Monday, 1 December 2008

CFP RGS (4) Follow the things

Twenty years ago, studies of the 'social lives of things' were thin on the ground. Material cultural geographies of commodities on their travels weren't being studied. So, those wanting to do this kind of research had little to be inspired by. And those wanting to use these studies in their teaching had little to work with. Now this work is everywhere: TV documentaries in which pop singers try to find the women whose hair they wore as extensions and which take lovers of cheap fashion to work in sweatshops; newspaper articles tracing the lives of tennis balls and tea bags; good shopping guides to ‘ethical furniture’; books exploring the genealogies of cod and coffee; artists exploring the geographies of bananas, milk and GPS devices; academics critically exploring the commodity chains of chocolate, diamonds, jeans and broccoli. All seem to have heeded David Harvey's (1990) call for work that defetishises commodities by revealing and questioning everyday exploitations, inequalities and value-contestations along commodity chains, and consumers' reliance on countless unseen others around the world to live the lives they live every day. However, there remain doubts about the efficacy of such work, as recent research into ethical trade campaigning has argued that attempts to forge empathetic connections between consumers and producers often fails to engage consumers in any meaningful action. The aim of this session is to bring together a range of academics, activists, artists and others pursuing this work, to address a number of its tensions and promises. These could include, for example:

- the more or less followed / more or less followable: beyond food and fashion;

- active materialities / heartful connections: beyond the information gap;

- making it 'fun': engaging audiences / the aesthetics of exploitation;

- exploring the ethics of the representation of ‘ethical goods’;

- veils of distance and transparency in the Internet-age;

- narrating commodity chains using the internet/citizen journalism/Web 2.0;

- relationships between disintermediation and defetishised commodities

- following methodologies: complex geographies <-> limited time & resources;

- practising theory / theorising practice in connective commodity research;

- film, art, journalism, activism, academia: inspirations and cross-over work;

- making commodity following public: traditional and organic approaches.

Please send enquiries, ideas and abstracts to Ian Cook (, Dorothea Kleine ( and Mark Graham ( by 29 January 2009.

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