Consumer Choice in Historical Archaeology


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For almost years, French fishermen left Brittany every spring to spend their summer fishing in northern Newfoundland.

Once the salted-dried cod fishing season was over they returned to France to sell their cargo. During these four Using the archaeological remains from a farming community in southeastern Connecticut, this paper attempts to read gender into the archaeological record to elucidate household shopping patterns before, during, and after the Revolutionary War. Would this genteel In the Americas, fugitive slave settlements have often been interpreted as predominantly male spaces. In Kenya, oral and written histories suggest that runaway slave villages were similarly male-heavy. These histories make clear, however, that formerly enslaved women were also present.

This paper uses archaeological data and a consumer choice model to tease out female voices. Runaways continued to suffer disenfranchisement in freedom. Yet, archaeological data suggest they were also After the Revolutionary War, the former British American colonies began the long process of cultural separation from the metropole in England.

This process affected many aspects of life, including the redefinition of gender relations. Consequently, I will omit discussion of the philosophical field of axiology that focuses on moral values V 3 , despite its insights into measurability. This discussion is informed by, but will not directly address, the robust, pan-archaeological discourse on the co-dependent relationship between people and things.

The conception of value with the farthest reach in the social sciences is an economic one: exchange value , that is the value of a commodity in the market, usually measured in equivalent units such as currency V 1. Exchange value is understood in terms of cost—benefit analysis: a trade-off between price and utility. This can be seen in reverse: if a consumer purchased x the benefit, or perceived benefit, must have outweighed the cost — that is, we can conclude it was worth it. As discussed elsewhere, 18 such economic principles operate best at the aggregate, market-wide level, hence it cannot be assumed that every purchase will satisfy this equation, nor will every consumer consciously calculate the benefits in terms of cost.

In fact, the appraisal of value for many commodities particularly repeat purchases such as groceries is often accomplished in a matter of milliseconds. There has been some debate about more comprehensive theories of exchange value in the history of economics. There are two schools of thought: the labour theory of value and utility theory. The former, first articulated by Adam Smith 19 and David Ricardo 20 and later adopted by Karl Marx, 21 holds that the true exchange value of a commodity is or tends to be commensurate with its production input including wages, raw material and capital : that is, a product is worth what it cost to make it.

This proposition alone is insufficient for understanding utility — in fact, it tends to prejudice rarity.

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Some of the most abundant resources, such as water, are acquired free or for very low cost depending on your local geography , but, being essential for maintaining human life, have high utility and consequently value. This is the origin of paradox of value , which has puzzled scholars from Plato to Adam Smith. Consider a person who has crossed a desert and been without water for several days.

They may even pay the same for a second glass, but would they pay the same for a third? Probably not, and in everyday economic exchanges a consumer will be less inclined to purchase additional quantities of a commodity beyond a certain point. Thus, the true worth of a product is revealed by the satisfaction gained when the last additional or marginal unit of the commodity is consumed i. This is known as marginal utility theory 23 and is, arguably, one of the first theorems to evaluate consumption in the long term 24 and demonstrates the complexities of using price as a measurement of value even for primary commodities.

Despite the consumer-centric element of marginal utility and other theories, the Neoclassical era of economics is widely acknowledged as closing the door on the more nuanced accounts of consumer motivation raised by the likes of Adam Smith. Economists do not need to know why demand changes for each individual purchase, only that it does in a majority of cases. They describe the effects of consumption; they do not explain its causes.

So soon as the possession of property becomes the basis of popular esteem … an individual should possess as large a portion of goods as others with whom he is accustomed to class himself; and it is extremely gratifying to possess something more than others. Just as the freedom to indulge in leisurely pursuits was both a privilege of the wealthy and an indicator of their status, only the wealthy could afford to consume non-essential goods and their possession thus inferred a mark of wealth.

For the lower middle classes, who had insufficient wealth and little inclination to lead a life of full-time leisure, but rather earned their living through non-labouring professions, the role of conspicuous consumption was more important than traditional social distinctions of class.

German sociologist Georg Simmel has also been criticized for conceiving the transfer of style as an emulatory, top-down system, but he is otherwise acknowledged as making a more comprehensive argument about the relationship between the individual and the social group in the sphere of consumption: the need to unify and differentiate. He explored the symbolic and non-utilitarian functions of goods alongside the nexus of the relationship between the material and social worlds.

These goods may be consciously adopted i. I argue that the way in which we value goods V 2 is part of the habitus and learned in the same apparently effortless way. Mary Douglas was the first to apply an anthropological, total-culture perspective developed for the study of exchange in non-Western cultures to the subject of consumption in modern Britain. In The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption , 56 Douglas and co-author economist Baron Isherwood outlined the ritualistic elements of modern consumption and critiqued the isolated, economic approach of individual decision-making.

Goods purchased over and above the most basic needs of food, clothing and shelter had been and in some circles continue to be seen as corrupting forces, innately promoting inequality and injustice. By putting goods back into the social process, Douglas and Isherwood recognized that at all levels of society, despite being affected by different means of access to different classes of goods, the same principles of exclusion and inclusion are present. From this we might conclude that, while goods are a component of cohesion in large groups such as social classes, their more important operation is within each class.

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They argued for a collective and culturally significant construction of value, operating within the technological complexities of the modern market:. Nothing has value by itself: what is the good of one shoe without the other? A comb for a bald head? Instead of taking one object at a time, and finding a piece of information that it communicates, as if it were a label indicating a thing, the anthropological approach captures the whole meaning space in which objects, once purchased, are used.

Their work informed several key texts that celebrated the role of consumption as creative self-expression. Thus value is created and measured in use and exchange.


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The nexus of the relationship between public and private psyches of consumption has been addressed by scholars in other fields. The time taken researching, selecting, negotiating, collecting and then curating and maintaining objects requires the forfeiture of both time and energy that may have been invested in other life experiences.

This in turn consolidates a sense of ownership or connection which is traditionally seen to be the result of the skill and energy that a craftsperson invests in an object.

Archaeology ~ The Origins Of Modern Archaeology

Thus, we can feel as passionately about ideas and objects as we do about other people, pets and elements of the living world although, of course, the dynamism of interactions between people and living elements cannot be replicated in objects. The attachment is subjective and individualized — a personal investment — independent of both the material conditions of the object, and any projected significance of the object as intended by the manufacturer:.

In the context of this study the concept [cultivation] accounts for the vast differences in the range of meanings that people derived from the objects with which they interacted. The same culturally legitimized object might provide only fleeting comfort to one person, whereas to another it signified complex emotional and cognitive ties to other people and ideas.

This is a reflexive and compounding process. More recent studies in psychology support these layers of meaning, or rather the appearance of them. While primarily concerned with higher-order theories of value V 3 — how the bourgeoisie came to value individualism, hard work and charity, for example — rather than the role material culture played in shaping and maintaining those values, he did explore exchange values. For Graeber, the problem returned to the dilemma of socialization and internalization, 68 and the solution lies in shifting the debate to one of action rather than desire.

Other contemporary studies of modern material culture have explored the operation of consumer values. Miller also describes a phenomenon he calls the humility of things :. The surprising conclusion is that objects are important, not because they are evident and physically constrain or enable, but quite the opposite. It is often precisely because we do not see them. The less we are aware of them, the more powerfully they can determine our expectations, by setting the scene and ensuring appropriate behaviour, without being open to challenge.

Journal of Anthropological Research

They determine what takes place to the extent that we are unconscious of their capacity to do so. He challenges the typical view of shopping as an individualistic experience, showing that even the most repetitive and apparently least complex retail experience of weekly grocery selection reveals a subconscious re-enactment of social exchanges and filial bonding. What the words quality and value seem to mean is rather the point of intersection between at least three other properties, that of function, that of design and that of price.

John Lewis objectified the sense of good value. A quality object at John Lewis is something that is seen as embodying the same complex resolution of competing factors that a shopper must enact to feel that they have carried out this task sensibly and obtained value as a result. One, the multiple concerns are oppositional: predictions of utility and social acceptance, for example, may be set against opportunity cost, ease of maintenance and transport; predictors of disutility and so on.

The individual themselves may not even be aware of the all the factors they weigh up. Two, for value to be realized, there must be a resolution of some kind — a scenario, a choice at a given time and place — for value to be measured. I have focused on those meditations most relevant to material-culture studies. Some directly interact with material goods; others are concerned with broader themes. They range from individual meditations cultivation to habitual exchanges, rational aggregations of utility to ceremonial gift giving; from trivial pleasures to self-serving status displays.

Unsurprisingly, none cancels the others out.

Consumer Choice in Historical Archaeology | S.M. SpencerWood | Springer

Aggregation is an essential feature of utilitarianism, the rationalizing balance of costs and benefits. As goods satisfy a number of wants, we can sometimes only guess which wants have been satisfied. Csikszentmihalyi and Halton asked their study participants about the ten most special things in their home, not the ten least special or most loathed, or the ten middling objects that are not loved, not loathed and likely not thought of very much. Are these goods without value?

And what of the most humble goods, those we do not notice: can we value something we are not aware of? It is that impending crisis that motivates individuals or community groups to act. Like the intersection of supply and demand, there is a point in time where values will be measured according to action as per Graeber. Sociologists can ask questions about value directly and hope for insightful answers.

Archaeologists observe the material culture that remains behind after these decisions were made and the goods consumed, but as James Deetz put it:. Yet such things as political and religious behaviour, language, and social interaction affect what the archaeologist does recover. Three key challenges come into play when we bring sociological, anthropological and psychological reflections on valuation to the archaeological table: time, context and materiality. The value of an individual object changes between people and social groups, in different domains and over time owing to social differences and material limitations or transformations.

To reconstruct value from material cultures past, we need some control of the material and temporal context. Traditionally, value has been addressed in archaeology in relation to the functional use of objects, broadly parallel with the utility arguments of economists. Allowance was made for non-utilitarian uses of goods with implicit, higher order values.

Consumer Choice in Historical Archaeology Consumer Choice in Historical Archaeology
Consumer Choice in Historical Archaeology Consumer Choice in Historical Archaeology
Consumer Choice in Historical Archaeology Consumer Choice in Historical Archaeology
Consumer Choice in Historical Archaeology Consumer Choice in Historical Archaeology
Consumer Choice in Historical Archaeology Consumer Choice in Historical Archaeology

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