From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive

The Social World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea

From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive

Book Pages: 336 Illustrations: 35 photographs, 7 tables Published: February 2012

Author: Paige West

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Australia/New Zealand/Oceania, Environmental Studies

In this vivid ethnography, Paige West tracks coffee as it moves from producers in Papua New Guinea to consumers around the world. She illuminates the social lives of the people who produce coffee, and those who process, distribute, market, and consume it. The Gimi peoples, who grow coffee in Papua New Guinea's highlands, are eager to expand their business and social relationships with the buyers who come to their highland villages, as well as with the people working in Goroka, where much of Papua New Guinea's coffee is processed; at the port of Lae, where it is exported; and in Hamburg, Sydney, and London, where it is distributed and consumed. This rich social world is disrupted by neoliberal development strategies, which impose prescriptive regimes of governmentality that are often at odds with Melanesian ways of being in, and relating to, the world. The Gimi are misrepresented in the specialty coffee market, which relies on images of primitivity and poverty to sell coffee. By implying that the "backwardness" of Papua New Guineans impedes economic development, these images obscure the structural relations and global political economy that actually cause poverty in Papua New Guinea.


From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive is a unique and valuable contribution owing to its geographical focus, its topical attention to gender roles, the complexities of co-operation, and the poorly understood world of commodity distribution. It also deepens our anthropological understanding of the social imaginary and the problematic consequences of identity-based marketing.... West builds on the work of critical geographers to argue convincingly that the specialty coffee industry reproduces troubling stereotypical images while occluding the real history and political economic position of the producers.” — Sarah Lyon, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive provides a compelling picture of the people and images that have created the commodity chain of New Guinean coffee, and it will make a stimulating touchstone for future studies on this topic.” — David Sutton, PoLAR

“This well-written ethnography contributes to several bodies of literature including those on coffee production and commodity chain studies, and ethnographic accounts from Papua New Guinea. It would be useful for graduate or undergraduate courses on globalization, as an example in graduate courses on writing ethnography, and for those scholars studying commodity chains and third-party certification systems.” — Rebecca Mari Meuninck, American Ethnologist

“West’s account of the production and consumption of PNG coffee is … unbounded…. she does not limit herself to one setting, perspective, or community and focus on how coffee intersects with this. Rather she combines observations.… This imagination is what makes coffee valuable in different ways to the agents involved in its global journey. West’s wide-ranging approach points to an important aspect of the overall framing of each book…. [She] is most explicit in thinking through what kind of an analysis she can give in this manner.” — Ryan Schram, Anthropological Quarterly

“Although many anthropologists have traced paths traveled by speci?c commodities around the world, no study can match the ambition and sweep of Paige West’s book. — Daniel Reichman, American Anthropologist

“A very powerful account of contemporary Papua New Guinea and global capitalism. It critically examines the fantasy images so known to us through popular media and advertising of commodities and shows how very real consequences these fantasies have. Written in an extremely clear and vivid style, the book makes excellent reading for courses on environmental anthropology, neoliberalism and Papua New Guinea. It critically examines the seemingly well meaning certification schemes, which raise questions among both academics and consumers alike, and this should allow for a wide-based readership. Finally, it simply is a very solid and well written ethnography based on long periods of fieldwork, which gives a thorough account of global coffee markets.” — Tuomas Tammisto, Oceania

From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive makes the needed contribution of integrating anthropological theory to Political Ecology.... By combining political ecology with a broader ethnographically grounded social analysis of consumption, personhood and identity in both the context of New Guinea and the West, the reader is given a holistic account of how such groups are formed by cultural and structural characteristics.” — Yancey Orr, The Australian Journal of Anthropology

“Readers must be grateful for this ‘rich’ look at the Gimi people and for West’s challenge to analyze the images attached to them and to coffee.”  — Robert W. Thurston, Social Analysis

“This fine study could be useful in anthropology courses, area studies of Pacific culture, and courses on food studies, as well as a satisfying accompaniment to many hot cups of coffee.” — Larry Lake, Contemporary Pacific

“West provides an excellent ethnography that covers a wide variety of issues regarding coffee production in Papua New Guinea. Her analyses are complex and her research detailed. This work is of great value to increasing our understanding of Papua New Guinea as well as the creation of the imagined primitive in order to sell coffee.”  — Amy E. Harth, Electronic Green Journal

“This is an important contribution to an emerging literature on neoliberalism, unique in its multi-sited approach to the topic. While theoretically and ethnographically thick, it is written in a fluid prose that would make it useful in undergraduate and graduate courses on development, ethnography, consumption and economic anthropology.” — Jamon Alex Halvaksz, II, Anthropological Forum

“West balances vivid description with thoughtful analysis throughout, avoiding the temptation to oversimplify the complex and often contradictory ways in which coffee helps shape people’s lives...I found From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive both engaging and thought-provoking.”   — Hilary Howes, Southeast Asian Studies

“Drawing on long-term ethnographic research and an impressive amount and variety of data, West reveals the ambivalences and depths of the economic processes and social relationships developed around the coffee industry.” — Monica Vasile, Social Anthropology

“[T]his book is valuable for its thick description of a relatively little-studied coffee-producing country.”  — John M. Talbot, Business History Review

"A book that has as its main themes criticisms of neoliberal economics and fair trading could have been rather dull. But Paige West brings these themes to life by using her ethnographic skills to meet and talk with the growers, the buyers, the traders in PNG and overseas and the coffee shop owners." — Bryant Allen, Pacific Affairs

"A thoughtful marriage of theory and method from anthropology and geography. West weaves together critical studies of capitalism, neoliberalism,  and uneven development from geography with anthropological attention to personhood, exchange, and meaning" — Sarah Besky, Journal of Anthropological Research

From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive provokes us to consider these and other pressing questions, and to abandon simple narratives about the power of capitalism as a singular force that obliterates local variations in modes of exchange and sociality. In short, coffee means different things in different places. This book tells us not only why and how it has different meanings, but also how we are complicit in the processes of this differentiation.” — Sarah Besky, Journal of Anthropological Research

"Coffee is a global and of course a ubiquitous commodity. And here lies its analytical challenge: how to grasp the full complexity of a drug whose path from production to consumption entails a world of enormous semiotic, cultural, institutional, political, economic, and ecological complexity. Paige West takes us deep into the heart of coffee's image world, as a spectacle, as a brand, and as a carrier of forms of certified value. But she also pursues the bean into the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where the crop, paradoxically, has little cultural value, and through the global supply chains of corporate shippers and processors. Here is an ethnography which exposes our morning cappuccino to the bright light of modernity. From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive does for coffee what Sidney Mintz in Sweetness and Power did for sugar: here in short is a meditation on caffeine and power." — Michael Watts, Chancellor's Professor, University of California, Berkeley

"Paige West writes against two kinds of flatness: the flatness of commodity chain studies and the flatness of ethical consumption's marketing spin. She offers, instead, a richly peopled ethnographic account of coffee's trajectory through time, space, lives, and imaginations, and takes us deep into the contradictory heart of our neoliberal times. Penetrating, provocative, and moving, this is an excellent read." — Tania Murray Li, University of Toronto


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Price: $27.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Paige West is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author of Conservation Is Our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea, also published by Duke University Press, and a co-founder and co-editor of the journal Environment and Society.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Tables ix

Acknowledgments xi

1. The World of Coffee from Papua New Guinea 1

2. Neoliberal Coffee 33

3. Historic Coffee 69

4. Village Coffee 101

5. Relational Coffee 131

6. National Coffee 157

7. International Coffee 201

8. Conclusion 237

Notes 257

Bibliography 279

Index 303
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5150-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5136-8
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