Call for Papers: Materiality and Poverty at EASA 2012

Workshop title: Materiality and Poverty

Chair: Erin B. Taylor

Discussant: Daniel Miller

Abstracts due: November 28, 2011

We are pleased to invite the submission of abstracts for the following workshop at the next EASA conference in Nanterre, Paris, from the 10th-13th July 2012.  The theme of the conference is 'Uncertainty and Disquiet'. More information on our workshop can be found below and also on the EASA site. Please submit abstracts by the 28th November by logging into the EASA website, and feel free to email me if you have any questions. We are looking forward to a great discussion in Paris!

Workshop abstract

A problem with ethnographies of poverty is that they may reduce the relationship of low income people with material culture largely to the expression of inequality as seen in their lack of income and possessions. Inadvertently this only serves to impoverish them further as we pay less attention to their cultural engagement with the material world than we would for less impoverished populations. But just like everyone else, ‘poor’ people use material forms to creatively construct their social identities and communities, and transform their socioeconomic situations. Indeed their relationship to homes, clothes and other material goods may be more complex and nuanced precisely because the range is more constrained.

This workshop recognizes the stratifying effects of materiality, while rethinking how poverty and the poor are defined and encouraging new ways of viewing poverty and materiality. We suggest that a more balanced view can achieve three things: 1) illustrate the actual relationships that poor people have with material forms on their own terms, not just in relation to poverty; 2) demonstrate some of the capacities that material forms provide to poor people to combat their social stratification; 3) taking these capacities into account, illuminate the limits that poverty places on the use of material forms for sociocultural production. Taking both capacities and limitations into account, we explore the possibility that materiality may have a heightened importance for poor people because, in possession of fewer resources, they may value them more highly, and depend upon them more heavily, than more affluent social groups.

Our research

Daniel Miller has published thirty books on material culture and has presented three compelling arguments for considering the materiality of poor people on their own terms.

First, there is such a vast array of consumption goods available today that we all have a much greater range of ways to construct our social identities (Miller 1987).

Second, he refutes arguments that it is impossible to appropriate the meanings of these objects that were produced by foreign, dominant entities (Miller 1994).

Third, he argues that material objects may be more important for the poor than to other people, because their scarcity leads poor people to value their possessions more highly (Miller 2001).

I am currently writing a book about poverty and materiality in which I explore the extent to which people who are poor have agency in their use of material forms to produce their sociocultural lives and personal identities, and in what ways they are constrained by their material conditions.

My previous two blog posts, based on my fieldwork in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, give a taster of my arguments and evidence. I have previously published my work on the construction of place in an edited book called Local Lives: Migration and the Politics of Place (2010), edited by Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich and Catherine Trundle.