The Politics and Ethics of the Just Price: Volume 39

Cover of The Politics and Ethics of the Just Price

Ethnographies of Market Exchange


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(12 chapters)


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By drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted amongst waste-pickers and recycling traders in the waste paper, plastic and scrap metal sectors, and engaging with literature from economic anthropology and history, as well as archival sources, this paper documents changing perceptions of just price, morality and fairness in the Turkish recycling market. The paper suggests that multiple markets imply multiple prices, which are contingent and contested. When dealing with price mechanisms largely outside their control, actors tend to associate a fair price with the going market price, rather than factors such as state regulation. Approaches to morality and assessments of fairness become more ambiguous when prices are mediated by actors’ own practices. These range from gift relations to paternalism, envy and deception.


Based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out among market sellers in Equatorial Guinea’s capital Malabo at the height of its oil-boom in 2010–2012, this paper explores how prices were negotiated and set. It describes how the marketplace constitutes an important institution in Guinean society, not only as a site for provisioning, but also as a space for fostering relationships, engaging in politics and seeking social justice. The case of Equatorial Guinea helps us to re-think the notion of the just price as it is established through contingent and negotiated relations between traders, their customers and powerful political actors, rather than being the outcome of supply and demand or the result of struggles over the production and reproduction of labour. The emphasis on the political dimension of the just price speaks to key debates in the moral economy literature.


This paper investigates rose and rose oil production in the province of Isparta, Turkey, with reference to the discourses on and procedures of price formation. Farmers have been engaging in rose cultivation for over a century and rose oil production is considered to be a traditional industry. The market actors for rose oil are global cosmetic and local processing firms and almost all rose oil from Isparta is exported. Prices and production have been steadily increasing since 2010. Although prices are seen as good, there are concerns about overproduction and fierce competition between the rose oil firms to buy the harvest, hence pushing up rose prices and, leading to a crash in rose oil prices on the world market. Through careful observation of payment and price formation procedures, the paper raises issues concerning the moral economy of price formation. Findings are provisional and the research is on-going, but the discourse on just prices clearly suggests that value judgments are embedded in and implicitly critical of capitalist markets.


This paper documents the case of La Verde, a producer cooperative in Andalusia, Southern Spain, whose members grow and sell organic fruit and vegetables. Fieldwork data reveal a range of assessments and practices with respect to just price. Historical experiences of working as day laborers, with little access to cash or other resources informs the members’ radical political views on money, prices, and markets. These ideas modulate exchanges at the local level, and in their political networks. However, working their own land and selling a prized product allows them to generate good market returns from private shopkeepers in cities. The paper proposes that for a price to be considered just, criteria for commensuration, or equivalence between a price and the perceived value of an object must adhere, but adjudications about this vary according to the relationship between exchangers. Rather than an objective just price, the paper considers assessments and judgments about the relation between prices and justice to be contextually defined, contested, and negotiated.


This paper explores the contested notion of what constitutes a fair price in the context of grain exchanges in a subsistence farming village in the highlands of Matagalpa. Using ethnographic data, I show how Nicaraguan campesinos’ economic behavior plays out within a local moral universe of fairness: how much to produce and how much to sell in the market (or to give away); how prices and obligations vary depending on the social relation that binds the seller and the buyer (kinship, friendship, community, and so on); in what ways these notions of fair price are articulated and contested by different classes within a rural community; and lastly, what is expected of the State in terms of regulating food prices. Price emerges as the dialectic between the market in its abstract form and the specific social relationships and everyday politics that shape exchanges. What constitutes help (ayuda) and what constitutes exploitation in market exchanges and the determination of price is constantly contested, the moral economy is a discursive battlefield.


This paper explores questions of value and the just price for two groups of farming families in southern Tuscany. As sharecroppers or small-holders they experienced the slow shift from subsistence farming to creating most of their livelihoods by selling the products or their labour. This created a complicated legacy in their views about the relationship between use-value and monetary value since the interaction of different spheres of the economy (what Gudeman calls mutuality and the market) continued to impact significantly on their material well-being and cultural values. This emerges in many contexts, from decisions to continue producing food for home consumption, to abandoning the investments of previous generations. In each case the quantitative questions (what does it cost? what is it worth?) play out alongside qualitative questions about use-values, values which are embedded in issues about the continuation of social and cultural relations. Two main points then emerge from this ethnography. First that in many circumstances local views about the just price cannot be understood by restricting the account to the market sphere. Even the innovative farming households who have moved to the production of high-quality foodstuffs find themselves in a market which eulogizes non-commercial values. Second, views about the just price mostly arise as part of a critique of the powerful forces shaping markets, and often draw on older political traditions concerned with social justice.


The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, was the most deadly disaster in garment manufacturing history, with at least 1,134 people killed and hundreds injured. In 2015, injured workers and the families of those killed received compensation from global apparel brands through a US$30 million voluntary initiative known as the Rana Plaza Arrangement. Overseen by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Rana Plaza Arrangement awarded payments to survivors using a pricing formula developed by a diverse team of ‘stakeholders’ that included labour groups, multinational apparel companies, representatives of the Bangladesh government and local employers, and ILO actuaries. This paper draws from anthropological scholarship on the ‘just price’ to explore how a formula for pricing death and injury became both the means and form of a fragile political settlement in the wake of a shocking and widely publicised industrial disaster. By unpacking the complicated ‘ethics of a formula’ (Ballestero, 2015), I demonstrate how the project of creating a just price involves not two sets of values (ethical and financial) but rather multiple, competing values. This paper argues for recognition of the persistence and power of these competing values, showing how they variously strengthen and undermine the claim that justice was served by the Rana Plaza Arrangement. This analysis reveals the deficiencies of counterposing ‘morality’ and ‘economy’ in the study of price by reflecting upon all elements of price as situated within political economy and history.


Fair trade has made paying producers in poorer countries a “just” price one of its central aims, with the issue constantly in its public communiqués, from the print media to social networking sites. As most research has looked at fair trade in the South, where small producers and craft makers live, discussions of the fair price have centered on whether the wholesale prices paid to them are alleviating poverty. However, circumscribing the issue of the fair price only to its impact in the South impedes our understanding of how fair trade operates in the North, on which the system relies for its existence. Looking at fair trade from a Northern perspective, this paper sees the fair price as a partial illustration of the social processes that characterize reflexive modernity, particularly the ethical dilemmas that surround the composition of prices. But rather than focusing exclusively on activist discourse, the paper uses practice theory to build a more nuanced picture of the diverse beliefs and behaviors that the fair price is entangled with. Drawing on ethnography with people who consume and sell fair trade in the Italian city of Palermo, the paper shows how understanding what a fair price is appears to be an enigma that conceals different aspects of the fair trade network. Specifically, it reveals that the fair price is not a single but a double entity, comprising the wholesale price paid to producers, where “political” emphasis usually lies, and the fair retail price, an entity discussed far less often.


Pages 213-220
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Cover of The Politics and Ethics of the Just Price
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Research in Economic Anthropology
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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