The Boundaries of Commodities

Together with Jim Clifford and Uta Hinrichs, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the first Networking Workshop for the AHRC Commodity Histories project on 6–7 September. This was organised by Sandip Hazareesingh, Jean Stubbs and Jon Curry-Machado, who are also jointly responsible for the Commodities of Empire project. The main stated goal of the meeting was to design a collaborative research web space for the community of digital historians interested in tracing the origins and growth of the global trade in commodities. This aspect of the meeting was deftly coordinated by Mia Ridge, and also took inspiration from William Turkel‘s analysis of designing and running a web portal for the NiCHE community of environmental historians in Canada.

Complementing the design and planning activity was an engaging programme of short talks, both by participants of Commodities of Empire and by people working on related initiatives. I won’t try to summarise the talks here; there are others who are much better qualified than me to do that. Instead, I want to mention a small idea about commodities that emerged from a discussion during the breaks.

A number of the workshop participants problematized the notion of ‘commodity’, and pointed out that it isn’t always possible or realistic to set sharp boundaries on what counts as a commodity. It’s certainly the case that we have tended to accept a simple reification of commodities within Trading Consequences. Tim Hitchcock argued that commodities are convenient fictions that abstract away from a complex chain of causes and effects. He gave guano as an example of such a commodity: it results from a collection of processes, during which fish are consumed by seabirds, digested and excreted, and the resulting accumulation of excrement is then harvested for subsequent trading. Of course, we can also think about the processes that guano undergoes after being transported, most obviously for use as a crop fertiliser that enters into further relations of production and trade. Here’s a picture that tries to capture this notion of a commodity being a transient spatio-temporal phase in a longer chain of processes, each of which takes place in a specific social/natural/technological environment.
Diagram of commodity as phase in a chain of processes
Although we have little access within the framework of Trading Consequences to these wider aspects of context, one idea that might be worth pursuing would be to annotate the plant-based commodities in our data with information about their preferred growing conditions. For example, it might be useful to know whether a given plant is limited to, say, tropical climate zones, and whether it grows in forested or open environments. Some of this data can probably be recovered from Wikipedia, but it would be nice if we could find a Linked Data set which could be more directly linked to from our current commodity vocabulary. One benefit of recording such information might be an additional sanity check that we have correctly geo-referenced locations that are associated with plants. Another line of investigation would be whether a particular plant is being cultivated on the margins of its environmental tolerance by colonists. Finally, data about climatic zone could play well with map-based visualisations of trading routes.

Building vocabulary with SPARQL


Judging from the Oxford Digital Humanities workshop on A Humanities Web of Data, and this related post on SPARQL queries by Jonathan Blaney, there is growing interest in using Semantic Web technologies for the digital humanities. Since the Trading Consequences digital historians are already perched on the edge of this particular bandwagon, I have written up a somewhat more technical post on how we’re using SPARQL and SKOS to develop the commodities vocabulary. You can find it here.