Moral Economic Production of Objects and the Commoditization of Human Rights

Posted: January 23, 2012 by gardenofdawn in Jan 25

Summary of two claims on:

a) The Political Valuation of Objects – Appadurai

b) The Processual Commoditization of Objects – Kopytoff

a) Appadurai’s claim for the Political Valuation of Objects

Appadurai is concerned with the political and economic production of object value. Appadurai argues that the value of objects are a result of exchange, not the other way around. According to Appadurai, these constructed values are created through varied forms of politics, which are typically framed by elites. Grounded in Marx’s definition of the commodity as an object intended to be exchanged and historical processes of commoditization, Appadurai asserts that politics produces value by defining what is desirable and reasonable: what object is worth forgoing opportunity cost and economic sacrifice. This political analysis can be applied to the Nazi’s processes of valorization and de-valorization of  “degenerate” Jewish art stolen and sold to fund the repressive regime, as articulated by Müller et al. in the reading on Nazi theft of Jewish art during the Holocaust.

b) Kopytoff’s claim of Processual Commoditization of objects

Kopytoff focuses on the cultural process of commoditization of objects. The author scrutinises the delineation between what objects can appropriately be characterised as a commodity and what objects cannot, and how the constitution of this dichotomy operates within a moral economy. Using many illustrative examples such as slavery and maternal surrogacy, Kopytoff’s asserts that the process of commoditization of objects is not unlike the process of commoditization of human beings. In doing so, Kopytoff blurs the dichotomy between objects and people, and further highlights the dynamic relationship that exists between humans and objects, much like the Schamberger et al. reading on the Australian Journeys exhibit.

Analysis with Embedded Questions:

Challenging commodities from the perspective of human rights and “moral economy”

As Kopytoff points out, the notion of “rights to things” is a product of the economic system. (Kopytoff, 64) Upon the ratification of the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there has been an increase in the use of the language of inalienable human rights in describing certain resource-based objects that constitute basic human needs. A controversy exists when certain objects that have been defined as human rights undergo a process of commoditization. Although water has been ratified by the UN General Assembly as a human right, powerful multi-national corporations have used rigorous branding and marketing to create a bottled water industry that is worth over $15 billion dollars in North America alone.  (The Globe and Mail, April 23, 2010) The shift from water as a public resource to a commoditized resource has occurred and put profits in the hands of companies at a time when one in six people on earth do not have access to safe drinking water.  (UN Water, 2012)

Prominent anthropologist Margaret Mead studied culture by a given society’s conceptualisation of a “successful social career” or perspective on the ideally-lived life. (Kopytoff, 66) This method provokes Kopytoff’s mirrored analysis which builds on Mead’s methodology. He asserts that the biography of an object should also be conceptualised by the object’s ideal “career” and life.

The following questions stem from a fusion of these two biographic methodologies.


What is the relationship between the ideal life of an object and the ideal life of a person?

More specifically, what is the balance between the supposed economic benefits of commoditization of objects and the fulfilment of human rights?

Is the commoditization of certain objects immoral? Why?

This reach of this analysis does not stop with the human right to basic human needs like water. The examples proposed by Kopytoff include commoditization of human beings through the commoditization of ova, sperm, and maternal surrogacy.

Kopytoff asks the question “What are the best ways of ensuring an adequate supply?” (Kopytoff, 86) in the case of the scarcity of blood donations. The same scarcity exists in the case of human organs. The film and novel “Never Let Me Go” is about a generation of human clones raised simply to harvest human organs.

Although the idea of  going as far as implementing human cloning businesses in order to meet the growing demand for human organs might seem too far-fetched, Appadurai’s defines demand as a politically and economically construed concept. As such, demand for privatised bottled-water or demand for human organs must be contextualised from the powers and political ideologies that shape the desire for a commoditized object.

If object values are derived from political constructions produced by the capitalist exchange system as scrutinised by Appadurai,  it is up to civil society and responsible governance to use their own consolidated power to reframe the elite politics that typify the exchange of objects. In doing so comes the development of what Kopytoff calls “moral economy”: where it is appropriate for certain objects to be commodities and some not. (Kopytoff, 64)

Just as objects can live through the process of commoditization, they can also live the process of de-commoditization. Look at the recent ban of the sale and distribution of bottled-water at the University of Toronto prompted by student civil society. We are witnessing a de-commoditization process. By Appadurai’s account, a culmination of  economic exchange of plastic bottles of water on campus could change the way students and faculty value such objects.

  1. tupakkat says:


    I really like your example of water. Like human body parts it has, despite its very unambiguous status as a “thing”, the potential to very controversial and ethically questionable use. The ecological repercussions being only one of many issues, we can continue to ask whether the right to water is a human right (under consideration of Canada’s refusal to vote for water as a human right at the UN in 2002, Canada’s agitation against water as a HR in 2008 in Geneva and its abstention from voting in 2010), who has the right to decide, who the right to allocate? In this context, the refusal of bottled water becomes, beyond the important ecological issue, a deeply political and moral act.

    Unfortunately, in both readings, the general implications of morality in the context of commoditization were largely left aside. Kopytoff touched only lightly on the issues, each of which could provide discussion material for many essays. On the other hand, morality does not appear to be a factor in the process of commoditization, only in subsequent efforts to de-commoditize.

    Another problem is, that proponents as well as opponents of the commoditization of certain things will argue with “morality”. Arundhati Roy has described how corporations have hijacked the language of human rights etc. to defend their practices. “golden rice” is one example of such highly controversial practices with both sides using morality as their main motives. The same can apply to organ trade etc.

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