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DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Social and Political Science : Social Anthropology

Undergraduate Course: Consumption, Exchange, Technology (SCAN10031)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Social and Political Science CollegeCollege of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 10 (Year 3 Undergraduate) AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
SummaryThe course discusses how goods are produced, circulated and consumed, and how these three fundamental processes of social life and reproduction are mediated by technology. Classically, economic anthropologists focused on how such activities were organised in small-scale societies or in colonial territories; often production and exchange, with their associated technologies, were highlighted while consumption received less attention. Today the impact of globalisation, the rise of the digital society, and the overflowing material abundance that characterises life in the advanced economies and aspirations elsewhere, have led many social theorists to focus on consumption and communication as the key factors determining how people experience power, identity, connections and conflicts. We study a range of case studies and theoretical essays, evaluating the strengths, weaknesses and applicability of different approaches.
Course description Indicative themes:
1. Gifts
Gifts are among the most central and celebrated topics in anthropology. Why is this? In anthropological thought, exchange is often regarded as the cornerstone of relational life, particularly in small-scale societies. In this class we will explore the theoretical work of exchange through a discussion of classic and contemporary analyses of the gift. In so doing, we will examine the potential and problems of exchange as a social phenomenon and analytical category.
2. Commodities
One of the central components of capitalist economies is the commodity. Anthropologists have historically opposed the commodity to the gift as a sort of asocial token of exchange, a large-scale capitalist analogue of the small-scale non-capitalist gift. In this class we will explore these arguments, as well as more recent critiques that trouble an easy distinction between commodities and gifts, and between capitalism and non-capitalist forms of economic organization.
3. Value
Value is a multivalent term that has recently been given new prominence in anthropological theory. Value is about economics, but also ethics, ¿culture,¿ differentiation, and rank. This lecture will explore the various interrelated definitions of value common in anthropology to attempt to arrive at a unified theory.
4. Production
The process of production ¿ the transformation of matter into useful goods through work ¿ forms a central tenant of capitalist economic theory and practice. Anthropologists have consistently questioned assumptions of the universality of a capitalist mode of production. This lecture will interrogate this important area of scholarship. What does an appreciation of the necessary embeddedness of production in the domains of kinship, gender, class, and politics reveal for instance? How is production linked to other areas economic concern, such as commodities and value?
5. Consumption
What does it mean to think of people as ¿consumers¿? Such an approach has its roots in political economy, but can be controversial today on the grounds that it plays into the hands of big business. At the same time, anthropologists have found consumption as a useful conceptual and methodological tool for exploring how activities such as shopping, eating, getting dressed, having leisure time, and making homes are both important facets of human experience. Consumption can provide insights into what people think about kinship, politics, time, and religion.
6. Technology
Technology has served as both a catalyst and a measure of progress in the modern world. This week we look at some anthropological perspectives on the compulsion of technology and its social or cultural impacts, considering ways in which technology has been bracketed off from society. We discuss subjective experiences of technology and how to understand these socially.
7. Money
Money has often been described as a singularly disrupting technology, a universal equivalent that shifts the ground under value and exchange. In at least some societies, the introduction of money has been greeted as a dangerous change, subject to moral censure. This class will examine different responses to money, as well as the various ways that money is used around the world.
8. Debt
While debt as it relates to a gift economy has been central to anthropological study for over a century, it is only recently that debt in the contemporary, financialized sense of the term has received significant attention in the discipline. This class will examine the emerging literature on debt as it pertains both to older fiduciary institutions and new credit regimes. It puts into conversation moral and monetary economies and asks: What do we owe to each other ¿ to our loved ones, banks and states? What are the temporalities of making debts? What happens when debts are not repaid?
9. Finance
This lecture explores the burgeoning field of the anthropology of finance. The issue of the corporation has assumed particular importance since the global financial crisis that began in 2008, with bankers¿ bonuses perennially in the news, and accusations of corruption levelled at corporate bosses. But what is a corporation ¿ legally, socially, and ideologically? How have anthropologists tackled the nature of modern business, greed and the legal implications of ¿corporate personhood¿?
10. Economic utopias and dystopias
Economic anthropologists have always had a different relation to the past and the future than economists. By valuing diversity over linear progress, anthropologists have usually been suspicious of overhyped projections of future growth. Ethnographies of other societies and non-capitalist modes of production often have utopian undertones. The final lecture is an invitation to use our anthropological skills for thought experiments: How does our discipline equip us to study alternative and future economies? Are there limits to what can be commodified, and who can be included into productive labour?

Indicative readings:
Mauss, Marcel (1925) The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Routledge.
Miller, Daniel (1998) "Making Love in the Supermarket." In A Theory of Shopping. Cambridge: Polity.
Wilson, Samuel M. and Leighton C. Peterson (2002) "The Anthropology of Online Communities." Annual Review of Anthropology 31: 449-67.
Mellstrom, Ulf (2004) "Machines and masculine subjectivity: technology as an integral part of men's life experience", Men & Masculinities 6: 362-82.
Romain, Tiffany (2010) "Extreme Life Extension: Investing in Cryonics for the Long, Long Term." Medical Anthropology 29, 2: 194-215.
Copeman, Jacob (2005) "Veinglory: Exploring processes of blood transfer between persons." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11: 465-485.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Information for Visiting Students
Pre-requisitesVisiting students should have at least 3 Anthropology courses at grade B or above (or be predicted to obtain this). We will only consider University/College level courses.
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Academic year 2023/24, Available to all students (SV1) Quota:  None
Course Start Semester 2
Timetable Timetable
Learning and Teaching activities (Further Info) Total Hours: 200 ( Lecture Hours 20, Seminar/Tutorial Hours 10, Summative Assessment Hours 2, Programme Level Learning and Teaching Hours 4, Directed Learning and Independent Learning Hours 164 )
Assessment (Further Info) Written Exam 70 %, Coursework 30 %, Practical Exam 0 %
Additional Information (Assessment) One 2-hour exam (70%) + assessed coursework (30%)
Feedback Students will receive two key pieces of feedback prior to writing their final exam, namely an assessment of the assessed coursework they submit around Week 5 and comments on their tutorial presentation.
Exam Information
Exam Diet Paper Name Hours & Minutes
Main Exam Diet S2 (April/May)2:00
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. A general understanding of classical and contemporary anthropological approaches to economic processes in non-industrialised, industrialised and post-industrial contexts Critical analysis and discussion of case studies and theoretical essays will build anthropological skills in evaluating the strengths, weaknesses and applicability of different approaches. An enriched understanding of the evolution of the study of economic categories through appreciating the ways in which they have been subjected to scholarly analysis for the past 25-30 years.
  2. Critical analysis and discussion of case studies and theoretical essays will build anthropological skills in evaluating the strengths, weaknesses and applicability of different approaches.
  3. An enriched understanding of the evolution of the study of economic categories through appreciating the ways in which they have been subjected to scholarly analysis for the past 25-30 years.
Reading List
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills Not entered
Additional Class Delivery Information 50 minutes per week for 9 week(s).
KeywordsNot entered
Course organiserDr Naomi Haynes
Tel: (0131 6)50 4052
Course secretaryMs Agata Lebiedzinska
Tel: (01316) 515197
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