Saturday, August 4, 2012

German Eggs, Guatemalan Coffee, and the Good Life

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German Eggs, Guatemalan Coffee, and the Good Life: An Anthropological Look at Markets, Values and Wellbeing (my new manuscript) presents a simple proposition: the ends of the economy, as well as politics, should be provisioning the good life for people as they themselves conceive it.  The rub is, of course, that while we may all want to live the good life, we differ widely on just what that entails.  The book examines wellbeing in two very different cultural contexts, teasing out lessons for the good life and how best to achieve it.   

We look to middle class German supermarket shoppers and to impoverished Maya farmers in Guatemala, uncovering how they use the market as consumers and as producers in pursuit of the good life.  In both places, the good life implies more than mere happiness: it implies wellbeing, fulfillment, the meaningful existence Aristotle termed eudaimonia.  An adequate income is absolutely necessary, but alone is insufficient, for overall wellbeing.  As other research has noted, health and physical security, family bonds and social relations are also important.  But my research points to several additional key elements of the good life that go beyond material standards of living:

·         Agency and Aspiration: Aspiration, a view of the future based on ideas about the good life, gives direction to agency, the power to act and to control one’s destiny 
·         Opportunity Structures: The will—agency—is alone not enough; there must also be a way, a set of structures (social, economic, legal) that provide real opportunities to realize one’s aspirations
·         Dignity and Fairness: The exact contours of “fairness” vary across cultures, but everywhere wellbeing depends on how one is treated in relation to others, socially as well as economically  
·         Commitment to a Meaningful Project: Having a purpose that is larger than one’s self provides a crucial sense of meaning to life; being a part of such larger projects is fundamental to wellbeing and the good life

I illustrate these themes through thick descriptions of German eggs and cars, Guatemalan coffee and cocaine—things to which people attach their aspirations and desires for a good life, both extraordinary and mundane. 

Buying eggs may be one of life’s more mundane tasks, something most of us do without much thought beyond occasionally comparing prices.  But egg shopping in Germany compels one to make an explicit moral decision with every purchase, to lay bare the price one puts on certain values.  Since 2004 Germany has required all eggs to carry a numeric code that denotes how the chickens were raised.  Among German shoppers we find a broad concern with the moral provenance of eggs, which they explain in terms of ecological conscientiousness and a salient cultural notion of social solidarity.  They see such consumer choices as a way of pursuing their vision of what the world should look like, of the good life for themselves and others.
While you may not have spent much time thinking about where yours eggs come from, there is a good chance that you have considered the origin of your coffee, if only to order the Antigua mild or Colombian blend at your coffee shop.  Much high-end gourmet coffee these days is grown by poor, smallholding Maya farmers in the highlands of Guatemala.  The high altitude lands to which they have been relegated over the centuries turns out to be ideally suited for producing the complexly flavored coffees preferred by today’s affluent consumers. These Maya farmers have entered the coffee market in pursuit of something better for themselves and their families, a productive if imperfect path for achieving their own visions of the good life.

In this book, we see how elements of wellbeing are expressed by German consumers and Maya producers, what this means for their visions of the good life, and what they can tell us about wellbeing. 

To understand what the good life could be calls for empirical study of how the world works (the “is”), but also a critical analysis of how things got that way and moral reflection about how the world might be different (the “ought”).  I conclude by suggesting a “positive anthropology” that works between the is and the ought, documenting the ways people around the world conceive of and work toward wellbeing to glean practical as well as theoretical lessons for approaching the good life. 

The entire manuscript draft is available (in A4 format if you are printing) at and I would welcome comments.

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