Social Processes which Shape the Significance of Objects


Two issues raised in this week’s reading that stand out as most interesting are consumption and production of objects and their social meanings. The intricacies of the linkage between the ways people use objects that shape them socially and which thus can contribute to the reproduction of social relations warrant exploration. But are there social objects outside the sphere of symbolic consumption and production? And if so, what is the significant context there? While Bourdieu emphasizes the production of taste to explain the way social relations are shaped by and shape the meaning of objects, his analysis is somewhat static. Appadurai’s article raises interesting questions about the significance of not focusing on the production side of the ‘politics of value,’ by examining how dynamic processes shape meanings on the consumption side. Neither author, however, seems to examine the possibility of other contexts which shape the social meaning of objects and people. Kopytoff’s article examines the role of commodification from a Durkheimian, “social fact” perspective and thus extends the possible contexts in which to analyze the shaping of the meaning of objects, beyond the roles of consumption and production. Kopytoff’s Durkheimian perspective, however, is problematic, because as Glenn Wharton’s talk on the shaping of social meanings around King Kamehameha’s statue in Hawai’i showed, what a Durkheimian analysis might seem to show, was, in this case, really shaped through the agency of an individual engaging with structure.

            Bourdieu’s analysis centers on the role of the production and consumption of art as a way of determining social relations. Bourdieu starts his analysis of the shaping of social relations by examining the way that “the work of art is the objectification of a relationship of distinction and that it is thereby explicitly predisposed to bear such a relationship in the most varied contexts” (Bourdieu 227). He proposes that “every appropriation of a work of art which is the embodiment of a relation of distinction is itself a social relation and, contrary to the illusion of cultural communism, it is a relation of distinction” (Bourdieu 227). Utilizing an economic model of the way that limited supply increases value, Bourdieu suggests that art serves as a form of social capital which accords social profit to its owner. For Bourdieu the production of art operates within a field of existing tastes selected from a system of stylistic possibles (Bourdieu 230), and, indeed, that experience itself is shaped by this field. Significantly, Bourdieu proposes that production, the supply of art, symbolically imposes an effect (Bourdieu 231). This effect constitutes taste, through a process called objectification, which is nearly always shaped by professionals (Bourdieu 231). Bourdieu suggests that this system is perpetuated by the logic of structural homologies, which assigns taste to a prestigious group which operates as an authority, reinforces dispositions and creates collectively recognized expression. In terms of consumption, taste, for Bourdieu, is shaped by the imposition of art’s production; consumption’s role is that of a foil. Symbolic struggle occurs for Bourdieu in the field of ‘culture’ “to appropriate distinctive signs in the form of classified, classifying goods or practices, or to conserve or subvert the principles of classification of these distinctive properties” (Bourdieu 249). His examination of symbolic struggle, however, remains in the symbolic realm. His analysis thus seems static, perpetuating structural relations relating to production and consumption, possibly due to his privileging of symbolic production.

            Appadurai accentuates significant aspects of consumption which Bourdieu does not, thus recasting an analysis of consumption and production and the way objects gain meanings in terms of the ‘politics of value.’ Starting from Simmel’s idea that exchange is the source of value and not vice versa (Appadurai 56), Appadurai tries to show how commodities are socio-culturally constructed through the way value is constructed politically. For Appadurai taste isn’t determined by production, but rather through a dynamic process associated with consumption. Citing Malinowski’s analysis of the Kula ring as an example of the way objects are assigned meanings over time, Appadurai thus focuses on culturally assigned meanings, rather than class-based ones. His proposal that the spirit of commodity exchange is not much different from the spirit of other forms of exchange shifts the analysis of consumption away from its relation with production in Bourdieu’s sense and into a sphere of contested meanings in the sphere of culture (Appadurai 56). What is political about this process “is the constant tension between the existing frameworks (of price, bargaining, and so forth) and the tendency of commodities to breach these frameworks. This tension itself has its source in the fact that not all parties share the same interests in any specific regime of value, nor are the interests of any two parties in a given exchange identical” (Appadurai 57). He thus privileges the link between demand and politics, de-emphasizing the significance of production and politics. In his analysis Appadurai, however, doesn’t examine other possible contexts in which meanings are shaped.

            Briefly, Kopytoff emphasizes the possibility of commodities or objects gaining social meanings in spheres apart from those determined by exchange, focusing specifically on the process of singularization. Using Durkheim as a starting point, he proposes a counterdrive to commodification in the form of culture, where excessive commodification is anti-cultural (Kopytoff 73).

And if, as Durkheim saw it, societies need to set apart a certain portion of their environment, marking it as “sacred,” singularization is one means to this end.

Culture ensures that some things remain unambiguously singular, it resists the commoditization of others; and it sometimes resingularizes what has been commoditized (Kopytoff 73).

Using a Durkheimian analysis, he thus suggests that the shaping of homogenized cultural meanings, i.e. commodification, occurs within the context of consumption and production and then examines the possibility of other possible spheres where social and cultural forces oriented to uniqueness shape meaning. In so doing he departs from the paradigm which shapes both Bourdieu and Appadurai’s analyses. By assuming a Durkheimian perspective and arguing that societies construct individuals and things in different ways, however, Kopytoff, like Bourdieu and Appadurai who privilege structure, fails to consider the role of authorship or agency in shaping social processes, which ascribe meaning to objects.

            Glenn Wharton’s class presentation (May 23, 2002) on the way social meanings seemed to shape themselves around the Hawaiian King Kamehameha’s statue as if constituted by social processes, easily lends itself to a Durkheimian analysis. Given the importance of the statute to the people in the Hawaiian community in which Glenn Wharton was working, the statue is easily interpreted as a totem in a Durkheimian sense, representing both God and clan.

Thus the totem is before all a symbol, a material expression of something else. But of what? It expresses and symbolizes two different sorts of things. It is the outward and visible form of what we have called the totemic principle or god. But it is also the symbol of the determined society called the clan… (Durkheim, 236)

However, a Durkheimian analysis becomes problematic when viewed in the context of Glenn Wharton’s self-described role as a conservator working on this statue. As an ethnographic researcher, conservator, and ‘cultural’ outsider, Glenn Wharton observed that he contributed to shaping both monetary assessments of the statue and, through the process of studying it, helped to influence how the ‘group’ interpreted it. Thus the agency of an anthropologist, in this instance, seemed to shape social processes and the meaning of a singular object.

            In conclusion I want to propose that while the emphasis of analyses based on production, consumption, or a Durkheimian approach might yield fruitful interpretations of the way in which social processes shape the meanings of objects and people, the agency of an individual engaging with socially constituted structures can also have a significant effect. While Bourdieu, Appadurai and Durkheim’s analyses underemphasize this possibility, Glenn Wharton’s example suggests a need to factor in the significance of anthropological agency in examining the way social processes shape social objects.






Works Cited


Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. `Introduction: commodities and the politics of value', in Arjun Appadurai (ed), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge. Pp. 3-63.


Durkheim, Emile. 1965 (1915). “Origins of These Beliefs – end.” In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. N.Y.: Free Press.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. `The dynamics of the fields', Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Harvard. Pp. 226-56.


Kopytoff, Igor. `The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process', in Arjun Appadurai (ed), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge. Pp. 64-91.






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