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The cultural biography of things: commodification as process

Stuart Hall Library reading group discussion post. Thursday 10th March


Kopytoff, Igor ‘The cultural biography of things: commodification as process’ in Arjun Appadurai (ed.) The social life of things: commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge UP, 1986 (reprint 2003), pp. 64-91

Thanks to everyone that attended this month’s reading group discussion. For those unable to attend a recording of the discussion is now available via the library website here. You can also listen to recordings of all our previous reading group discussions and download a copy of suggested reading materials.

Key questions and points for discussion

  • What did you think of the text – any initial thoughts?
  • Koytoff defines commodity as ‘an item with use value that also has exchange value’ p.64 – do you agree?
  • According to Kopytoff, commodities are subject to value judgements and are also subject to historical cultural shifts in value. They are also subject to classification and taxonomic practices. (p.64;70)
  • Commodities and people are viewed as being at either end of a continuum, but individiuals have and continue to be ‘commoditized’/commodified under the term slavery.
  • P.65 Kopytoff’s description of enslavement asserts that the processes of commoditization of an individual are short and occur at the early stages of enslavement: individuals ‘acquire a new social identity’.
  • Questionable as to whether a slave has a social identity, as commodification leads to dehumanisation, etc. Perhaps a further question to ask is what differentiates a ‘free’ human being from a commodity.
  • P.66 ‘In doing the biography of a thing, one would ask […]: what, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its status[…]? Where does the thing come from and who made it? What has been its career so far[…]?
  • P.69 Is ‘saleability’, as Kopytoff state, ‘the defining factor of a commodity in the West’?
  • P.69. Kopytoff notes differences in other societies where commodification and exchange may be based on ‘gift giving’ or ‘relations of reciprocity’
  • P.68 Kopytoff states that commodities area a ‘universal cultural phenomenon’, that ‘exchange’ is a ‘universal feature of human social life[…]’
  • P.73 ‘Commoditization as becoming’, an ongoing process of ‘expansion’ and ‘diversification’, plus the availability of more items for exchange, for example Apple’s multiple versions of similar products.
  • Is it possible for art making/practice/the artists to avoid commodification and systems of exchange?
  • P.90. Kopytoff characterises the identity and status of things as ‘uncertain’ and shifting. Does this mean that our ‘value’/status/rights as human beings shift?

Next meeting


Our next reading group will take place Thursday April 14th. We will be reading Malik, Suhail. ‘We gonna pop a cap(ital) in your (cl)ass: Karl Marx’s Capital volume III’ in Nav HAq and Tirdad Zolghadr (eds.) Lapdogs of the bourgeoisie: class hegemony in contemporary art. Sternberg Press, 2007. pp.53-68.

A copy of the text can be found in the Stuart Hall Library. To find out more about the reading group or to reserve a place please email the library library@iniva.org