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“More than Face Value: An Anthropologist Looks at Gift Giving in Consumer Society” By Joshua Roth
What’s an Object Worth?
Two students in associate professor of anthropology Joshua Roth’s course Shopping and Swapping: Cultures of Consumption and Exchange agreed to share their papers. The assignment was to imagine the “biography of an object, ” to explore the many ways we define the value of what we purchase, use, share, or exchange.
For Anthropology 212
By Tricia Chase ’12
Have you ever thought about selling your dog to make some extra cash? Almost any dog owner you ask would say no. I myself, like many dog owners, see my dog(s) as a part of my family just as much as all my human relatives. To me, both my dogs are singular, as in there is nothing equal to them in value. Though household pets, dogs in particular, are not often regarded as commodities, the truth is they can be or already have been an object with an exchange value (a commodity). In these following paragraphs I will explore the blurred lines between singularized and commoditized traveled across, often more than once, by domesticated dogs, in particular one dog named Abbey. Man may consider dog his best friend, but a dog is one friend that at times doesn’t come cheap.
The basic price tag of a dog is generally dependent on a combination of the following: its breed, its physical state, and its age. The price then fluctuates dependant on the “distributor,” which could be a shelter (a rescue center or adoption program), a breeder, or a pet store. For example, in America a pure breed golden retriever (one of the top five most popular breeds in the country) at five months, in good physical shape with no deformities could typically be sold by a breeder or pet store in the thousands, and from a shelter you would pay a fee in the hundreds. After vet bills, food, toys, a collar, dog tags, a leash, a dog dish, and anything else a new puppy might need, the bill starts to add up and the “Canine Market” is looking pretty lucrative. The point is that dogs can be fully commoditized, though we don’t ever look at our beloved four-legged friends as products in a “Canine Market” so to speak. There is a moral dilemma in our society that may account for our denial of the domesticated dog as a commodity. The dilemma is that dogs are living things and in our society it is considered morally wrong to commoditize living beings, to strip them of basic rights. Our moral qualms haven’t stopped us yet. Dogs, along with other living things, can be and are still commoditized.
The transition of a dog away from being a commodity and towards the singularized state we like to think of our loyal companions as begins with a dog as both. By both, I mean the dog figuratively hangs between the boundaries of singularized and commoditized in the same instance. This can happen at the time of sale (or exchange) of the dog and is based on perspective. For example a breeder (the distributor) sees a dog as a commodity because he/she names a price (an exchange value) and receives a profit through exchange of the dog. A family (the owner) sees the dog singularly as their new dog and will not place an exchange value on the dog. The dog is momentarily both commoditized and singularized.
A dog is completely shifted from commoditized to singularized by the act of receiving an owner. For the purpose of this paper, an owner will be defined as someone intending to keep the dog with no intent of resale and who develops an emotional attachment to the dog. An owner loves the dog and has a sentimental attachment to what is now his/her dog. The dog is given a name and thus also given a singular identity. The owner views their dog as unique, with nothing equal to it in value. In other words, the owner would not sell their dog at any price nor exchange it by any other means. Since the owner has no intent of resale and holds the dog equal to nothing in exchange, the dog thus has no exchange value. It is at this point a dog has become fully singularized. We can take a closer look at the process of a dog becoming singularized after being commoditized through a golden retriever named Abbey.
Abbey’s story begins as a golden little fluff ball with big brown eyes and the cutest floppy ears you’d ever seen. Abbey was one of two girls in a litter of eight puppies produced from two (legally) pure breed golden retrievers owned by a breeder from Agawam Massachusetts. This furry little bundle of joy could be acquired for a mere $1,500. Remember back to the example of price tags of dogs in paragraph two. A young family looking for their first dog could not afford to pay the, what was in this case, fairly cheap amount for a pure breed, healthy, golden retriever puppy (some may be sold for up to $5,000 from a reputable breeder). Thus the family, my cousins, made a deal with the breeder, who they happened to have a personal relationship with, and took little Abbey home with them to a house on Glendale Street with a nice big fenced- in yard.
The deal was that my cousins could take Abbey without paying anything for her up front in exchange that Abbey would be bred and the breeder would receive half the profit of all puppies sold. The breeder was making out, considering instead of just receiving $1,500 off of one puppy sold she would now make anywhere from around $5,250 to $12,000 off the exchange of that single dog. Her profit would obviously depend on how many litters of puppies Abbey was to have and how many viable puppies were in each litter. Not only was the breeder making out, but my cousins [were] as well. They were receiving their desired object, a new dog, in addition to extra profit in the other half of the money made for all puppies sold. It is at this point that Abbey fully functions as a commodity. She not only has a set monetary rate, but is also exchangeable through her predicted profitability. In other words, as a puppy, and full-blown commodity, Abbey was worth money and had the potential to make it too.
Abbey’s transition from commodity to singular began shortly after my cousins took her home. As Abbey grew older my cousins grew more attached and Abbey began to acquire a sentimental value to my cousins. Each member of Abbey’s “owner family” loved her. She had a specific identity and personality according to her owners and was thus singularized by them. Then Abbey was finally of age to begin to breed. Abbey was to be bred with Brodie, a strapping, young golden retriever about two years older than her. They would make beautiful (not to mention valuable) puppies together. Abbey would go on to have two litters of puppies between seven and eight puppies apiece, all absolutely adorable and exchangeable. Each puppy would be sold to owners from around the country at a price between $1,000 and $1,500. While Abbey was breeding, though she was still singularized because she was still my cousins’ Abbey, she was also a commodity because her puppies were making my cousins and the breeder she was originally exchanged from money. Abbey was both commoditized and singular at this point, which I will call the “transitional period.” The transitional period was the time when Abbey could still hold an exchangeable value in some way for my cousins and others by generating profit. (Her value equaled the profit she was making at the time.)
Abbey only became fully singularized when she stopped being bred. She was no longer generating a profit, therefore she no longer held a set value. She was however still loved by her owners and would forever be their dog, and certainly would not be resold at any point. My cousins’ love of Abbey makes her [unequal] to anything else on earth to them and thus she no longer had an exchange value. Abbey was now not even one in a million, but literally one in infinity, in my cousins’ eyes. Once fully singularized she could never go back to being commoditized as she could when she was in the “transitional period” from commodity to singular. This is because in the “transitional period” Abbey still held some sort of set value in certain respects so she was not fully singularized. Once did become fully singularized, all of her monetary (set) value was lost and there is no way for her to re-attain that value because she would no longer generate profit and because she has an owner who prevents that from happening. (It is not like my cousins will just give Abbey up.)
Interestingly enough, I have seen that many dogs follow a similar path to Abbey’s in the processes of commoditization and singularizing. They are first commodities, and then both in a “transitional period” based on perspective, and finally brought to a point of no return as singularized. I believe this has something to say about our American society in particular. In America personal identity, how one defines themself, is extremely important. We define ourselves by where we are from, how we look, what we do, and often by what we own. America is a consumer society fueled by a culture in which the possessions you own and how valuable they are will determine some of the first judgments passed. Thus Americans acquire possessions and make them their “own” in an attempt to define their identity and make that identity interesting. By making the objects their “own” and unique, they then give the objects themselves identities. Dogs, like many other high-status commodities in America, are always led to be permanently singular because we want to make them ours and only ours so they can specifically define us as a person and no one else. High-status commodities can be described as a commodity that the majority of people like and want. This majority tries to stake a claim on that commodity and make it a part of their identity by singularizing it, and thus that is how the story goes.
The process of commoditization of dogs like Abbey can also be likened to the exchange processes of other commodities in different cultures. The exchange of dogs in America is much like the Tiv people of Nigeria’s exchange of women. The woman is not looked upon as a commodity (just as dogs are not), but can be exchanged for another women or, in few cases, [for] other items valuable in Tiv culture (just as dogs can). The women is valuable to both sides of the exchange, one side receives her as an individual, but the other side of the exchange still holds rights to the women’s children (much like the situation of Abbey and her puppies). This cross-cultural phenomenon indicates that commoditization and singularizing are not necessarily unique processes in different cultures; rather the process is the same, but the objects being exchanged are different.
No matter what culture or what object, the fact is that as people it seems the art of exchange is engrained within us. It is part of our survival in society and thus we will always commoditize as well as singularize. So what it comes down to is dogs will continue to be commoditized and then singularized, just like Abbey has been, and that is that. To answer the question, these pets are products and will continue to be. We don’t care about how it makes the dog feel or if it’s what the dog wants. If you ask me, “man” isn’t so great of a best friend, but than again maybe it evens out since you don’t see our dogs cleaning up our poop.
By Zoë Darrow ’12
During my first semester at Mount Holyoke College, I was, like many other freshmen, severely homesick. Having been home-schooled my entire life, I have grown very close to my parents. My first few months of not seeing or even talking to them every day was deeply unsettling and more than a little discouraging. Having to meet and make all new friends was equally trying, making me self conscious and lonely. One day, while nervously downing mass-produced “homemade” in the cacophony of the dining hall, an acquaintance sat down and started a conversation. She listened to my firsty woes and sympathized with my insecurities. She made me feel a little more human. Before she left she said to me “I have a pair of earrings I would like you to have; I don’t wear them anymore and I think you would like them.”
This act held a lot of meaning to me for three reasons. Firstly, I had made friends with a wonderful person. Secondly, this person liked me enough that she considered giving me a gift. And thirdly, possibly most importantly, that gift she was passing on to me was a personal possession which probably had sentimental value to her. I started to feel like college might not be so horrible.
The earrings she gave me are gauged, which mean your ear piercings must be stretched to accommodate them. (All jewelry comes in a specific gauge. The most common wire gauge is 20g [1/32”], about the size of a pin. Stretching your ears anywhere over that must be done slowly to avoid tearing and scarring. Small gauges,10g [1/10”] to 2g [1/4”] are most common, but the earlobe is capable of stretching much further and it is not unheard of to gauge all the way to 2”. This would take several years to achieve. Gauges can be made out of almost any material, the most common are metal, wood, glass, bone, horn, and acrylic. ) Jewelry like this seems to me to be even more personal because it must be the right size, like clothing. The earrings are 10g, they fit my ears perfectly. They are hand-carved, of mother-of-pearl shell. One side is a beautiful pearly white, the other a creamy yellow. Streaks of different coloring are apparent on both faces; they are vaguely translucent. The earrings are not identical, they differ slightly in shape and coloring. Whenever I wear them, people smile broadly and say “I really like your earrings, they look kind of like sea horses!” It makes me happy when people notice them, and it reminds me of how I survived those first few weeks in a new school.
While on Prince Edward Island (Canada) for a music festival, I noticed that one of my precious earrings had fallen out. It was night time, and we had been sitting in a large field. I searched for my earring for a good half hour, but did not find it. I was very sad, I felt I had lost a connection to that first act of friendship I had felt at MHC, to my first days as a college student. We left P.E.I. two days later and I couldn’t help but think of that little bit of my life left behind in the field to be stepped on, mowed over, and forgotten. Two days later, a friend informed me that he had found the missing earring intact the next morning and had packed it up and sent it back to me. It soon found its way home. I was stunned to hear this; I had given it up for lost and knew the chances of getting it back were very slim. It made me feel as though the earrings were meant to stay with me.
When the package arrived, I realized I had no idea where the second earring was. I searched my luggage and the pockets of my clothing without luck. I was just plain irritated. My own absentmindedness was completely undermining the miraculous recovery of the first earring. A couple of weeks later, back on campus while walking to classes, I reached into my coat pocket and felt something foreign. When I pulled it out, I realized it was the second earring, snapped cleanly in half. The shock was terrible; I felt almost like crying because I knew that I had probably broken it unwittingly while packing the jacket to go to school. I racked my brains trying to remember if shell could be glued back together. I wondered if I could glue a piece of cloth to the back of the join to reinforce it, like a Band-aid or if I could somehow wire it back together. In the end I was able to repair the break with superglue alone, and it has held together beautifully. Again, I was amazed how this worked out, and felt that these earrings wanted to be worn as much as I wanted to wear them.
However, a point must be made. Before the second earring broke, the pair would have been re-sellable. Judging by the selling price of used earrings of almost identical style on eBay, they were worth anywhere from $30 to $40. After the break (which caused a small chip on the reverse face) and repair (which was imperfect; small beads of glue are apparent across the length of the seam) I am confident that the pair is monetarily worthless. Ironically, after the unfortunate snap, they are worth all the more to me. These little earrings have become an anomaly of perseverance, a reminder of friendship, a story of finding what is lost and repairing what is broken. If one were to get into the metaphor mood one could say they are a symbol of hope.
My mother always says, “Don’t buy it if you can make it yourself.” I have learned how to make food, paper, and jewelry, knit and sew clothing, build coops and fences for animals, carve spoons, and throw pottery (i.e. to make it on a pottery wheel, not to literally toss it)! I am not greatly proficient at any of these activities, but I understand the processes and the effort that goes into it. Whenever I see an object, especially a hand crafted one, I find myself trying to figure out the steps and skill involved in making it, and how hard I would have to work to produce anything comparable. The earrings intrigued me because I have no idea how one harvests mother of pearl or what kinds of tools one would use to cut and carve it. I know from trying to carve wood that getting that amount of detail would take special knowledge and tools. Holding them in my hand is like receiving a gift from the artist himself—a gift of time, knowledge, and effort.
While I can never know for sure, I believe the mother of pearl my earrings are made of was harvested from the sea and carved in Bali, Indonesia. Often villages will specialize in the manufacturing of one specific product such as cloth, furniture, or silverware. In the case of these earrings, the mother-of-pearl shells were probably harvested by local fishermen and carved by an artisan and his apprentices in the same town.
Most jewelry importers (especially of specialty items like mother-of-pearl gauge earrings) claim to be fair trade and concerned with the craftsmen’s well being. They claim to pay top dollar for the goods they purchase, but I would be surprised to learn that the workers make much more than $5 per pair of earrings. (There is a great possibility they make much less.) While searching online, I learned that the style of earring I received as a gift were probably sold for $45–50. The more intricate designs go for $60–$100.
If my hunch is correct, the importers are making far more than a 50 percent profit even though they are doing the easiest part of the job. This baffles me. Most artisans in the United States receive the lion’s share of the profit, even when selling through a dealer of some kind. How much money did the artist make that carved these earrings? Was it enough to support his village? Was it enough to feed his family? Who collected the shells that were made into earrings? How dangerous was the work? Did he make enough to buy clothing and medicine? And what about the animal that made the shell? Was it harvested sustainably? Will the bays of Bali be the same in ten years if they continue harvesting them in the quantity they are harvesting them in now? Who taught the workers, from the fishermen to the artists, how to do the jobs they are doing now? Will they teach someone else to do the work when they no longer can? What kind of specialty training did the importer have? What risks are did they take? How many other people in the world could do their job?
I feel that without the upbringing I had I would not appreciate material goods as much as I do now. I often meet people that appear to be completely oblivious to the labor and knowledge that goes into things. More than once I have asked someone what their jacket or sweater was made out of, expecting an answer like cotton or wool, and was shocked to hear a response like “I think its just string.” I notice people often answer the question “How do you make this?” with “You can just buy it at Walmart.” Are these people completely uninterested in the world around them? I feel that sometimes the only reason people start paying attention is when they are directly and negatively affected. (Like people finally realizing what food is made of because they develop an allergy to something and have to check food labels.) Equally irritating are people who become temporarily obsessed with one brand over another over erroneous information about production. (Actually overheard on MHC campus: “I’m totally not buying brand X anymore, I heard they totally kill puppies and shit. That’s like, animal abuse.”) What happened to the well-informed consumer?
I think society today depends a little too much on material goods to make them “happy.” I would be happy owning only the essential items and not accumulating boxes of things that were bought solely because they were “cute,” “trendy,” or because I felt I had to have one of my very own instead of sharing. (For instance, does everyone need their very own collector’s edition complete seasons of The Simpsons? I think not. One could rely on their local library just as easily.) I am also wary of redundant buying. (“Honey, why do you want to buy that? Don’t you have another red sweater exactly like it?” “That one is cherry. This one is fire engine.”)
I feel that these types of deranged consumerism would be cut down greatly if material goods were of better quality so they need not be replaced and could even be passed down from generation to generation. But even more importantly, I feel it could be remedied if people started buying more mindfully, appreciating the time and labor that goes into what they are buying and seeing the people behind the object. If people took the time to look for items that were well made and to buy them directly from the makers, there wouldn’t be so much consumer overkill. In the same vein, if they invested more time researching material objects, they may be more likely to repair them instead of throwing them away when they need mending (and therefore cutting down on waste).
When I was fourteen, I asked my friend why she had put her sweater in the free bin instead of repairing a small tear in it. She said “I’m not poor, I can afford another one.” I had never even dreamt that repairing your belongings could be seen as a sign of poverty; I had never really considered how treating things as commodities could be a sign of social superiority. Could it also be considered a sign of weakness not to want to part with something? Could it be considered weak to attach such sentimental value to something that it is unthinkable to it throw away even when it is broken?
Along with sentimentalization and singularization comes a certain respect for an object. One possible difference that could be pointed out between my friend that discarded her sweater and me when I repaired my earring was that she did not feel responsible for repairing the damage she did to it, whereas I felt some obligation to repair the earrings. Along with respect for the production of any material good should come respect for the object itself along with the responsibility of maintenance and repair. I am the first to admit that I know nothing about how my car works and would not be able to fix it myself, but I know that I need to keep it in good shape if I wish to use it for any length of time. I also know that I can’t drive it recklessly and expect it to stay in perfect condition. This is not to say that with commoditization always comes a disregard for objects, but I feel it is an eventuality that crops up even more than we are aware of.
No matter whether we buy earrings or clothing, cars or houses, we should be striving to do so mindfully, keeping in mind the people who made it, the people we bought it from, and the people to whom we may pass it on. We need certain tools to survive, and require certain products for comfort, that is human; but much of what we are pressed to consume today is unnecessary. If we could balance our consumption between singularization and need, that would be divine.
July 20, 2010