In case you haven’t heard, one of the ideas/concepts that I have been exploring is value. Check out this post here on SM for a little background. The concept itself is either really, really interesting, or, as one of my friends put it: little more than a big weasel word.
So which is it? Both, I think.
Reading books and articles by Keith Hart, David Graeber, and Julia Elyachar, among others, has convinced my both of the fact that value is interesting and somewhat maddening. It’s incredibly rich, and terribly vague at the same time. I mean, how do we determine the value of particular things, ideas, and places–and how are different value regimes or systems comparable (e.g. is there a really useful way to compare or juxtapose moral value systems with those based upon money and markets)?
Going into fieldwork I decided to put the whole value question to the side a bit, and let things go where they may for a while. Sometimes it’s a good idea to let certain pet ideas and theories take a back seat for a while to open up room for a range of possibilities. You know, let the empirical stuff run amok for a bit and keep a notebook on hand just in case. Besides, I was getting to a point where the whole value thing was starting to seem a bit too abstract. So I gave it a rest.
Then, when I was attending a community meeting about plans for shaping local development, the value question came crashing back into the forefront. The meeting itself was all about how one of the communities where I am working is looking to create a strategic development plan in contrast to the mega-tourism development proposals that they feel threaten their way of life. It was hosted by one of the local conservation groups, and led by a marketing and consultation group. One of the speakers at the meeting started talking about the difference between price and value in the production of tourism sites, and how the actual value or meaning of a particular place or experience is not one and the same as the price that people are willing to pay for these things. Value, he argued, is something apart, something a little more than a set of numbers associated with a medium of exchange.
This speaker’s argument, in short, was that the community needs to think about producing a certain kind of place, rather than just trying to create a place that just makes money (although it can surely be argued that money has a lot more meaning than many assume–check out Hart’s book on the subject for starters). Ultimately, he is talking about the production of a certain kind of value, which to me was very interesting. Especially since he was speaking to the community in a context of producing a particular place with a network of services to attend to the needs of a growing tourism economy.
So his argument about the differences between price and value were meant to get people to see that there is more to tourism than just charging money, and that the local tourism economy needs to take account of other ways in which people value certain experiences, events, and places. So, in the end, it was all geared toward serving a market, just with different considerations in mind. It’s not like he was talking about the values of community as well…he was talking about how to appeal to a certain class of tourists. This is an argument for a particular kind of value production, but one that differs from the sort that Elyachar talks about in her book Markets of Dispossession, where people were producing a kind of value based upon social solidarity.
Regardless, the value question is back on the table…maybe as it should be. It never really left entirely, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it so I kind of let it wander around in my mental pastures for a bit–on a very long leash. It was there, but kind out there on a distant knoll if you know what I mean (talk about being abstract!). The funny thing is that it’s always hard to balance these kinds of theoretical obsessions with the tumultuous, unpredictable, you-never-know-what-you’re-going-to-get nature of fieldwork. But, things come and go, and I guess the main lesson here is to find ways to remain open to taking them in stride when they do show up on your mental doorstep. Because you just never know when theory is going to come back and smack you in the face.