Follow the thing: papaya


Date: 2004

Author: Ian Cook et al

Type: academic journal article.

Full reference: Ian Cook et al. (2004) Follow the thing: papaya. Antipode 36(4), 642-664

Availability: article (free access)

Page reference: Cook, I. (2011) Follow the thing: papaya. ( last accessed <insert date here>)


Cook follows his commodity from the field to the plane, to the London supermarket, and to the fruit bowl. Although the narrative appears linear, it is not, as cross-cutting connections are drawn among and outside its constitutive stages: to colonialism, to the World Trade Organization (WTO), to Western middle-class consumption aesthetics, to the diseases and pests of exotic fruits, to the character of international air cargo transportation, and to developing-world labour control and surveillance. This is an unbounded, dense network of associations. And precisely because it isn’t a simple chain, the commodity itself is no ‘trivial thing’; it is composite, defetishized, decrypted, reflecting all manner of trace effects (Source: Barnes et al 2007 p.13).

Cook (2004) responds to the challenge issued by Antipode for contributors to adopt a more accessible style of writing and to David Harvey’s exhortation to ‘get behind the veil’ of the commodity fetish. So he ‘follows’ the papaya. Via a series of vignettes. From British consumer to buyers and growers and packers and field hands in Jamaica. Inspired by documentary filmmaker and artist (Source: Goss 2006 p.240).

… This paper … outlines the findings of multi-locale ethnographic research into the globalization of food, focusing on a supply chain stretching from UK supermarket shelves to a Jamaican farm, and concluding in a North London flat. It addresses perspectives and critiques from the growing literature on the geographies of commodities, but presents these academic arguments ‘‘between the lines’’ of a series of overlapping vignettes about people who were (un)knowingly connected to each other through the international trade in fresh papaya, and an entangled range of economic, political, social, cultural, agricultural and other processes also shaping these connections in the early 1990s. The research on which it is based was initially energized by David Harvey’s (1990:422) call for radical geographers to ‘‘get behind the veil, the fetishism of the market’’, to make powerful, important, disturbing connections between Western consumers and the distant strangers whose contributions to their lives were invisible, unnoticed, and largely unappreciated. Harvey argued that radical geographers should attempt to de-fetishise commodities, re-connect consumers and producers, tell fuller stories of social reproduction, and thereby provoke moral and ethical questions for participants in this exploitation who might think they’re decent people. This paper has been written to provoke such questions, to provide materials to think through and with, for geography’s ongoing debates about the politics of consumption (Source: Cook et al 2004 p.642).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

Cook et al. (2004) have argued that geographers require new techniques to provide consumers with resources to imagine their location in commodityscapes, especially given that retailers and marketers compete to provide resources of their own design. These techniques might entail unconventional forms of writing commodity networks … – forms that, like Cook’s multi-sited ethnographic description of a papaya commodity network, might mimic strategies of montage pioneered by film makers (Source: Foster 2006 p.295-6).

While doing … [his papaya] fieldwork, Ian found that he could more or less make sense of the part he was working on at any one time, but when he travelled to the next locale, to do the next piece of research, his understanding unravelled and a new one had to be pieced together, before moving on again, etc. The commodity system he was studying was also far from straightforward or transparent. He kept coming across all kinds of ‘impression management’ strategies, language games, (double) bluffing, double standards and (deliberate) ignorance, all of which seemed to be essential to the more or less efficient flow of fresh papayas from field to shelf. And there were a lot of overlaps between the bits studied ‘separately’ as, for example, Jamaican farmers visited UK supermarket buyers, and as UK-based importers visited farmers, to keep alive important business relationships. At the time, the best way that Ian could describe his research experience was that he’d done it in a hall of mirrors. So, how could he make an overall sense of this, in a proper [PhD] thesis style? He couldn’t even begin to imagine how he could write a coherent, linear narrative to make them work together or to make overall judgments about the people or processes involved. One of his supervisors suggested that he write through a time-line, in which what people were doing in various parts of the papaya chain at the same time formed the structure of the argument (e.g. ‘as Mina the supermarket fruit buyer is fast asleep at home in Kent, Pru the fruit packer is rushing to pack the final boxes of papaya due to leave Jamaica on BA’s late flight from Montego Bay. …’). Apart from this interesting idea, however, he was really stuck. He couldn’t find any ethnographic accounts of such multi-locale, commodity-based research to imagine what his thesis could look like as a whole. Around the same time, Ian’s other supervisor told him about a documentary s/he had seen at a Bristol arts cinema called Ananas (Pineapple) (1983) that had uncanny parallels with his papaya research. Ananas was based on the travels of an Israeli filmmaker, Amos Gitai, who had tried to follow a tin of Dole pineapple rings from San Francisco to the pineapple fields of Hawaii and of the Philippines. He had interviewed company agronomists, plantation managers, an heir to the Dole family fortune, religious leaders, farm workers and many others along the way. This was an ethnographic film, in the sense that Gitai tried to find out about the lives of many of the people involved in this trade through talking with them in the places where they lived and worked, and letting them show him what they did. Together, the lives and stories hidden in the tin were starkly different. Gitai seemed to have anticipated and found a way to work through the contradictions in his multi-locale fruit-following research through cinematic montage. Luckily, an Ananas video was available to hire from the British Film Institute and Gitai’s work had been analysed and discussed in great detail by film theorists. So Ian could learn a great deal about these montage techniques and their intended effects in this film (see Cook and Crang 1996). And, after being asked to write a short book chapter on his proper PhD research in 2001, Ian returned to this film and related montage literature to help him to get his head around how to write and illustrate this. The main thing he had to figure out was if and how he might use Ananas to develop ‘a sort of cinematic imagination geared to writing’ (Marcus 1994: 45) (Source: Crang & Cook 2007, p.192).

That papaya paper comes from my PhD, which was undertaken in the early 1990s. There, I aimed to ‘defetishise’ a commodity grown in the tropics and sold in the UK; to show how what often seemed to be an abstract relations between things and money were social relations between people; and to learn how consumers were insulated from the hardships in other people’s lives which we rely upon. This was a multi-site ethnography involving participant observation research on two Jamaican papaya farms and interviews both there – with workers and management – elsewhere in Jamaica with export development officials, and in the UK with pre-packers and supermarket buyers. When it came to writing up, I found it impossible to make sense of the study as a whole; all was very bitty, contradictory, and the commodity system seemed to work in part because it was that way i.e. because people had only partial knowledges of the whole commodity chain. At the time, while people were calling for this kind of research, I couldn’t find any worked through example of these ideas in practice. I was stuck. But then my supervisor told me about this documentary film about pineapples. It was just like my PhD, she said. I didn’t watch it at the time, but did so shortly after I got my PhD. Amos Gitai seemed to have had the same trouble that I had following a tropical fruit and not being able to tell a coherent story about it. Luckily, I found, there was loads of writing about Gitai and his films. And, luckily, the British Film Institute had had a Gitai retrospective (which meant that his films were touring art cinemas at the time, and that I could rent a VHS copy of this film from the BFI). It had published books detailing all of his films (in 1985 and 1993), including detailed interviews with, and essays by, Gitai. A Warwick University film theorist called Paul Willemen had edited the 1993 book and published a paper about Gitai’s editing in a 1992 edition of Screen. There was a lot to read about Ananas. It was a film aiming to find out what went into a tin of Dole pineapple rings (labour, fruit, history, etc.). It was a multi-site ethnographic film (moving between San Francisco, Hawaii, the Philippines, and Japan). It had a simple structure (a follow the thing mystery trip) but the editing involved lots of overlapping of sound and pictures. Gitai described how he worked like an architect of ‘spaces for imagination’, The film had no overarching narrative to tell you what was going on or what to think about it. It was filmed and edited to leave in the contradictions of multi-site work. A lot of the sense-making work was supposed to be done by the audience. It was supposed to give its audiences a space to inhabit, and material to think with, discuss. It didn’t have to cohere to work… The key words that came up again and again about Gitai’s film were ‘juxtaposition’ and ‘montage’. But how could I write like he made films? To try to have the same effect on my readers and his film had had on me? I needed to develop some kind of ‘cinematic imagination geared to writing’. A phrase taken from George Marcus who, apart from being the person who – for me at least – had coined the phrase ‘follow the thing’, was arguing that this imagination was necessary for the writing that would come out of the multi-site ethnographies that he was advocating. I wrote a paper – never published – with Phil Crang about this film, and what it could teach those of us working on these food geographies. And this was in the back of my head when I wrote that papaya paper. Much later, when I was writing the writing chapter of a book called Doing ethnographies (Crang & Cook 2007) with Mike, Phil’s brother, I boiled this process of translation down into eleven top tips for ‘follow the thing’ writing. If you’ve read the paper, you will have noticed that the inclusion of strip of photos to start every other section makes it seem a bit like a storyboard, and the quotations that start the others give a sense of the kinds of voices you might hear (Source: Cook et al 2007 np).

"[One] writing strategy is to shape the style of the prose so that it mirrors the larger argument made about the object of investigation ... The approach here is to create a homology between the form of the writing and the form of the argument. There have been several examples within geography of using such tactcal pros: Olsson's (1980) hermeneutcal poetry, Doel's (1999) postmodern stammering, and most recently Cook's (2004) defetishising staccato rhythms. Each author uses their style of writing to reflect the logic of their argument. Form and substance merge (Source: Barnes 2014, p.223).

Discussion / Responses

Verbal images. Simple sentences. Audience engagement. Make your own meaning. Provoke moral and ethical questions. Like ‘what can “radical” and/or “sustainable” politics of consumption realistically involve’? (Cook, 2004: 663). Good question. Proverbial $64 million. But why ‘the papaya’? Why not ‘potato magic’? Or ‘follow the baked beans’? Where would that take us? Why pick a tropical fruit? Anthropological fetish. Or ‘tropical commodity fetish?’ It’s magic. It takes you there, ‘even if you know that the tropics really aren’t like that’. But fetish always already exoticizes. And eroticizes. Sexual fetish, of course. Shape of breasts and testicles. Street slang for female genitalia. Sympathetic magic. Makes male impotent. Like papain. ‘Tenderize your meat’. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. Make it sexy. Follow the audience. Make it sexy. Make it fun. Make it sell! So students can follow the argument and consume the politics of consumption. I like it. But, too much fetish already. Fetishism of fetish? (Source: Goss 2006 p.240).

Work in this vein has moved from an initial impetus to make the production chain transparent, and a tendency to have the clear- sighted analyst guide us from guilty consumption to exploited producer, to more creatively critical fetishisms (Foster, 2006, page 286) that, in Taussig’s phrase, ‘get with the fetish’ to rework it (Cook 2006, page 658). Nonetheless, it is characterised by at least four problems. The first problem has been a tendency to position those in the global south solely as producers supporting corporately driven flows, rather than as multiply entangled – as consumers and instigators – in flows that have more diverse paths and connections (Raghuram, 2004, pp 121 – 4; Wilk, 2006). A second problem is the emphasis placed on western consumption and western consumers. This neglects the burgeoning consumer cultures of India, China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, to take just some of the most obvious examples (Brewer and Trentmann, 2006; Chua, 2000; Clammer, 1997, 2003). But a further implication is that a highly particular pattern of consumption and type of (western) consumer comes to stand for a universal consumer and consumption. A third problem, following the thing tends to focus attention upon objects that become successfully stabilised. A fourth, and consequent, problem is that a vast range of intermediary things that are consumed in production and circulation -- from packaging to off-cuts to energy to, indeed, ships -- become subsumed within, maybe obscured by, final commodities (Source: Gregson et al 2010 p.6-7).

The (single) end consumer in his research does not buy papaya and, therefore, need not be concerned with the ethical issues that arise frequently in the supply chain. However, she is unaware of the many papaya by-products used in the manufacture of products she does buy. Given the complexity of modern production, we might infer that any notion of a fully informed consumer is unattainable (Source: Newholm & Shaw 2007, p.258).

We cut up [the] paper and students adopt the identity of different people working along the chain and then we stitch the supply chain story back together (Source: Maye 2008 pers comm).

Sources / Further Reading

Barnes, T. (2014) Geo-historiographies. in Lee, R., Castree, N., Kitchin, R., Lawson, V., Paasi, A., Philo, C., Radcliffe, S., Roberts S. & Withers, C. (eds) The SAGE handbook of human geography. London: Sage, p. 202-228

Barnes, T., Peck, J., Sheppard, E. & Tickell, A. (2007) Methods matter: transformations in economic geography. in Barnes, T., Peck, J., Sheppard, E. & Tickell, A. (eds) Politics and practice in economic geography. London: Sage, p.1-24 ( last accessed 12 March 2011)

Cook et al., I. (2004) Follow the thing: papaya. Antipode 36(4), 642-664

Cook et al, I. (2007) Filmic Writing. Paper presented at the ‘Doing a PhD’ workshop, University of Birmingham, 26th April

Crang, M. & Cook, I. (2007) Doing ethnographies. London: Sage.

Foster, R. (2006) Tracking globalization: commodities and value in motion. Tilley, C., Keane, W., Kuchler, S., Rowlands, M. & Spyer, P. (eds) Handbook of material culture. London: Sage. p.285-302 ( last accessed 12 March 2011)

Goss, J. (2006) Geographies of consumption: the work of consumption. Progress in human geography 30(2), p.237-249

Gregson, N., Crang, M., Ahamed, F., Akhtar, N. and Ferdous, R. (2010) Following things of rubbish value: end-of-life ships, ’chock-chocky’ furniture and the Bangladeshi middle class consumer. Geoforum 41(6), p. 846-854 (draft at last accessed 12 March 2011)

Jamaica Exporters’ Association (nd) Walk with Papaya Joe through the planting, reaping and exporting of papaya.Kingston: Export Jamaica ( last accessed 13 January 2011).

Newholm, T. & Shaw, D. (2007) Studying the ethical consumer: a review of research. Journal of consumer behaviour 6(5), p.253-271

Compiled by Ian Cook (last updated December 2014)