Society for the Anthropology of North America
Oral Presentation Session
Abstract: The concept of “value” is Janus face, both the driver of capitalism, as surplus value, and the possibility of its negation. Value takes its form within capitalist processes, and it is articulated in structures of sentiment, practices and social relations by people who confront the contradictions of social reproduction. Therefore, neither a purely materialist or idealist notion is ethnographically realistic.
Yet anthropologists have recently returned with full idealist force to the study of value, moralities, and moral economies. In the face of financial crisis, austerity, and new sites for capital investment, fieldworkers document social relations, economic practices and resistance that seemingly manifest moral orders distinct from capitalist surplus value. Anthropologists have indeed come face-to-face with the heterogeneity of capitalism. Many of these studies emanate from a culturalist project rooted in a Maussian assertion that distinct spheres and logics grow on the ‘outside’ of capitalism. If this difference appears sure when the ethnographic frame is synchronic, when the frame is historical, the co-evolution of spheres comes clearly into view. More, these studies often adroitly skirt questions of class. The ‘class compasses’ built into ongoing episodes of popular outrage and into manifold alternative economic and social practices relations therefore remain fundamentally under-theorized.
“Frontlines of Value” sets out a research program in anthropology to examine the contradictions of value. As a first move, individual papers closely examine the articulations, contradictions or struggles (manifest or immanent) over meaning, livelihood and labor. These papers are based on fieldwork in settings differently located in the spatially uneven, and steadily differentiating conditions for social reproduction in Nepal, China, Romania, US, and UK. What moralities and structures of sentiment are expressed and which cohere? What articulations and contradictions come to the fore or recede? Are contestations in formation? If so, are they particularist or more universalist and what are their class compasses?