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Geographies of Commodity Chains

Hughes, A. Reimer, S. (Eds) (2004)

London and New York: Routledge. 276 pages, £90, Hardback. ISBN: 9780415339100.

Reviewed by Jennifer Johns, Department of Geography, University of Liverpool.

Situated within an increasing large body of Global Commodity Chain, Global Production Network and Global Value Chain research, Hughes and Reimer offer a collection of research that aims to bring together a range of different theoretical perspectives and (sub)disciplinary viewpoints. In acknowledgement of the relatively disparate nature of previously published work, the editors sought to produce a collection of chapters which both challenge and take forward existing theories, approaches and metaphors used to capture relations between production and consumption (p.7). As the title of the book would suggest, the whole text draws explicitly upon the conceptual framework of the commodity chain.

Hughes and Reimer have collated a wide-ranging set of case studies that trace geographies of commodities constructed via trading links, organisational networks and cultural and economic knowledges. The book is well structured, with an introductory chapter which sets the theoretical context of the contributions coherently and succinctly. The following chapters are divided into four interrelated parts: (1) commodity chains, networks and filières; (2) commodity chains and cultural connections; (3) commodities, representations and the politics of the producer-consumer relationship and (4) ethical commodity chains and the politics of consumption. The chapters contained within these sections cover a range of commodities (fruit, vegetables, fast food, flowers, meat, cocoa, nuts, clothing and furniture) and geographical contexts (UK, selected African countries, South Africa, North America and Europe). However, not only are the chapters diverse in terms of the object of study, but a number of different perspectives on how we can view and analyse commodity chains are included. These include implicitly and explicitly politicised viewpoints in which the inherent power relations and inequalites contained within and beyond commodity chains are examined; the representation of commodities and ethical standpoints.

Without exception, each of the chapters offers a detailed and well constructed examination of a particular commodity chain(s). Barrett et al. (Chapter 1) are highly effective in revealing the complexity of relationships between corporate retailers, importers and exporters with regard to the global trade in fresh horticultural produce. Their focus is on trade with sub-Saharan Africa and through their approach they are able to reveal broader structural issues (including those of regulation) and the flow of power, ‘indicating a structural chain which privileges some sites and actors over others' (p. 35). This examination has additional relevance to those seeking to understand global inequalities. Mather and Rowcroft (Chapter 8) present an innovative take on trade in Outspan oranges, embedding their discussion within the context of apartheid and postapartheid South Africa. This is a more explicitly politicised narrative that reveals the importance of representation of particular commodities, and how the construction of images and the marketing of products relates to both to consumption and production. Crewe's examination of the fashion commodity chain (Chapter 10) is an enjoyable read, combining factual data on the industry, discussion of the geographies of production and anecdotal evidence from a range of media sources to emphasise the mutual dependence of production and consumption nodes within fashion's commodity network. The chapter concludes with two key issues relating to how we use and understand GCC approaches; that of avoiding reducing studies to one moment in a commodity's life, and the shifting spatial dynamics of regulatory regimes. The correspondence between Nike and a consumer requesting that the word ‘sweatshop’ be stitched into his ‘personalised’ shoes (p. 208-9) is brilliantly illustrative of the tension between consumer and producer and broader issues surrounding individual expression and corporate power.

The aim of the book was to bring together a range of research on commodity chains, which it has certainly achieved. However, the introduction does not do enough to bring together the four sections of the book. A concluding chapter reflecting on the strengths (and weaknesses) of particular approaches within and beyond the ‘commodity chains’ framework would leave the reader with an opportunity to situate each chapter within a broader argument about the utility of, and future agenda for, commodity chains research. In addition, Hughes and Reimer raise the challenging discussion of a commodity chain approach as a methodological strategy in their introduction (p.13). Whilst this is a highly relevant and significant issue, this discussion may have been better placed within a concluding chapter. Further to this, the methodologies of the research conducted for each chapter is not outlined, opening the whole collection to criticism by those who view commodity chain and production network research as methodologically weak (see for example Thompson 2003).

The price of the text (£90) puts it beyond purchase by the majority of undergraduate (or graduate) students. However, for an academic or institution, the book is certainly good value for money. While aspects of the research contained with the chapters may have subsequently been published in journals, the collection of work is greater than the sum of its parts. This text makes an excellent addition to any reading lists on human geography, particularly economic and cultural subdisciplines. Indeed, its appeal should extend beyond geography to include other social sciences, management and business studies. Placed along side key text books such as Global Shift, this book offers a rich variety of empirical case studies to illustrate both the achievements of commodity chain approaches, and the new avenues down which research may head.

The EGRG requests reviewers to consider many points, including one that is particularly relevant to this text; ‘is the book a timely contribution to the field of economic geography?’. The delays and frustrations experienced by Alex Hughes, Suzanne Reimer and their contributing authors in publishing this text have not been made secret, and nor should they be. Geographies of Commodity Chains was published more than two years after the final manuscript was completed. However, the authors should not feel that this has significantly reduced the impact of the text. Discussions around different approaches to commodity chain or network research is still high on the agenda for many economic geographers and the quality of the chapters is sufficiently strong that they will continue to provide relevant and thought-provoking arguments for several years to come. In publicising their frustrating struggle to publish Geographies of Commodity Chains, Hughes and Reimer have raised a number of issues surrounding ‘representations of corporate power, notions of objectivity and the value attributed to different voices in academic texts’ (2005: 274). The notion of publishers (in)discretely censoring academic research and silencing ‘troublesome’ voices should be of great concern to all economic geographers, not least those aiming to give expression to alternative viewpoints and/or critically reveal the inequalities within and due to commodity chains and the exercising of power by corporations. Finally, this serves to remind us all that we are increasingly embedded within the corporate power networks that we seek to reveal and critique, with significant implications for how we are able to collect, analyse and publish our findings.

Dicken, P. (2007) Global Shift: Mapping the Changing Contours of the World Economy. London: Sage.

Hughes A. and Reimer S. (2005) Guest editorial: publishing commodity chains. Geoforum 36(3) p. 273-275.

Thompson, G. F. (2003) Between Hierarchies and Markets: The Logic and Limits of Network Forms of Organization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(Added 11 June 2007)