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Daniel Reichman. 2008. “Justice at a Price: Regulation and Alienation in the Global Economy.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 31(1): 102–117.
A growing number of U.S. consumers choose to spend a bit more for a “fair” cup of coffee. By guaranteeing farmers $1.26 per pound for unroasted beans, consumers affirm a commitment to “fair capitalism” in a global market of mass-produced commodities and stark inequalities. This “fair trade” movement emerged after the dismantling of Cold War–era international treaties, which attempted to stabilize coffee prices in developing economies through production quotas. Daniel Reichman delves into the consequences of international deregulation in “Justice at a Price,” examining limited attempts by different social groups at transnational market regulation. Reichman suggests that these attempts largely fail to secure fairness or justice for alienated individuals, whether fair trade consumers or exploited coffee plantation workers, separated from one another in the global market.
The people that Reichman portrays in his account perceive only limited aspects of the global economy and resort to individual actions as bases for social change. After being fired from McDonald’s during a cost-cutting measure, Tony used his savings to buy a Honduran coffee farm. He sells some of his coffee in the cargo areas of JFK airport, but most must be sold for 35 cents per pound to a corporate subsidiary. Tony expresses frustration with the national coffee chains that dominate the JFK passenger terminals but does not question the wider economic system. His Honduran workers direct their anger toward him, a New Yorker presumed to be making millions by exploiting their labor. In turn, troubled by injustice, many New Yorkers choose to purchase “authentic” fair trade coffee, affirming their individual identities as socially conscious consumers. Fair trade purchases increased 1000 percent from 2000–2005, to two percent of the U.S. coffee market. However, by focusing on incremental social change through individual choices, fair trade marketing also tends to neglect important questions about systemic global inequalities and the role of states in regulation.
As the current economic crisis continues to broaden awareness of inequalities and interconnections, Reichman offers an important exploration of the limits of different forms of regulation, encouraging a comprehensive or systemic understanding of the global economy. While fair trade coffee might help wake thousands of individuals, a systemic analysis promises renewed attention to the importance of the state, international institutions, and collective political action—not just individual consumer choices—in challenging interconnected injustices worldwide.
Social Movements as Makers of Meaning
Charles Price, Donald Nonini, and Erich Fox Tree. 2008. “Grounded Utopian Movements: Subjects of Neglect.” Anthropological Quarterly 81(1): 127–159.
María Isabel Casas-Cortés, Michal Osterweil, and Dana E. Powell. 2008. “Blurring Boundaries: Recognizing Knowledge-Practices in the Study of Social Movements.” Anthropological Quarterly 81(1): 17–58.
Anthropologists have often taken a backseat to sociologists and political scientists in studying social movements. The winter 2008 issue of Anthropological Quarterly, however, presents the work of twelve anthropologists who draw on the discipline’s strengths in understanding culture and social practices. This collection calls for a new understanding of social movements as sites where meanings are made, furthering social movement scholarship in the areas of identity, tradition, and emotion.
In one article, Charles Price, Donald Nonini, and Eric Fox Tree introduce the concept of the Grounded Utopian Movement (GUM). GUMs are long-term efforts such as Jamaican Rastafarianism and persistent Maya cultural resistance in Mexico and Guatemala that envision an alternative, ideal social order. GUMs have their own “rationalities, often based in religious or non-Western cultural perspectives,” (145) which go beyond their economic or political demands. Their visions are grounded in “real places, embodied by living people, informed by past lifeways,” and kept alive through everyday practices (128). For example, a variety of Maya movements have emerged over generations of conflict with the state. Each time, new leaders, forms of action, and ways of organizing have connected to ongoing cultural traditions. Price, Nonini, and Fox Tree believe that many, and perhaps most, movements include GUM-like efforts “to constitute more satisfying lives and generate personal transformations in pursuit of grounded utopias.” These qualities occur alongside the goal-oriented strategies of “gaining power and representation” that traditional social movement studies emphasize (135).
María Isabel Casas-Cortés, Michal Osterweil, and Dana E. Powell see social movements as prolific producers of knowledge. Besides mobilizing their members, social movements often get involved in scientific debates. They encourage their members to look at the world in new ways and to develop their own theories of society (19). For example, indigenous environmental justice networks rely on conventional ecological science and push for scientists and the public to take “stories, community-based research, and lived experience” as seriously as they do numbers-based research (31). The article also considers how direct-action movements use consensus decision making as a way to reimagine social relationships. In listening to one another and acknowledging hidden differences of power among themselves, activists “relearn how to act and think about democracy.” In the process, they gain new knowledge of “hidden privileges,” silences, and “participatory possibilities” in person-to-person interactions (35, 37).
Anthropologists are now encountering social movements as producers of meaning and, like themselves, theorists of society. According to these authors, this redefines the role of researchers beyond the charting of movements’ rise and fall toward “the documentation of and engagement with activist knowledges” (28).
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