Does the Market Have a Flavor?

Every year in my fall semester class, Development to Globalization, we begin by reading Sidney Mintz’s classic book, Sweetness and Power. The book serves as a very accessible introduction to some aspects of colonial history and the way that markets and culture interact.

For the average American student who is accustomed to thinking about markets as operating according to rational economic rules and the exercise of power as an overt threat to violence, Mintz describes a different perspective. He looks at how markets are created to satisfy desires and that desires emerge over time in response to sociocultural contexts. He also shows how social class figures into this cultural exchange, as the wealthy are often first to have the means to acquire the desired commodities and define them in ways that subsequently filter down into society. As commodities become more and more commonplace and their meanings more diverse, they become so much a part of everyday life that it is impossible to imagine social life without them. Markets and governments then provide the commodities not only to satisfy consumer desire, but because not satisfying that demand threatens their existence. So it was, Mintz argues, that colonialism expanded to meet the demands of its growing masses of consumers

Markets have a flavor. They are sweet.

We desire sweet, and we satisfy our craving with sugar. As we get more sugar, we put it into an increasing range of products. As the variety of products grow we consume more, and the thought of not having sweet becomes unimaginable. If there isn’t enough sugar, then that problem can be solved through technology–corn syrup, aspartame, and saccharin are sweetness delivery formulas.

In the case of sugar, we have a commodity that can deliver a massive jolt of energy and calories very cheaply. Mintz argues that it is an ideal product to satisfy, in a timely manner, the time-sensitve needs of an industrial workforce. Don’t have time for a proper meal? Sugar will get you there cheaply and quickly! Of course, it isn’t very healthy, but if you are a worker you take what you can get when you can get it.

In August 2008, just weeks before fall semester was to begin, I was thinking about Sidney Mintz’s book while walking around at the Minnesota State Fair. After all, “fair food” has many desirous qualities–fatty, oily, crunchy, salty and sweet.

Chocolate covered bacon.
Deep-fried candy bars.
Foot-long hotdogs. 
’nuff said.

As it got darker our group was walking among the lights of the Midway when I saw herstanding there–a carnival employee with two huge refillable half-gallon “mugs” of soda. The bright lime green logo of Mountain Dew on the side of the mugs asserted that this was not just mere artificially colored, caffeine-laced, sugar water. It was a lifestyle statement. Full to the brim, the “mugs” were so heavy she struggled to hold them both at waist level as she made her way through the crowds back to her booth.

As I stopped to comment on the size of the Mountain Dews, she told me that they would get her and her co-worker through the busy night. She was the walking example of Sidney Mintz’s argument.

When I asked her to pose for a photo she thought it was a bit strange, but when I told her I was an anthropologist she happily obliged.

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