Theoretical approach

This project uses anthropological theory and interspecies ethnographic methodology to disentangle the manifold values of seeds and seedlings. In the current context of repeated economic and ecological crisis, value has gained increased interest among anthropologists. A key challenge toward the elaboration of an anthropological theory of value lies in bringing together its moral and economic aspects. Studies on the material compound for the creation of subjective values were usually focussed on prestigious valuables while food plants’ potential as tokens of value has been dismissed for their short lifetime (Weiner 1992, Damon 2002, Munn 1986).

This project contends that seeds offer a unique ethnographic object on this regard because they lie at the intersection between living organisms and labour-intensive products, objectified materialities and key organism in the creation of subjectivities.

As a food en puissance, seeds carry essential use value. As botanical assets, they also bear value for the genetic resources they encapsulate. As well as being mass commodities circulating on global markets, some crop varieties are inalienable beings who participate to the creation of human subjectivities and collective identities. In the three field sites, the selected crop is vital to the diet of the local population providing about 70 % of the daily calorie intake in the case of potato (Brush 2004, 102), more than 30% for maize (Bech Badstue 2006, 71) and 80% for rice (Sitaheng Rasphone 2006, v). In all three cases, humans appreciate that they are physically made by the crop in question. Such consumption pattern opens avenues for understanding how the values of plants and humans are entangled in agricultural practices.

Split as it is between economic anthropology and the anthropology of ethics, a general anthropological theory of value is still lacking to date. While Marxist studies in economic anthropology have lost their strength after the 70s, we have recently seen a revival of the use of Marx’s theory in the frame of an increased interest for the anthropology of value. This culminated with the publication of David Graeber’s book Toward an Anthropology of Value, where he invites to look at values as the importance of action, instead of looking at value in things, as most anthropologists have done up to now. Following this path, this research takes the lead in assessing the convergences between Marxist theory of value and a growing scholarship examining human’s sensory engagement, and affective relatedness within interspecies collectives. Inspired by Nancy Munn’s phenomenological study of value creation in Melanesia (1986), the SeedsValues team will explore agricultural qualia and their reverberation on the creation of ethical selfs.