The moral economies of material things

The concept of moral economy is a natural fit to analyses of material culture. In this working paper, I show how the concept has applications to all three research projects that I have carried out on the island of Hispaniola since I began conducting fieldwork there in 2004.

In Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (2004-2012), I researched the relationship between materiality and poverty in a squatter settlement. There, materiality (particularly the built environment and consumption) are integral to the self-definition of residents people as poor, is implicated in their stigmatization by outsiders, and also provides a way to create a positive community life and transform the future.

In Haiti (2010-2012), primarily in Port-au-Prince, I did collaborative research on the use of mobile phones and financial products. The implications of making communication and cash virtual speak to an anti-materiality that involves removing away the physical constraints and speeding up circulation. On the Dominican-Haitian border (2010-2012), my co-researchers and I looked at how relations between Dominicans and Haitians are defined and practised through material forms.

What I noticed in all three cases is how economic and moral concerns are expressed in material ways. For example, on the Dominican-Haitian border, both economic and cultural differences play a significant role in how Dominicans and Haitians interrelate. Material forms encompass both economic and cultural meanings, and can be a useful lens through which to understand the multifaceted ways in which identity and difference are constructed.

The concept of moral economy complements a material culture approach as it highlights how things are imbued with both economic and symbolic values. In this paper I present examples from my three case studies to show how this analytical combination can assist in our understanding of the construction of social difference.

Read the rest of the paper here: Taylor, E.B. Materiality and the making of moral economies. ICS Working Papers, 4.