In From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea, Paige West (2012) used ethnography to chart the commodification of coffee, in all its forms, as a framework to show the often complicated social relationships between coffee producers in Papua New Guinea to the coffee consumers in the West—and all of the other links in the commodification chain in between.  Stating that coffee, besides petroleum, is the most popular commodity in the world, West (2012) detailed how it has an impact upon culture, narratives, semiotics, and economics at both the national (in Papua New Guinea) and international level.  This text is effective at charting the effects of globalization through coffee, a commodity that is near and dear to so many Westerner’s (especially graduate students’) hearts.  By doing this West (2012) is masterful at being able to uncover the implications of global trade within a neoliberal political and economic framework.
          One thing I thought was interesting was how West (2012) tied neoliberalism into production and (intellectual) property rights.  Specifically, West (2012) stated: “Neoliberals propose privatizing and commodifying everything through the assigning of property rights…” (p. 27).  While this is something we have talked about for the past few months, there were a couple of things that struck me about this in specific context of West’s (2012) unpacking of the term vis á vis worldwide coffee trade.  The first was how Western-centric this concept of property rights really is.  In Tsing’s (2005), ethnographic work in Indonesia, I started to get a sense of how Western concepts of commerce and political ideology can be damaging to areas where they have been co-opted—often with little input by citizens.  In West’s (2012) ethnographic work in Papua New Guinea and beyond, I was really able to see how these concepts of privatization and neoliberal commerce can really disrupt cultures, nations and societies.  For example, when she was talking about the fact that a pound of coffee at Starbucks costs $12.95, and the fact that whether it’s free trade or not, the growers and pickers will only net between $.12-$1.00 per pound in profit.  However, our demand for coffee around the world is putting undue pressure on these growers in Papua New Guinea to provide enough supply for the demand without taking into consideration the cultural or social aspects that coffee symbolizes in that region.  This reminded me of the macadamia nut farms of Hawaii.  My father-in-law is the manager of the largest macadamia nut farm in the state of Hawaii.  Even though the nut farm is within the boundaries of the United States, my father-in-law, a haole (Hawaiian term for “white person”), is still cognitively aware of the older, more relevant cultural and social aspects of macadamia nut harvests on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Simultaneously, he is pulled in the other direction by the parent company to try to maximize profits and minimize losses each quarter.  Like West (2012) charted, however, most of us as consumers never see the native Hawaiian and Pilipino harvesters, bent over picking for nuts under the trees, filling 50 lb. bags by hand when we go to the grocery store to indulge in a can of macadamia nuts.  We do, however, complain about the price without ever understanding the complicated commodity chain that brings commodities like nuts and coffee so conveniently to us.  In the end, I am reminded that macadamia nuts, like coffee are apt symbols for globalization today: seemingly simple, yet unfathomably complex in their histories, routes and meanings.


1.     One of the things West (2012) talked about is the creation of the narrative to sell coffee.  What do we think about the reinforcement of the “imagined primitive” as a tool to drive coffee sales?  Is this a fair assessment of why we buy “exotic” coffee, or is this selling informed consumers in the West short?

2.     One interesting thing that struck me was West’s (2012) assessment of Fair Trade, which, as she pointed out, is not a completely failsafe way of assuring that growers and producers are being compensated fairly or treated ethically.  Thinking about how we have been challenged throughout this semester to think of other ways to challenge issues like intellectual property rights, can we think of other ways to regulate (or de-regulate) the coffee trade that would provide the compensation and ethical treatment that Fair Trade often falls short of?


Tsing, A. (2005). Friction: An ethnography of global connection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

West, P. (2012). From modern production to imagined primitive: The social world of coffee from Papua New Guinea. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 

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