Cultural Biography of Things-Kopytoff

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Kopytoff begins his essay voicing support for Appadurai’s unusual methodology that follows things-in-motion, as if they had biographies and social lives as humans do. “In doing the biography of a thing,” Kopytoff counsels, “one would ask questions similar to those one asks about people” (66). He asks:

What, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its “status” and in the period and culture, and how are these possibilities realized? Where does the thing come from and who made it? What has been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things? What are the recognized “ages” or periods in the thing’s “life,” and what are the cultural markers for them? How does the thing’s use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness (66-67)?

As a cultural anthropologist, Kopytoff insists that such a biographical approach be culturally informed, for things are culturally constructed as people are culturally constructed. “A culturally informed economic biography of an object would look at it as a culturally constructed entity, endowed with culturally specific meanings, and classified and reclassified into culturally constituted categories” (68).

Why go to all this trouble to track the so-called life of mere things? Kopytoff argues that cultural biographies of things “make salient what might otherwise remain obscure” about the culture in which things take part (67). Put another way, things are particularly dense semiotic objects, all the more so when they are in motion.

Kopytoff finds his own fieldwork among the Suku of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) to be much enriched by this method. Suku huts, for example, enjoy exciting biographies far beyond what their appearance as simple, mundane, and utilitarian shelters may suggest. A hut begins its ten-year lifespan housing a couple or, in the case of a polygynous arrangement, a wife and her children. The hut...
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