In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Commodities

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Classic Theories of the Commodity and Consumption
  • Commodity versus Gift
  • Theories of Value and Exchange
  • Following Things
  • Commoditization, Colonialism, and Modernity
  • Consumer Culture, Class, and Structure
  • Globalization
  • Postsocialist Commoditization
  • Advertising, Marketing, and Branding
  • Linguistic and Semiotic Approaches
  • Uncomfortable Commodities
  • Ethical Consumption

Anthropology Commodities
Jennifer Patico
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0127


The anthropology of commodities has a significant history, although it has picked up pace and intensity since the 1980s. Commodities generally are understood as goods that are subject to market exchange; yet anthropologists also have expanded, problematized, and relativized this definition. The anthropological study of commodities often is framed in terms of research on consumption or consumer culture; it is also linked with studies of globalization, cross-cultural encounter, and large-scale economic transformation. Scholarship stretches across disciplinary and subdisciplinary boundaries, impacting and impacted by developments in economics, political economy, cultural studies, sociology, and geography as well as sociocultural anthropology, archaeology, economic anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. This article centers on theoretical and ethnographic perspectives from sociocultural anthropology. However, certain key texts from beyond the discipline are included, particularly when their impact on anthropological analysis has been significant and ongoing. While the study of commodities goes back at least as far as Adam Smith, Karl Marx (b. 1818–d. 1883) was an early and continuing influence on anthropological understandings and definitions of the commodity. Early-to-mid-20th-century anthropologists typically described economies that were not centered around commodity exchange but involved other modes of exchange closely tied with kinship, cosmology, and ritual; commodities were conceptualized mainly, implicitly or explicitly, in the effort to define these other forms of exchange by contrast. In the 1980s–2000s, these frameworks were revisited as anthropologists presented new theories of exchange and value. Meanwhile, in the 1980s, some anthropologists incorporated Marx’s materialism, paying close attention to long-term histories of colonization and capitalist expansion. Such work helped opened the door to a new generation of studies that focused on the trade and consumption of commodities as integral to the processes of cross-cultural encounter, cultural change, and capitalist “modernization” happening around the world. By the 1990s, the conversation had shifted for many anthropologists to the study of globalization: How had sped-up production and new communications technologies impacted cultures? How did commodities and commodity images, circulated transnationally, serve as vehicles of cultural expression or transformation? In the 21st century, anthropologists are investigating the social and political as well as economic arrangements associated with neoliberalism through attention not only to commodity consumption, but more broadly to commodification—of emotional labor, reproductive capacity, or linguistic ability, for example—as an increasingly salient aspect of contemporary life. Attention also has turned to how efforts toward “ethical consumption” are reshaping consumerism around the world—not necessarily with the intended political and environmental consequences.

General Overviews

Many works in the anthropology of commodities situate them in the broader context of consumer practices: the acquisition, exchange, display, and discussion of commodities in everyday life. Miller 1995 is a good place to start in exploring this literature. This review is no longer up to date, but it offers a sense of the scholarship underway at a moment when the anthropology of commodities had recently surged. Lury 2011 gives an overview of major themes in the contemporary study of consumer culture; the book is written in an accessible style that does not assume previous knowledge of works discussed. Slater 1997 is also a quite lucid and approachable overview of theories of consumerism, although it focuses on a distinct set of themes and is slightly less beginner friendly. Fine 2002 is a detailed synthesis of many key works—from classic texts to recent studies of globalized consumption—that argues for attention to production (together with consumption) and to welfare states as a form of public consumption. Wilk 2007 does not center on consumption but on economic anthropology at large; it contains a useful discussion of the theories of Marx and Mauss, among others. Three additional works are included for the relative breadth of themes they discuss in relation to consumption and commodities. Douglas and Isherwood 1996 (originally published in 1979) is notable for being one of the earlier works in the anthropology of goods (including but not limited to commodity forms). Written by an anthropologist (Douglas) and an economist (Isherwood), the book brings the two disciplines into conversation about what drives the demand for goods. It argues that across societies, material goods are used to mark social relationships and structures; goods are employed ritualistically to give meaning and relative stability to the flow of social life. McCracken 1990 argues, similarly to Miller 1995 and Miller 1987 (see also Miller 1995, cited under Anthologies), against the popular idea that materialism as expressed in consumer practices is culturally impoverishing—rather, these works see consumption as a key medium of culture itself. Overall, a major theme of this anthropological literature is the idea that while some popular and academic discourses cast consumption as a frivolous, superficial, or otherwise negative pursuit (or as a rational, individualistic process best studied by economists), people (including producers, marketers, and consumers) use commodities to achieve the meaning making that is integral to culture.

  • Douglas, Mary, and Baron Isherwood. 1996. The world of goods: Towards an anthropology of consumption. Rev. ed. London: Routledge.

    Originally published in 1979, this monograph brings anthropological perspective to economists’ approaches to consumer behavior.

  • Fine, Ben. 2002. The world of consumption: The material and cultural revisited. London: Routledge.

    This sweeping and critical review of social theory on consumption advocates a “systems of provision” (p. 79) approach that links consumption with production. It also critiques the imperialism and inadequacy of approaches from the discipline of economics. Chapter 3 (pp. 26–56) reviews many key works on the commodity.

  • Lury, Celia. 2011. Consumer culture. Rev. ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    A usefully clear examination of sociological and anthropological theories of consumer culture, including theories of exchange; gender, race, and class in consumer culture; brands and marketing; and how consumerism informs contemporary identity politics.

  • McCracken, Grant D. 1990. Culture and consumption: New approaches to the symbolic character of consumer goods and activities. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    Initial chapters provide history of consumer society; later chapters examine how consumer goods are used in the construction of lifestyles, identities, and maintenance of cultural ideals. Includes consideration of clothing’s expressive properties and the use of commodities to create consistent lifestyles.

  • Miller, Daniel. 1987. Material culture and mass consumption. Oxford: Blackwell.

    This relatively dense monograph incorporates classic texts as well as contemporary examples to discuss how consumer goods serve as material objectifications of social meaning and identity.

  • Miller, Daniel. 1995. Consumption and commodities. Annual Review of Anthropology 24:141–161.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    Summarizes anthropological work on consumption and commodities up to 1995, arguing that this subfield holds an increasingly important place in anthropological theory. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Slater, Don. 1997. Consumer culture and modernity. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    This text summarizes and synthesizes social scientific theories of consumer culture, contextualizing consumerism vis-à-vis ideas about modernity, rationalization, Fordism, and postmodernism.

  • Wilk, Richard. 2007. Economies and cultures: Foundations of economic anthropology. 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    A broad, readable overview of fundamental questions concerning how anthropologists study economic life, including reflection on the theories of Marx and Mauss. Drawing on classic works within and beyond anthropology, considers how social scientists may employ or critique assumptions about human nature in their attempts to describe economies cross-culturally.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.