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Commodities andConsumption

Commodities are products of social relations. That is, human beings produce them and they derive their value from human labor. Yet, once commodities hit the market, they become simple objects to be bought and sold. We usually do not know about where, how, by whom and under what specific work conditions these commodities are produced and how they find their places in the fancy stores from where we buy them. In this sense, commodities are objects that have “mysterious origins.” We live in a society in which identity is often constructed through acts of consumption. To put it simply, we are what we buy. We all buy commodities, attach meanings to them and make them a part of our material and symbolic life. For example, we love our shoes or sweaters; some love diamond rings or a gold necklace, or many of us just cannot live without chocolate or coffee. Although we know little about their origins, these commodities link us to people around the world who produce for us.

I want you to choose a commodity (diamonds, coffee, bananas, shoes, etc.) produced outside of the US, conduct research and write an essay that addresses these questions:

1)      Where is the commodity produced? What corporate entity controls the production and distribution of that commodity?

2)      Who are the people producing this commodity? Under what kind of work and health conditions do they produce?

3)      Are there any negative impacts of the production of this commodity on the environment? If yes, what are the impacts and how do they harm the environment?

4)      How does the commodity enter our life in the US? What does the commodity mean to us?

Step 1: Decide which commodity you will write on and pick one company and one country that produce this commodity. For example, if you select bananas, you must select one brand name (e.g. Chiquita) and one country of origin (e.g. Ecuador). Or, if you select diamonds, you should select one company (e.g. De Beers) and one country (e.g. South Africa).

Step 2: Go to a place where this commodity is sold and try to learn about some basic information about the commodity. You are lucky, if you find a person who is willing or has knowledge to answer your questions. I suggest being direct and clear about your intentions when talking to people. You can simply say that you are a student researching the production of a commodity. Ask for basic information about production and distribution systems and transportation networks. For example, if you are researching coffee production, is it produced on a plantation owned by the same company that imports it to the US? Or, is it grown by small farmers and sold to a centralized buyer who then sells it, say, to Folgers? This information should only provide the basic frame of reference for your paper and should NOT make up a major portion of your paper content. Don’t get discouraged if they don’t want to answer your questions, but think why they don’t deliver that information!

Step 3: Find the answers of the following questions: Describe the demographic composition of the workers who produce this commodity? Are they villagers or urban people; men or women; children or adults? What kind of pay and health benefits do they receive? Do they have job security? How is work organized in the place of production? How much do they have to work? Are there any health hazards to the workers?

Step 4:  The production of most vegetables, fruits, minerals or metals has negative impacts on the environment such as deforestation, destruction of eco-systems, environmental pollution or contamination of water resources. For this step, you need to find out the environmental impacts of the production of this commodity and the effects of these on people’s lives in the area.

Step 5:  Explore how the commodity figures in our material and symbolic lives as US consumers. When and why do we buy or use this commodity? What cultural significance, value and meaning does it have in our lives? For instance, do we incorporate it into daily rituals or is it reserved for special occasions? Is it a luxury item or inexpensive basic good? Does everyone use this commodity or just a small sector of the population? For this part, you are expected to conduct short interviews about the use and meaning of the commodity for people.

Step 6: Write a five-page paper that includes each and every step stated above. A successful paper should analyze and reflect on the topic, NOT simply provide a list of facts to fulfill the requirements stated above. In your conclusion I want you also include one or two paragraphs about what new things you learned from this research and how this knowledge changed your ideas about the commodity you studied.

Sources: For your paper, you are expected to use information directly from the store or company, academic articles/books, the Internet and personal interviews. You should refer to at least three academic sources. You may use company websites to gather information, but be careful when using such information and don’t take it at face value because such websites function as advertisements. Use academic sources at the UM libraries to support your arguments and analysis.

Format Guidelines:The paper should be five pages; Times New Roman, 12 fonts, double-spaced, page-numbered and one inch margins all around. It should include a title, a clear introduction, a coherent and well-presented body, a conclusion, and a bibliography on page 6. Use proper citation whenever you refer to or quote from a source. Do not use or copy any information, unless you clearly cite them as sources. Otherwise, it will be evaluated as plagiarism – a serious academic offense. To organize your citations and bibliography, you can use the Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide. You can also use some other academic style to do the bibliography.



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