    Good points about value, especially thinking about what “value” means (or can mean) outside of some of the dominant paradigms (like Marxian political economy). I think you’re right to question what it means to say that everything leads back to Marx when it comes to value. There are benefits, as you say, but also problems with tracing value along those lines.

    Since “value” basically equates to “what matters,” there are lots of ways to approach what it means, or how people define or rank what kinds of things matter more than others (whether things, ideas, or, as you point out, other people). So the value stuff can easily head into larger discussions about ethics, rights, philosophy, etc, and those kinds of discussions can have vastly different roots.

    In all honesty, I feel like I am just barely scratching the surface with this whole value discussion, so your take is appreciated.

    Oh and by the way: your comments about slavery and value bring to mind Graeber’s ideas about slaver and debt from his last book (Debt). Makes me want to revisit some of those pages.

  34. @Ryan:
    “Since “value” basically equates to “what matters,” there are lots of ways to approach what it means, or how people define or rank what kinds of things matter more than others (whether things, ideas, or, as you point out, other people).”

    Apropos of your insightful comment:http://www.aauw.org/media/pressreleases/LeblancEPATitleVII_010213.cfm

    Literally attaching dollar amounts (i.e. monetary value) to the hierarchy of who is seen as mattering, valuable, worth-less, “meaningless “(in the academy).

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