ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


A world of goods and the wealth of nations: anthropologies of export

Location Quincentenary Building, Wadsworth Room
Date and Start Time 20 June, 2014 at 14:00


Siobhan Magee (University of Edinburgh) email
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This panel uses export's historical significance in the expansion of nation states as a starting point for exploring both labour in export industries and the export of labour, the materiality of exported goods, and where an anthropology of export might sit in relation to work on globalization.

Long Abstract

Exportation is generally understood as the process of dispatching goods or services to another country in return for payment. That export might also evoke the transmission of ideas, practices, and authority signals its historical significance that pre-dates ¬- but also helped to develop - the nation state. The export of tobacco, fur, silk, and tea are not only linked to the growth of cities, banks, mercantile classes, and colonial power; in some cases, they constituted them (Yanagisako 2010; Sleeper-Smith 2000). Export also provides a lens onto shifting labour practices, from the trade of 'military man-power' (Wolf 1972) to outsourcing, and anxieties about 'brain drain'.

This panel seeks a diverse set of papers reflecting the ubiquity of export in an era of globalized goods and labour, and the genealogies between histories of export and contemporary global and domestic class structures (Roseberry 2007). What are the lived experiences of those who make products to be sold internationally or who scope international markets for entrepreneurial opportunities? What parts do laws and ethics play in export, from 'free trade' agreements to the rise of 'fair trade'? Some panelists might unpack the material and/or symbolic resonances of exported 'things', inspired by granular accounts of, for example, different cuts of meat from the same animal being dispatched to different places (Gewertz and Errington 2010). Should an anthropology of export be embedded within work on globalization (e.g. Trouillot 2001; Kearney 1995; Eriksen 2003), or does it give a contrasting/ conflictual view of such practices?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Ghanaian trade agents in China as vectors of "world time"

Author: Alena Thiel (Bayreuth University)  email


Focusing on traveling ideas associated with transnational entrepreneurship, this paper shows how Ghanaian trade agents in China act as translators between West African and Chinese urban modernities.

Long Abstract

African trade agents in China have been described as actors in a process of "globalization from below" (Mathews 2011, Mathews and Yang 2012). Catering for the needs of transnational entrepreneurs from Africa and its diasporas, these African agents act as toeholds (Müller 2011, Bredeloup 2012) for a "new brand of traders" (Darkwah 2007), who in search for ever new lucrative commodity hubs pass through global sourcing destinations like Bangkok, Dubai, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and/or Yiwu. With the help of the case study of resident Ghanaian trade agents in Guangzhou, Yiwu and, marginally, Hong Kong, this paper analyses Chinese exports to Africa from the perspective of these border crossers (Gupta and Ferguson 2002) facilitating business deals for large numbers of venturing entrepreneurs. Tracing the biographic and entrepreneurial trajectories of established Ghanaian agents in the three location, as well as their integration into communal and business structures in China with their associated socio-economic hierarchies, I illustrate how the concept of "globalization from below" faces its limits in describing the complex composition and constellations of the Ghanaian community in China. Nonetheless, theories of globalization remain core to the analysis of the traveling ideas that these African residents in China both bring in their conceptual luggage but also transport back into their home societies along with their processing of Chinese consumer goods for export. Focusing on traveling significations in the realm of entrepreneurial practices, I show how Ghanaian trade agents in China act as translators between West African and Chinese urban modernities.

Exporting know-how: a British soap-opera in Kazakhstan

Author: Ruth Mandel (University College, London)  email


Following the collapse of the USSR, UK foreign aid invested one million pounds in newly-independent Kazakhstan to produce a TV soap opera with the subtext of teaching postsocialist citizens about market economy and democracy. The paper explores the back-story of this novel ideological export.

Long Abstract

Following the collapse of the USSR and the independence of former Soviet republics, the British Know-How-Fund (a joint effort of the FCO and international development arm ODA) invested one million pounds producing a television TV soap opera with the subtext of teaching former Soviet, postsocialist Kazakhstanis about the market economy and democracy. Until the end of the Cold War, western international development aid was relegated to civil engineering projects, educational, agricultural and health care aid. The post-Soviet region offered novel opportunities, in a period of late-capitalism, for new sorts of aid and economic expansion into previously off-limits potential consumers and emerging markets. Multi-nationals along with international development agencies began their penetration with market and ideological infiltration. The UK and other western powers bombarded the region, exporting neo-liberal projects and propaganda, including the TV soap opera 'Crossroads' in Kazakhstan. British soap opera experts taught several hundred Kazakhstanis the techniques of soap opera production, along with methods of producing storylines with a message. This paper discusses the conflicts that emerged when clashing visions of British social realism were exported to a society steeped in a history of socialist realism, yet already penetrated by South American melodramatic teleserials. The paper juxtaposes stories of the Kazakhstani writers' and actors' resistance against the British trainers with first, instructions from Whitehall and second, creative manipulation of the producers in the context of heavy political censorship from Kazakhstan's authoritarian president and his cabinet of ministers who kept a close watch on the storylines of the series.

Exports by another name? Cross-border infertility treatment and international surrogacy

Author: Jennifer Speirs (University of Edinburgh)  email


In this paper I explore how some free-market exports, in particular anonymously donated gametes and babies born of surrogacy arrangements, are seen as detrimental to the nation-state because they challenge compliance with international rights conventions and benefit private medical entrepreneurs.

Long Abstract

The Scottish Enlightenment moral philosopher Adam Smith proposed that self-interest indirectly promotes the good of society and his work has been used to support the benefits of economic liberalism. In this paper I explore how some free-market exports, in particular anonymously donated gametes and babies born of surrogacy arrangements are considered detrimental to the nation-state because they challenge compliance with international rights conventions. The protection of human rights, children's rights, and rights in relation to biomedicine are covered by a number of international declarations, charters and treaties although not all states have signed up to them all.

These exports depend on consumer demand (from people with fertility problems who are desperate for children of their own) and on the entrepreneurship of clinic operators and infertility specialists who exploit gaps in or the absence of state regulation in order to supply the necessary goods. These goods are provided especially by young people and poor women in return for money, but there are concerns about whether they do so from genuine free will, and how the arrangements will be explained to the 'exports' when they become enquiring human beings.

Between event and amity: making sense of success and failure in the international fur trade

Author: Siobhan Magee (University of Edinburgh)  email


Using ethnographic data collected from people who work in the Polish and Danish fur industries, the paper discusses how perceived successes and failures in international export deals are sometimes attributed to a suggestively discordant mixture of geopolitical and interpersonal factors.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the kinship and temporal idioms used by Polish and Danish fur industry workers to discuss international export. When describing the trajectories of their own careers in fur and those of other 'fur people' in relation to export, informants frequently speak of being impacted deeply by industry-specific changes such as the cooperatisation of certain international fur auction houses (see Skov 2005; Willerslev 2012); and broader socio-economic and political changes such as the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and Poland's 2004 accession to the European Union. One could therefore be forgiven for perceiving fur as simply a material manifestation of geopolitical phenomena. Historically, it has been both evidence of conquest and motivation for conquest (Kerner 1942; Wolf 1982), and latterly, it is the focus of nation-centred discourses brought to the fore by the selective breeding of animals 'from' different countries.

The anthropological issue at the crux of this paper, however, concerns informants' inclusion in their accounts of 'successes' and 'failures' in the establishment and/or delivery of export deals, of both allusions to state and international law and politics and, suggestively, either apparently serendipitous amity or unforeseeable failures to see eye-to-eye, with interlocutors from the 'other side' of the deal. The question asked by the paper, therefore, is not only 'how does export encompass both international and interpersonal relationships?' but 'what exists in the space between large-scale political and economic contexts and feelings of connection with - or disconnection from - other persons?'

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.