Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Further questions around How Trade Works

· May 21st, 2015 · 1 Comment

Today, WMQ author Zachary Dorner reflects upon some of the additional questions the process of writing his article raised for him.

Zack writes:

My article in the recent issue of the WMQ is an effort to chip away at a question that, I find, is as simple to ask as it is complex to answer: How does trade work? Such a question speaks to the heart of economic life as attention has turned from semantics to technologies, and we find ourselves in the midst of a shift that seems to ask less what things meant and more how they worked. Taking markets as things that have to be made, rather than self-evident systems of exchange, we can see the origins of credit, the accumulation of profits, the strength and weakness of governing regimes, the movement of commodities, and, perhaps most importantly, the human consequences of such developments. For all our existing scholarship—from commodity studies, to work on the early modern political economy and the building of empire—this question about the mechanisms of trade remains unresolved.

The article uses biography—the career of an eighteenth-century surgeon, druggist, and land speculator, Silvester Gardiner—as one way to approach the question. It foregrounds the concept of expertise (knowing something rather than someone) to make visible how and why individuals positioned themselves at the intersection of several colonial trades in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. People relied on expertise to form and maintain networks for trade, and Gardiner deployed surgical expertise to expand his businesses and profit from a range of mixed economic activity. Other scholars have pointed to mercantile culture or religious ties as the connective tissue of early modern trade, but these soft-power characteristics alone cannot tell the whole story.

Another way to approach trade is through commodity study: to look at products instead of people. Historians have latched onto the commodity as a vehicle for seeing the mechanisms of trade—and with the advantage of seeing the state (Sven Beckert’s war capitalism, for instance)—quite vividly. Tracing the flows of goods traded by Gardiner reveals the interconnections that comprised North Atlantic markets and the engineering required to make them. Commodity chain studies can often seem static and constrained, but in recent work flexibility, embeddedness, and contingency have begun to creep back in. Nevertheless, attention to the hard power of state, military, and finance in the movement of goods too frequently ignores the human content of network ties.

Some people talk about networks, some people talk about commodities, and some people—David Hancock among them—talk about both. In my larger work, thinking about networks and commodity chains has led me to adopt a sector-wide view, specifically of the eighteenth-century British pharmaceutical trade. It follows people and products, but also follows the money generated from their interactions in an effort to integrate histories of capitalism, empire, and science. Big money poured into Britain to purchase pharmaceuticals for the armed forces, trading companies, and slave plantations.

Such an approach has advantages. It reveals a system of trade in motion and far less organized than recent studies have portrayed. It places emphasis on institutions and individuals together in the making of things presumed to be transhistorical in the dominant market ideology. It encourages the blending of material and discursive analyses to uncover the hard and soft power underlying events.

But it also carries risks. An expansive scope can bring research plans into conflict with university funding structures and the expectations of grant programs. Visa issues and on-campus requirements can limit one’s ability to travel. Terms might not always be deemed applicable in particular contexts. For though the history of capitalism has reinvigorated the study of markets, money, and the economy as engineered by both states and individuals, debates continue over the appropriate application of the term capitalism and its relationship to the early modern period.

So while recognizing expertise is helpful in understanding how trade works, it is clearly only part of the answer. We need more work on this simple but challenging question. A commodity study on glass as a linchpin of long-distance transportation, an environmental analysis of the harvesting of mast trees, or a network map of the connections between English country banks would all prove useful studies. For, at bottom, trade itself was constantly in a process of unmaking and remaking; and it is only from clarifying these dynamics that we can see the substrate from which the modern world sprung.

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  1. […] Uncommon Sense, Zachary Dorner explores a question behind his April 2015 WMQ article: “how does trade […]

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