Filippo Osella: "The Unbearable lightness of trust: trade, masculinity and the life-world of Indian export agents in Yiwu, China"

Departmental Seminar Series features Filippo Osella, Professor of anthropology and South Asian studies at the University of Sussex.

The seminar is followed by informal gathering, at which refreshments are served. All are welcome!

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Photo: University of Sussex

Abstract 

Drawing on ethnographic data collected in China, UAE and India, this article explores the life-world and practices of Indian export agents based in Yiwu (China), the world centre for the export of small commodities. It shows that in a market environment overdetermined by fast-moving goods, short-time gains, and low margins, and sustained by informal practices often straddling the licit and illicit, the trustworthiness of those who participate in the export trade emerges as necessarily contingent and contextual, making it impossible to draw hard and fast categorical distinctions between honourable players, and those who have a penchant for sharpness. In such an environment, everyday market interactions are informed by a generalized mistrust of others, while an apparent public rhetoric of trust is built on the careful concealment and deployment of its absence. That is, the nature of export trade from Yiwu is such as to require the careful management of mistrust and suspicion within a rhetoric or aesthetic of mutual trust and amity. The article suggests that the apparent tension between everyday practices of mistrust and a rhetoric of trust is neither resolved nor erased, but mediated through the performance of multiple registers or modalities of masculine assertion and competence. Indeed, what oils the wheels of the export trade in and from Yiwu is not trust but politics and hierarchies of gender, played out by export agents and their clients on the stage of hospitality and commensality.

Research Profile

Filippo Osella is Professor of anthropology and South Asian studies at the University of Sussex. He has conducted extensive research in Kerala, South India, as well as in Sri Lanka, and in Gulf Cooperation Countries such as UAE, Oman and Qatar. His research is concerning issues such as social mobility in the context of socio-religious reform movements and migration to West Asia. 

More recently he has explored the emergence of various strands of Islamic reformism in Kerala, and relationships between religious practice, politics and economic action. In his current research he is considering the configuration of trading networks and circulation of cheap commodities between China, India and West Asia, with fieldwork in Yiwu (China), Ernakulam (India) and Dubai (UAE). At the same time, he has recently begun fieldwork in coastal Kerala on artisanal fishers’ attitudes towards risk across the whole range of their activities, and on the role of the Catholic church in supporting fishers’ political and social mobilization. Further information.

Published Jan. 8, 2020 6:59 PM - Last modified Jan. 9, 2020 6:37 PM