Jennifer Bair / Sociology

Who Made this Anyway? Global Commodities at the University of Virginia 

My Dream Idea is to work with a small group of students on a research project analyzing two commodities that students at UVa use, see, or interact with on a daily basis. The inspiration for this project is the interdisciplinary field of commodity studies, which draws from anthropology, history, economics, environmental studies, material sciences, and my own field, sociology. The goal is to understand how the products we consume came to be, and what this tells us about our relationships with each other and with the environment.

The students and I will choose two commodities for study—one in the fall and one in the spring. In the fall, we’ll choose a local example of a well-studied global commodity. For example, there is a wealth of research on the global commodity chain for products such as coffee and clothing, so we might choose a cappuccino from Shenandoah Joe’s, or a University of Virginia t-shirt from the campus bookstore. We’ll see what we can find out about the production of our chosen commodity: Where was it made? From what inputs? By whom? When? We’ll also examine the consumption side by doing some interviews or focus groups with local consumers to find out how they think about the product, and what they know (or don’t know) about it.

In the spring, we’ll ask similar questions about a different, less studied commodity. This could be a basketball net hanging in John Paul Jones arena, the sod planted on grounds prior to commencement, or the wooden rocking chair that furnishes student rooms on the Lawn. A key part of the exercise will be exploring the many possibilities on offer from among the items students encounter on the UVa landscape every day.

Although there are a great many questions we could explore through the study of these objects—and more importantly, from a sociological perspective, the social relations that underlie them, we will focus on three broad themes in relation to our commodities:

·       Labor and Livelihoods: In the course of studying who made these products, we will be asking about the hands through which these products passed en route to UVa, the conditions under which this work was performed, and the communities in which it took place.

·       Trade and Transport: In the course of studying where these products come from, we will be asking how they arrived at UVa, and, what kinds of policies affected their journey across state boundaries or international borders.

·       Consumption and Waste: In the course of studying how these products are consumed, we will be asking about who uses them, and what happens when they are discarded. 

Although students will choose the format of the final outcome of this project, our ultimate aim will be to produce a website, podcast, or report on our findings to be shared in some form with the UVa community, including with the university’s procurement services office.  


It is important to emphasize that the specific activities we carry out will depend on the commodities chosen, but I provide a sample budget below, based on the example of the bookstore t-shirt and rocking chair as the fall and spring commodities, respectively. I am assuming a group of five students, to be recruited from various courses in sociology.

Fall: University of Virginia t-shirt

University bookstore visit (t-shirt purchase plus coffee for 6): $50.00

Visit to screenprinting workshop in Richmond (mini-van rental plus lunch for 6): $200.00

Roundtrip train tickets to D.C. to meet with Multi-stakeholder Group that works on labor compliance in the apparel industry, plus lunch debrief: $390.00

Coffee and bagels for consumer interviews/focus groups: $160.00

Semester wrap-up dinner: $150.00          

Spring: Lawn room rocking chair

Visit to rocking chair factory in Asheville, North Carolina (2 day mini-van rental): $295.00

Hotel rooms for one night: $588.00

Meals (1.5 days for 6 people): $360.00

Working lunch to prepare final output (pizza and drinks for 6: $45.00

Semester wrap-up dinner: $150.00

TOTAL $2,388