Market Threads | Princeton University Press

A Review of Market Threads: How Cotton Farmers and Traders Create a Global Commodity by Koray Çalışkan

Lorena Lombardozzi

Department of Economics, The Open University


This review-article discusses, through the lens of Çalışkan’s Market Threads: How Cotton Farmers and Traders Create a Global Commodity, how the mainstream economic conceptualisation of markets and prices conceals the power dynamics that underpin capitalism and explain social outcomes. Focusing on detailed empirical evidence of how vertical structures and agents – namely markets, farmers and traders  – interact through cotton, the book analyses how the global, regional and local dialectically create a world market. I argue that although Çalışkan’s book does not grasp entirely such complexity, by demystifying the economic constructions built around methodological individualism, rationality and equilibrium, it does put forward an acute and innovative analysis of social relations of production and exchange of global commodities which suggests a way to overcome inadequate epistemological and ontological paradigms in the social sciences.


cotton – commodity market – trade – value – price – farmer

Koray Çalışkan, (2011) Market Threads: How Cotton Farmers and Traders Create a Global Commodity, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

1       Looking at the Same Things, Explaining them in a Different Language

Market Threads is an insightful book. It was written by a political scientist who has used an ethnographic approach to investigate a topic that has inspired countless academics across various disciplines. Dr Çalışkan currently works as an Associate Professor of Strategic Design and Management at The New School–Parsons, and has published widely in the field of political economy and on the anthropology of capitalism. The book, based upon his doctoral thesis, develops in two-hundred and eight pages an empirically-grounded investigation into how cotton, one the most widely-used commodities, circulates in the world economy. More precisely, this book investigates how structures and agents, namely markets, farmers and traders, interact through cotton. Indeed, cotton is claimed to be the protagonist of the book. That notwithstanding, it is used as a lens with which to investigate social relations of production and exchange in Egypt, Turkey, and globally.

Due to its ground-breaking potential, cotton has filled the pages of a multitude of classic and contemporary academic works. Historically, cotton has triggered capitalistic development, as an input of production in the first industrial revolution,[1] and as a means of worker-exploitation in the global division of labour. Being a core ingredient of Western consumerism, many have investigated its ‘enforced commodification’ across the Global Souths. This literature has explored post-colonial relations, in the sphere of critical Marxist political economy and/or dependency theory.[2] More recently, studies on cotton have focused on global value-chains and financial markets. In the latter sphere, by emphasising the role of capital liberalisation and deregulation following the post-2008 economic crisis, many macroeconomists have been feeding academic journals with a seemingly endless number of papers on ‘financialisation’, ‘price transmission’ and ‘speculation’. It should be noted that neither the table of contents nor the book itself contains those three terms. Indeed, while useful for describing global patterns of profits arising from commodities in neoliberal capitalism, sometimes such analysis wants for empirical significance, methodological efficacy, or, indeed, anything original to contribute. Indeed, theoretical categories can sometime become empty labels expressing contradictory ideas, which nonetheless represent the passe-partout to gaining voice within the academic arena. Perhaps these categories are missing because in 2010, the year of the book’s release, they were not popular. Yet, this book does not hide behind pre-conceived definitions and circumvented narrow concepts by compensating for their absence with detailed and dense empirical material and an original theoretical framework. The book goes beyond the dichotomy of formalists and substantivists. Drawing from actor-network theory, it vividly engages with the concept of ‘economisation’, which refers to ‘the assembly and qualification of actions, devices and analytical/practical descriptions as “economic” by social scientists and market actors’.[3] Markets, agencies, encounters, prices and market maintenance are shown in regard to their socio-material nature. Through (1) theories of the economy; (2) institutional and technical arrangements and (3) methods of valuation, the book’s aim is to investigate the process of marketisation within societies.[4]

That said, the principal contribution of this book is methodological. The book interconnects primary data, participant observations, interviews, professional experience and a veritable cornucopia of secondary data collected over, as it correctly and proudly emphasises, two years of multi-site fieldwork. Those elements are presented in a realistic writing-style, and they reveal the ‘open-endedness’ of ‘the economic’, which cannot be found in any international economics textbook. Rural and urban, local and global, formal and informal, past and future, capitalism from below and from above: those are just a few of the dichotomies that this research has implicitly acknowledged, and embraced in its analysis. By bypassing the normative foundations of methodological individualism,[5] the author has used an inductive approach which allows the book to unveil real-life phenomena.

2       An Ontological Critique of the Market and Price

Another major contribution of this book is its deep and acute understanding of markets. The author untangles not only the market as a concept per se, but also its modalities of representation and operationalisation through the study of the cycle of cotton. Referring to Foucault, he claims that the predominant neoclassical theory not only describes, but also plays an active role in shaping, the understanding of markets, ‘modern economics and modern economic markets [being] mutually constructive’ (p. 7). The epistemological implication is pervasive and relevant: neoclassical economics not only gives us the language to talk about ‘economic issues’, but also provides the presuppositions to make its concepts sound real and legitimate. Therefore, power relations regulate epistemology and knowledge too. In this way, Çalışkan’s book represents an act of resistance, a response to such intellectual hegemony, and possibly a platform for new radical contributions. For instance, Çalışkan attempts to contextualise financial markets for their specific materiality, identified as a neoclassical necessity due to their confined and enfranchised forms of transactions. Furthermore, the book refrains from the restrictive understanding of the market as the physical locus of social-productive interaction, and it retrieves its historical, social and institutional specificities organically integrated with non-market things and agencies.

The second chapter of the book maps the circulation of two thousand bales of cotton travelling from the US to Turkey. The transactions of cotton are not only analysed through the core transaction of buying and selling, but expanded towards what most mainstream economists might define as ‘informalities’ or ‘distortions’. These are manifested via networking, the exchange of gifts, dinners etc., defined in this book as the ‘technology of power’ (p. 60). The author argues that such maintenance activities make the commodity-markets work.

In particular, three factors are listed as active components of the market: capital, knowledge and networks. These concepts have already been investigated in the literature along the lines of inclusiveness, social capital and moral economy by many anthropologists and social scientists. For instance, the idea of gift as a source of reciprocity and obligation is not new; it draws upon the work of Mauss and others. Nevertheless, the mainstream literature has defined these phenomena either as clientelism or corruption, linking them to the institutionalists’ ideas of rent-seeking, transaction costs and ‘bad governance’. Another strand of the literature has looked at these factors as part of ‘social capital’, which is embedded in the market and, by solidifying networks, is instrumental for economic growth. However, social capital remains obscure, and power relations are not explained. Hence, knowledge and networks have never been analysed as intrinsic parts of the social relations of production and for their role in commodity-exchange. The originality of Çalışkan’s work resides in the idea of considering socio-technical arrangements of market maintenance as part of the commercial transaction of cotton itself. The use of these ‘technologies of power’ proves that price does not reside in the correspondence between supply and demand driven by homogenous agents, but rather inheres in a combination of different premeditated actions and transactional forces. The author demystifies with stark lucidity the real meaning of transactions beyond the sterile concept of price, and he recognises that those norms are part of economic relations that shape patterns of domination.

By surmounting the mainstream analysis of ‘price’, the book introduces the concept of ‘prosthetic price’. This is the outcome of actions made by artificial, technical and human devices. Çalışkan explains how the prosthetic price, while the sine qua non condition for traders to enter the market, is not employed in the actual exchange of the commodity but precedes the price accepted for the transactions by providing a directional signal. The argument here is that the price is produced mostly as a result of agents’ bargaining power, underpinned by local social factors and power–knowledge relations (p. 55). The micro-mechanisms of cotton-trading in the futures market have revealed important implications dismissed by neoclassical theory. First, suppliers and buyers are interchangeable, and second, they do not follow the objective of rational utility maximisation but, instead, adopt different methods of valuation. This thesis is proven in the book through powerful examples of prosthetic prices.

A further aspect tackled in the book is the role of product differentiation and ‘sub-marketisation’ in shaping prices. That is, when a trader demands or offers cotton on the market, the specificities of the product affect the price negotiation. This apparently descriptive passage in the book reveals that the quality of the commodity is a crucial variable not sufficiently addressed in mainstream economic analysis. Indeed, the poor specificities of the commodity can act as an entry-barrier to the market. The author acknowledges also that a central concern of the traders is not the price per se but its unforeseeable or unexpected evolution. Those concerns cannot be addressed by reading textbooks but rather only through consultation with reports that inform on stocks, production and mill-use. However, those contain only partial pieces of information. Those who govern the market are precisely those who manage the entire body of information, through informal trust and networking. Thus, it has been rightly emphasised by the author that, rather than a peaceful meeting-point born of free will, the market is a place of conflict, tension and exclusion, and the result depends on the interests of the strongest players. Such outcomes have been meticulously elucidated through considerable empirical evidence.

In conclusion, by underlining the social and cultural nature of the markets, and by acknowledging the institutions that define the power relations embedded in those markets, this section provides several perspectives from which to confute the mainstream approach to the economy. The author not only suggests that value and price are decoupled at multiple stages, but also that they define neither the quantity nor the quality of the labour necessary to the production of the commodity. In turn, the circuits of finance maintain the minimum necessary contact with the real system of production, just so as to extract the value of living labour at its source. Those markets are not neutral, and are instrumental for the interests of the merchant class.

3       The Empirical Case Studies

As mentioned, the book relies on a rigorous qualitative-inductive approach. Four chapters contribute to the empirical multi-level analysis of the markets through the two case studies of Turkey and Egypt. Parallel dynamics of cotton are sometimes compared between the Turkish and the Egyptian context.

The analysis of Turkey is developed through a clear division of the analytical subjects: Chapter 3, ‘Markets’ Multiple Boundaries in Izmir’, narrows down the investigation into price-production among local traders in Turkey. It is a highly-detailed ethnographic description of how local actors, merchants, and pit employers are strictly embedded into cultural and historical institutions, so as to create the price. Another form of prosthetic price for the purpose of exchanging cotton is introduced. The rehearsal prices are used to make bids or offers in the pit. So again, the author provides examples of how a market features various sites and various prices exist even within the same geographical unit. Chapter 5, ‘Growing Cotton and its Global Market in a Turkish Village’, looks at the asymmetric relations between cotton farmers and traders. Tackling issues of labour-time, ethnicity, age, gender, and intra-household dynamics, the author reveals the complex bio-economic cycle that regulates production and exchange-relations in the small community of Pamukkoy. This, in my opinion, is one of the most valuable and thought-inspiring sections of the book. Different and complex power relations linked to land-access and credit-traps are described through the bonds between traders and farmers, created by the exchange of cotton. In addition, he emphasises that such diminished power is also the result of intersubjective self-perception. For example, because cotton farmers’ skills are underestimated by traders and by farmers themselves, being a farmer in the Turkish market negatively affects their power relations. As a result, conventional markets are not perceived as the places where the price is set up, whereas ginning factories are, because that is where traders’ power is manifested. It is shown that the asymmetries and inter-temporalities of prices and markets are constructed through forms of resistance and bargaining-power, and reinforce dynamics of path-dependency. In conclusion, while cotton-exchange is identified by the author as the cause of the relentless disappearance of the subsistence mode of production, nevertheless, the causal factors related to the exploitation of labour or to the ownership of the means of production are not explored in detail. Yet, the political topography obtained through this ethnographic research could have immense potential if connected to implications for the macroeconomic national policies.

What has been omitted in the Turkish case, in the Egyptian case-study occupies a considerable part of Chapter 4, ‘A Market without Exchange: Cotton Trade in Egypt’. This chapter focuses implicitly on the role of the state and the peasantries to understand the dynamics of economic liberalisation. This chapter looks at the causes that overturned the competitiveness of Egyptian cotton, in particular following the privatisation of the Alexandria Cotton Exporters’ Association: ‘a case study of how a trading regime without organized exchange can be fully integrated into the global market’ (p. 105). Avoiding technical irrelevancies, the author describes how privatisation enabled the conditions for foreign and private capitals to take control of the Association, and to trade cotton through more flexible circumstances than the public one. Market-oriented reforms, by allowing private business to adopt looser regulations on labour and prices, made public companies look uncompetitive. In reality, this had been made possible by creating unfair competition in respect of labour-costs and rights, price flexibility, bureaucratic exemption, etc. Trade liberalisation and privatisation have impoverished local farmers by individualising commercial and production tasks and risks, in the absence of institutional support that might allow them to survive in the market. As a result, Egyptian cotton production went from constituting over 65% of world-output in the 1980s to less than 20% after ten years, with a sharp decline in the output of the finest cotton. Coincidentally, this decline has corresponded to the commercial success of highly-subsidised US cotton. In conclusion, this chapter provides a concise but neat example of the historical and geo-political hegemonic processes directed by the USA, which have shaped the world of cotton across continents in the last century. It reveals how changes in key political and economic institutions have brought disastrous consequences upon local sectors in low-income countries. Nonetheless, such an insightful overview does not engage with the problems of global governance and false ‘multilateralism’, which have contributed to the crisis and poverty in the Global South.

Although for security reasons the author did not conduct fieldwork research in Egypt with the same degree of depth as in Turkey, nevertheless Chapter 6, ‘Cotton Fields of Power in Rural Egypt’, reveals the power-relationships and struggles of the local agrarian actors through micro-ethnographic accounts. The neoliberal policies previously described negatively affected networks and power across three dimensions. The first dimension that the author emphasises is the escalation of violence and insecurity in the countryside, with many farmers killed or injured in rural areas. The second dimension is poverty: because of withdrawal of investment in agriculture, child labour was highly involved in the process of hoeing and sowing. However, such is the author’s delicate and thoughtful contextualisation of what children’s expectations were, their accounts have not been filtered through euro-centric values. Indeed, he describes a situation in which children perceive work as a normal practice. The third dimension is informality: the acknowledgement that spontaneous mechanisms of survival have created new informal arrangements of commodity production which guarantee the conditions for the perpetuation of the capitalistic mode of production. He argues that the system ‘locate[s] farmers in a simultaneous engagement in relation to production and exchange in which all the actors of cotton growth and circulation deploy heterogeneous strategies of money making or surviving by constantly transgressing the invisible border between formality and informality’ (p. 66). This statement deserves some attention, firstly because it implies the overcoming of production, exchange and ‘valuation’ as separate spheres. Secondly, because it proves that cotton farmers have been the most disenfranchised class in the politics of Egypt.

4       Conclusion

The book analyses how the global, regional and local together create a world market. This is an objective that most researchers using ethnographic materials struggle with, namely, to make their research externally valid without overgeneralising concepts. In Çalışkan’s book, ample evidence is provided at various scales of analysis. At the macro level, the author underlines how the international Western players have dominated the cotton sector thanks to the different trade-policy standards exercised domestically, and imposed internationally by international financial institutions. Particularly interesting is the detailed explanation of how structural adjustment programmes have undermined the Egyptian cotton sector. When in the book’s Conclusion he argues that ‘global processes as derived encounters are made and informed by regional relations of marketing’ (p. 194), such relational dynamics between local and global agents could be disentangled even further. Indeed, in this book the reader jumps from an ontological critique of the theory of markets and price to an ethnographic immersion in Turkey and Egypt. For such reasons, sometimes the connections between layers of analysis are not very explicit. However, by the end, the fil rouge of the book is clearly revealed to be its empirical evisceration of ‘price’ and ‘marketisation’.

One of the most interesting theoretical contributions of the book is the empirically informed demystification of the financial utopia we commonly call price. Price equilibrium as conceived in the neoclassical textbooks does not exist; it is a narrow and myopic way of understanding market exchanges. Price is instead a fluid tool used by competitors to beat each other in the market. The concept of prosthetic price, meant as a moment of the process of price realisation, the peak of a veritable iceberg of procedures, people, law, institutions and ultimately power, is an example of this attempt.

Another important point to reflect upon is the book’s original interpretation of the so-called gift economy, defined by Cheal as a ‘system of redundant transactions within a moral economy, which makes possible the extended reproduction of social relations’.[6] Considering that knowledge in trade leads to power, and that networking is fundamental to obtaining information, gifts are here perceived as a vehicle to strengthen human ties by acting as the lubricant for market maintenance. The market is not neutral, and in order to survive it has to be continuously maintained through non-market forms. From this perspective, the concept of ‘economisation’ is a theoretical framework valid for not only identifying what has been ‘marketised’ (and what has not), but also for acknowledging that economic market constructions require suitable institutions to survive.[7] To put it metaphorically, we can think about the market as a volleyball match: thus the ball is the commodity, the game is the market space, and the strategy is the multiple forms of productive, unproductive and socio-institutional activities the author describes. The match’s result depends not only on the players’ actions during the factual exchange of the ball, but also on the defence and attack-positions deployed throughout the game, and even earlier while preparing the match strategy. The book warns about the risk of misunderstandings that arise by merely watching the ball in motion. The empirical insights provided through ‘technologies of power’ could be expanded in relation to the major debate surrounding the mainstream ideas of market equilibrium and individual rationality. In particular, Çalışkan’s book could inspire further exercises on the demystification of such often-simplistically-explained ontological paradigms.

Finally, through cotton, light is shed on various dark corners of many disciplines and strands of thought. He acknowledges the limitations of neoclassical and institutional economics, which do not explain how society shapes price-making and reproduces context-specific and complex non-market and market practices. By cross-referring to economics, sociology and anthropology, the book engages with Hayek’s epistemological analysis of subjective information and with Polanyi’s concept of ‘social embeddedness ... [to take into account] that economic processes take place within a social network’ (p. 6).

Nevertheless, by also looking at heterodox alternatives, he rejects anything that might constrain the analysis within sectors, and binary static structures, such as the global value-chain literature or the system of provision approach. He also rejects the Appadurai’s social life of things framework, as it fails to account empirically for ‘things-in-motion’ (p. 11).

In developing very sophisticated reflections, he nevertheless does not engage with potentially relevant debates within agrarian political-economy, institutional economics and heterodox theory on methodology that would create an exciting dialectic between these and Çalışkan’s own contribution. This can be interpreted as a mere stylistic choice, but, more likely, it is the outcome of the methodological and epistemological challenges that the book has undertaken. When arguing that an analysis of the market requires a ‘radical break’ in both political economy and economic sociology (p. 207) this raises the question of what the common ground might be where heterodox social sciences meet. Nevertheless, an important point can be drawn: there is still a huge gap in the language used by different ‘sectors of knowledge’, which discourages interdisciplinary work.

In his review of the literature he dismisses the idea of a hierarchical order of production and exchange, and refuses to analyse them as separable entities (p. 11). Based on these perspectives, the author avoids the theoretical debate on whether value is created in the cycle of production or in the sphere of exchange; similarly, in regard to how the epistemological theorisation of a multitude of values clashes with the relationship between price and value and with the labour theory of value itself. Yet, how such dialectical and fluid systems of exchange and marketisation might serve to reproduce, alter or stop the capitalist regimes of accumulation, exploitation and class inequality is not deeply explored. Nonetheless, this is a choice amenable to a neat and alternative understanding of the modality of circulation and valuation of things and societies as a whole, proper to the ‘economisation’ framework.

          This book, in overcoming the existing approaches, launches a new trajectory of analysis where markets are ‘neither asocial mechanisms of price setting, nor are they embedded in society’ (p. 188). In addition, Çalışkan’s book debunks the dangerously romantic view of society seen as intrinsically benevolent, and which ‘cools down’ the fury of the commodity exchange by making it less violent. It is instead reasonable to assert that his analysis suggests that an intrinsic and complex blend of forces coming from the market, the family, gender and age, resist and fight for their social and economic survival within the capitalistic system. With regard to future research, he calls for additional work to ‘study relations of economization as fields of power made and maintained by various human and non-human agents that confront each other on asymmetrical platforms’ (p. 188). In particular, he outlines three aspects which need to be investigated: a) the organisational aspects of production and exchange, b) what he calls socio-technical ‘agencements’, that revolve around market devices and rules, and c) the overcoming of the binary relational analysis between the human and non-human in favour of a more organic and active materiality. Those seem relevant and promising trajectories, able to connect theory and practice in the study of marketisation. Yet, further research is desirable in order to connect this precious body of literature to the broader understanding of class struggle and power and wealth’s asymmetrical distribution, which are the results of the contemporary predatory dynamics of financial marketisation. I hope that his forthcoming book Data Money: A Taxonomy of Cryptocurrencies and Blockchains (New York: Columbia University Press) will fulfil these expectations and advance the debate further.


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[1] Marx 1887, pp. 148–65; Smith 1789, Chapter I, p. 7.

[2] See, for instance, Amin 2013; Beckert 2014.

[3] Çalışkan and Callon 2010, p. 1.

[4] Çalışkan and Callon 2010.

[5] Schumpeter 1908, p. 91.

[6] Cheal 1988, p. 19.

[7] Çalışkan and Callon 2009.