Inter-area/Border Crossing

Organized Panel Session

2 - ‘I Never Care What I Sell, but People Still Buy from Me!’ Fabric Materiality and Its Meanings among Indian Traders in Southeast China

Saturday, July 7
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM
Location: Kadamba, Lower Ground Floor

Appadurai’s Social Life of Things has shaped a generation of anthropological research on the flows of commodities. Such perspective is particularly useful in capturing how cultural meanings of a commodity has changed when it is moved from one site to another. But this is arguably less useful in analyzing the structural inequalities in today’s global trade, which has been pervaded by the transnational regime of outsourcing, offshoring, and subcontracting commodity production. In this debate, a challenging question to ask is: how can we study the cultural significance of commodity materiality without losing sight of its global political economy? This paper aims to engage the debate through a case study of Indian traders in southeast China, whose fabric business hinges on a situated understanding of commodity materiality and global politics. Drawing on long-term fieldwork (2010-2012; 2016-2017), it illustrates that Indian traders rarely seek any affective or cultural attachment with the fabrics they export. Rather, their engagement with the fabric materiality is deeply business-oriented and culturally decontextualized, with a clear goal in maximizing the flexibility in the production process. In so doing, they actively build up a business niche in global fabric economy, which would be otherwise overwhelmingly dominated by powerful players and corporations on the side of buying.

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