Author: Alberto Valz Gris
Image by Alberto Valz Gris
‘Follow the thing(s)’: a research approach that takes global flows of commodities as its central focus. It traces the routes from raw materials to manufacturing, up to the various phases of distribution and consumption, and possibly beyond. By tracking the journey of a single object, it is assumed that we can cross and link a variety of spaces, subjects and production practices that would otherwise remain disconnected.
Widely deployed in economic geography, we can locate its roots in Arjun Appadurai’s The Social Life of Things (1986):
“Focusing on the things that are exchanged, rather than simply on the forms or functions of exchange, makes it possible to argue that what creates the link between exchange and value is politics, construed broadly. This argument … justifies the conceit that commodities, like persons, have social lives … we have to follow the things themselves, for their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories. It is only through the analysis of these trajectories that we can interpret the human transactions and calculations that enliven things.”
Echoed by David Harvey (1990), Appadurai’s suggestion has since produced extensive research: within the field of human and economic geography researchers have sought to follow ‘things’ as diverse as papayas, fungi, money, cars, postage stamps, and photovoltaic panels. The varied employment of this methodology suggests that it might be able to accommodate very diverse research interests and yield a subsequently diverse range of results.
We are seeking to use this approach as one of the foundations for building a more complex research methodology to question the relationship between industrial manufacturing and urbanisation: how to ‘bend’ FTT research towards a specifically urban framework? What things should be followed?