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