2020 SEA Book Prize Winners!

The Society for Economic Anthropology is pleased to announce the WINNERS of our 2020 book award! We extend a hearty congratulations to Kathleen and Kristin, as well as to our review committee, for all your hard work and thoughtful deliberation.

Co-Winners:

Kathleen Millar, Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump (2018), Duke University Press

Kristin Phillips, Ethnography of Hunger: Politics, Subsistence, and the Unpredictable Grace of the Sun (2018), University of Indiana Press

Finalists:

Mette M. High, Fear and Fortune: Spirit Worlds and Emerging Economies in the Mongolian Gold Rush (2017), Cornell University Press

Amira Mittermaier, Giving to God: Islamic Charity in Revolutionary Times (2019), University of California Press

Solen Roth, Incorporating Culture: How Indigenous People Are Reshaping the Northwest Coast Art Industry (2018), UBC Press

Book Prize Committee:

John Millhauser (Chair), Michael Chibnik, Laura Cochrane, Sibel Kusimba, Art Murphy, Beth Notar, Colin West, Deborah Winslow

Additional information for co-winners’ books:

Kathleen Millar, Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump (2018), Duke University Press

Jacket: In Reclaiming the Discarded Kathleen M. Millar offers an evocative ethnography of Jardim Gramacho, a sprawling garbage dump on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, where roughly two thousand self-employed workers known as catadores collect recyclable materials. While the figure of the scavenger sifting through garbage seems iconic of wageless life today, Millar shows how the work of reclaiming recyclables is more than a survival strategy or an informal labor practice. Rather, the stories of catadores show how this work is inseparable from conceptions of the good life and from human struggles to realize these visions within precarious conditions of urban poverty. By approaching the work of catadores as highly generative, Millar calls into question the category of informality, common conceptions of garbage, and the continued normativity of wage labor. In so doing, she illuminates how waste lies at the heart of relations of inequality and projects of social transformation.

Contribution to Economic Anthropology (from nomination materials): Reclaiming the Discarded examines the life projects of several thousand catadores in order to understand fundamental changes in the experience of work in contemporary capitalism. The book contributes to economic anthropology by retheorizing wageless labor, value and waste, and the so-called informal economy today. The text also offers methodological insights into the ethnography of work. Revivifying EP Thompson’s approach, Millar reveals the meanings encoded in the mundane action of labor. Chapter Four (“Plastic Economy”) provides an enormously creative intervention into the classic debate on the informal economy in economic anthropology. The author incorporates recent theory on “plasticity” from philosophers Catherine Malabou and Marc Jeannerod. Millar suggests that economic anthropologists should search not for what is informal about an economy, but rather for that economy’s power to change the forms that enter it. In these passages, the book looks closely at the act of labor on the dump. But Millar’s text also explores scrap yards, repair shops, supply stands, city waste management offices, the association of catadores and their worker cooperative, multinational recycling plants, and the winding streets of the local neighborhood through which the materials of catadores circulate. The very materiality and physicality of the work of catadores, as the author describes in her own participation as a novice on the dump, reveals how labor is inscribed on the body and on the self. Furthermore, by tracing the pathways that objects take as they are transformed from an indiscriminate mass of garbage on the dump, to rectangular bales of bottles stacked in neat rows on a scrap yard’s truck, to plastic granules on their way to packaging plants in China, the book situates the work of catadores within global relations that cross-cut formal and informal economic categories. In this process, Reclaiming the Discarded contributes to growing efforts to reconceptualize economy, not as a category or sphere, but as a process made through everyday social practice.

Kristin Phillips, Ethnography of Hunger: Politics, Subsistence, and the Unpredictable Grace of the Sun (2018), University of Indiana Press

Jacket: In An Ethnography of Hunger Kristin D. Phillips examines how rural farmers in central Tanzania negotiate the interconnected projects of subsistence, politics, and rural development. Writing against stereotypical Western media images of spectacular famine in Africa, she examines how people live with—rather than die from—hunger. Through tracing the seasonal cycles of drought, plenty, and suffering and the political cycles of elections, development, and state extraction, Phillips studies hunger as a pattern of relationships and practices that organizes access to food and profoundly shapes agrarian lives and livelihoods. Amid extreme inequality and unpredictability, rural people pursue subsistence by alternating between—and sometimes combining—rights and reciprocity, a political form that she calls “subsistence citizenship.” Phillips argues that studying subsistence is essential to understanding the persistence of global poverty, how people vote, and why development projects succeed or fail.

Contribution to Economic Anthropology (from nomination materials): An Ethnography of Hunger by Kristin D. Phillips revisits classic work in economic anthropology on the Nyaturu of Singida by renowned economic anthropologist Harold Schneider (1970; 1974). At the same time, Phillips makes important contributions to contemporary economic anthropology. First, the book thoughtfully revisits the concept of “subsistence” in relation to current anthropological and popular notions of development and well-being. Phillips theorizes subsistence through the multiple frames of materiality, subjectivity, and politics. In these three frames, subsistence is (1) the indeterminate but precarious threshold between physiological persistence and death (2) a key influence on historical subjectivity; and (3) a construct that bears considerable social and political weight. Phillips argues that subsistence is always a political question — a rich rhetorical space of often frenzied activity to perform or deny suffering—as well as to endure it—in order to prompt or deny redistributive efforts. And yet the threshold of subsistence also offers significant opportunities to wield power, enforce dependencies, or implement large-scale state schemes. Phillips shows that it is at the threshold of subsistence where political strategies that instrumentalize biological vulnerability are particularly effective. Secondly, Phillips attends to the divergent frames of social and moral meaning in which food and people are embedded when they are situated on the threshold of subsistence. She highlights how the circulation of food that is needed for subsistence is driven by a diversity of interests, impulses, and ideas about food that reflect its robust social and moral value in rural Singida. Food’s capacity to hold many contiguous meanings–and people’s ability to mobilize these meanings–allows food to transcend the fixed codes of distribution that Amartya Sen theorized and to follow unpredicted paths. This analysis sheds light not only on food’s many meanings but also on the social significance of food’s periodic scarcity in subsistence agriculture contexts. Finally, the book initiates an important policy conversation about “contributions to development” that is not represented in the literature on development, participation, or neoliberalism in Africa. Such contributions–mandatory contributions of labor, cash, or other resources toward state development projects–are pervasive throughout much of the African continent, and often represent the state’s abdication of obligations to rural populations and a shift of the responsibility for rural development onto some of the poorest of poor peoples. Through describing such shifts, the book shows how, counter to the assumption that development supports or facilitates subsistence, it can just as easily threaten it.