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Proprietary Contest, Business Ethics, and Conflict Management: A Multi-Sited Commodity Ethnography

Production, Consumption, Business and the Economy: Structural Ideals and Moral Realities

ISBN: 978-1-78441-056-8, eISBN: 978-1-78441-055-1

Publication date: 16 September 2014



This paper delineates the proprietary contest developed around a highly valued prestige item: a silver roofed tankard owned by a Romanian, Gabor Roma man.


The author applies “methodological fetishism” (Appadurai, 1986, p. 5), the perspective of things-in-motion, as well as the biographic method to interpret data collected during 31.5 months of multi-sited anthropological fieldwork carried out in the Transylvanian Gabor and Cărhar Roma groups.


As the tankard in question crossed the borders of three Transylvanian Roma groups, and thus went through the processes of de- and re-contextualization three times, it is characterized by a transethnic/transcultural biography. This paper pays special attention to the agency associated with the tankard (the social and economic practices, processes and emotions it caused or influenced), the transformations concerning its symbolic properties, and its movement between various social contexts and value regimes. Furthermore, it examines how the analysis of these issues contributes to a deeper understanding of prestige relations and consumption, morality and business ethics, and measures of success in two Transylvanian Roma groups.


This paper reveals how subjects create, manipulate, and represent their identities, and social and economic differences through the construction of commodity biographies and ownership histories interpreted as symbolic pantheons. By combining the terms of Marcus (1995) and Fowles (2006), it argues that analyses based on multi-sited fieldwork focusing on commodities crossing cultural or social boundaries, and their transnational/transcultural biographies, should be defined as multi-sited commodity ethnographies.




I am heavily indebted to two anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier versions of this paper. I am especially grateful to the editor for his useful and thought-provoking suggestions and criticism, as well as for his encouragement. I alone bear responsibility for any errors of fact, interpretation, or judgment. The field research was made possible by the generous support of the following institutions: Hungarian Scientific Research Fund (OTKA, F029504; PD77944); Hungarian State Eötvös Scholarship; Ministry of Hungarian Cultural Heritage; National Cultural Fund of Hungary (2502/1179); Open Society Institute (Budapest); and Soros Foundation.


Berta, P. (2014), "Proprietary Contest, Business Ethics, and Conflict Management: A Multi-Sited Commodity Ethnography", Production, Consumption, Business and the Economy: Structural Ideals and Moral Realities (Research in Economic Anthropology, Vol. 34), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 31-64.



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