In From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea (2012) Paige West offers an ethnography of the social connections that coffee creates between Papua New Guineans and coffee consumers of the global West. In particular, the author focuses on the production, distribution, and circulation of coffee as a commodity as well as its relationships to neolibralization, marketing images, third party regulatory systems (organic and fair trade certification), labor, value, and political ecology.

In chapter one on “Neoliberal Coffee,” West argues that the images used to market coffee produced in Papua New Guinea are not representative of the situation for coffee farmers and others tied to the industry. These narratives conflate poverty with the primitive and perpetuate damaging narratives about indigenous people, pristine culture, and linear development from privative to modern. West points to the Dean’s Beans blog entry, where the employee recounts his experiences traveling to Papua New Guinea to set up fair trade agreements with the coffee farmers there. She asserts that,
These marketing narratives engage a set of representational practices that seem to show clear connections between “alternative forms of consumption in the North” and social and environmental justice in the South (345). However, they shoe a fictitious version of political ecology. In addition, they craft producers and consumers in ways that are equally fictitious,. These moments, the moment of consumer production, the moment of producer production, and the moment of fictitious political ecology, would not be possible were it not for the neoliberal changes in the global economy that have taken place over the last fifty years. Nor would they be possible without the growth of the specialty coffee industry. (p. 41)
As someone who not long ago regularly patronized coffee shops in Western Mass that proudly used Dean’s Beans coffee products, it was easy for me to relate to this example. West goes on to show how fair trade and organic certification “refetishize” rather than “defetishize” the labor of Papua New Guineans (p. 50). In other words, privileged western consumers are fooling themselves when they assume that their consumer choices motivated by ethical and political commitments are causing positive political action. In fact, as West demonstrates, these marketing and consumer patterns have negative material effects on the coffee producers. 

I have to say that this was the most interesting book I have read in the last year, maybe longer. I thoroughly enjoyed the way West defined her meaning of neoliberalism (p. 26), unpacked how the ideological values behind coffee marketing campaigns, and made her discussion of these complex issues and her arguments accessible for a non-anthropologist like me while still situating her project in the existing scholarship. Most importantly, her book challenged me to rethink my conception of fair trade and organic certification, as well as the limits of consumerist activism.

Discussion Questions:

1.      Like Tsing’s, West’s book is engaged with theories of globalization and seeks to offer an ethnography of global connections. What are some of the differences and similarities between their approaches to documenting these global connections?

2.     In what ways, if any, has West’s book challenged you to rethink the limits of consumerist activism? I think of all the purchasing choices that I made that are politically or ethically motivated and that I consider part of my identity (shopping at an employee-owned store like Winco, avoiding Walmart, choosing Zoe’s over Starbucks, not owning a car, buying second hand items, buying dry food products in bulk, limiting my consumption of plastics, paper goods, and meat) and wonder how delusional I actually am. Is my faith in my “political” choices as a consumer keeping me participating in “real” political action? (Yes, I know we critiqued the concept of “authentic” change, but I still think that the concept is useful in this context.)

Leave a Reply.