Qualia in Markets: Ruili's Jadeite Marketplaces in the China-Myanmar Borderland

Ma, Yi
Golub, Alex
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This dissertation examines how qualia, qualities, and quality-like variables of commodities, are both constitutive of a market and produced by it. By looking at the heterogeneity of a market, this research also explains how a concrete market is configured, practiced and negotiated by a diverse group of actors and agents such as states, market organizations/unions, firms, trading specialists, and street peddlers, and the specified commodities. I present my ethnographic study of Ruili, a jadeite marketplace in Southwest China’s border with Myanmar, and I argue that “qualia” (Munn 1986) as qualities, and quality-like variables of commodities, in the process of market practice, are constantly made and remade through market agencement, the mutuality of heterogenous actors and agents in a market setting (Callon 1990, 1998, 2021). In practice, the “qualia” of jadeite, I suggest, are constitutive of market management and the economics/knowledge of the market (Callon 1990,1998). This research contributes to the study of markets through ethnography of a jadeite marketplace explains how a market is configured and experienced through a set of qualitative dimensions (commodity qualia are realized in addition to labor costs and scarcity as the economics of jadeite), and in turn how these qualitative dimensions are reproduced through market agencement---the constant process of market practice by heterogenous actors and agents in a spatial-temporal framework. In this process, these qualitative dimensions are constantly quantified through commodity pricing, daring modes of business and life (betting), as mastered as expertise and specialization in market management. By combing qualitative dimensions and market agencement, “qualia in markets” provides one way to understand the alignment of human and nonhuman actors, the interplay of structures (Giddens 1984) and the agency of different actors (Callon 1986a, 1998, 2021). It contributes to the epistemology of markets and exemplifies how the anthropology of markets can provide fruitful ways to understand our world. In my analysis, I show how agents price and judge jadeite commodities based on the physical qualities and appearances of jadeite stone, ie. the “qualia of jadeite,” as one way to understand “contemporary jade culture in a market” in Ruili in Chapter 3. Grading and pricing based on preferred qualities and appearances of jadeite commodities (economic valuation), which I also frame as the knowledge/economics of jadeite, is at the core of how this market operates and is set up on the ground. In turn, given the physical characteristics that raw jadeite stones exude and possess, such as their non-perishable character, jadeite commodities are sold, stored, and displayed accordingly to constitute a spatial structure of “qualia in markets” in Chapter 2. Further, the potential of raw jadeite stones that appears as quality-like variables such as the “skin/crust” and color and veins on the surfaces that exude information about whether raw jadeite commodities might be desirable, have further configured a type of “betting” life in Ruili’s jadeite markets in chapter 4. If reading and assessing jadeite stones is an individual practice, are there any market standards? How do traders negotiate in market practice? Chapter 5 further shows a broad range of these valuation criteria, ie. the qualia of jadeite, is further constituted through bargaining as a market mechanism in Ruili. Chapter 5 also shows how bargaining in Ruili’s marketplace is associated with norms and rituals in wider structures of economic life in Ruili. In Chapter 6, I illustrate how the arrival of new e-commerce in jadeite business has reshaped market management in Ruili, with market organizations have playing a “visible hand” in market regulation. The qualia of jadeite commodities are constituted through the expertise and specialization in market organizations. Here trading specialists are conferred expertise by mastering the “knowledge/economic of jadeite” through their extended years of practice which is crucial in the process of market management. Through “qualia in markets” that heterogenous actors and agents are mutually dependent upon, this dissertation shows the alignment of human and nonhuman actors and the interplay of individuals and institutional practice. “Qualia in markets” could be an exemplary form of “reciprocal conception” as framed by Zygmunt Bauman (2002 in Beck and Beck-Gernsheim’s book): “Society shaping the individuality of its members and the individuals forming society out of their life actions while pursuing strategies plausible and feasible within the socially woven web of their dependencies” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim’s 2002: 14). I intend for this research to evoke more theoretical discussions about qualia and markets, and also showcase how the anthropology of markets can provide fruitful ways of understanding our world.
Cultural anthropology, Asian studies, Southeast Asian studies, border, China, jadeite, market, Myanmar
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