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ISEK - Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies Social and Cultural Anthropology

Networks of Disconnection: Towards a multi-scaled study of commodity trading practices

Stefan Leins


Switzerland is today's largest commodity trading hub, accounting for roughly thirty percent of global trading activities. The trading houses that operate from Switzerland engage in the act of buying and selling goods – and they also organize large parts of the logistical processes that accompany the physical delivery of commodities. Commodity trading, as a field of economic activity, thus includes domains such as shipping, cargo certification, trade finance, or legal advising. Networks of Disconnection looks into the sector of commodity trading and discusses the practices of this field from an anthropological perspective. It follows the actors involved in commodity trading and studies their everyday practices and underlying rationales from trading training centers to trading pits, and from seaports to mining pits. Using the methods of participant observation, expert interviews, and document analysis, it aims to find out how commodity trading practices and rationales are scaled-up from logistics to derivative trading and how - through these processes - natural resources become tradable goods. It hypothesizes that the making of a tradable good relies upon “disconnection,” that is, the strategic decoupling of producers and consumers via scaling and market processes. Such disconnection enables actors to think of the commodities as socially detached tradable goods. This disconnection, the project assumes, becomes apparent in the discourse on speculation, as well as in the discourse on social and environmental challenges commodity traders face. As opposed to this disconnection, trading, however, also requires networks – between logistic firms and producers, between ports and standardization companies, or between commodity traders and exchange-based traders. Networks of Disconnection aims to explore these networks in order to elaborate a transnational view on global commodity trade. In doing so, it problematizes the notion of “supply chains,” which suggests that transnational trade consists of traceable chains that can unambiguously be followed to its origins and endpoints. Moreover, it aims to shift the current anthropological focus on commodity trading as regional phenomena to a focus that does justice to the nature of current globalized forms of capitalist activities.