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Greg Urban

Arthur Hobson Quinn Professor of Anthropology
University of Pennsylvania

Supply and Demand: A Special Case of the Laws of Cultural Motion?

Monday, March 7, 2011
Science 1 room 149, 5:00 PM
Cancelled due to weather

Abstract

Treating commodities as cultural artifacts — alongside stories, songs, words, and other vehicles for the transmission and circulation of culture — this paper asks whether the laws of supply and demand, as formulated in classical economics, can be adequately interpreted and explained in terms of the “laws of cultural motion” put forth by Urban (2010). The key to interpreting supply and demand in terms of cultural motion is to recognize that commodities, as cultural vehicles, are simultaneously scarce and desired. People have interest in the vehicles, and such interest causes an increase in rates of interaction with them. However, that interest is countered by scarcity; a force that inhibits interaction with commodities and thereby limits the movement of culture. If supply and demand are special cases of the laws of cultural motion, two broad conclusions follow. First, plentiful as opposed to scarce cultural vehicles need not conform to supply and demand, except by fiat, so that the market would not adequately model all of social life. Second, however, neither are supply and demand simply arbitrary conventions. Rather, they reflect cultural motion under conditions of scarcity.

Biography

Greg Urban is the Arthur Hobson Quinn Professor of Anthropology and former Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. A specialist in linguistic and cultural anthropology, Urban studies the processes of cultural motion, with a focus on the forces that impel that motion through space and time. He has done extensive research among indigenous populations in Brazil, and is also interested in the role of corporations in relation to modern culture, and with objects as carriers of culture. He received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago. Among his books are: Metaculture: How Culture Moves through the World, Metaphysical Community: The Interplay of the Senses and the Intellect, and A Discourse-Centered Approach to Culture: Native South American Myths and Ritual.

Reading

  • Urban, G. A Method for Measuring the Motion of Culture. American Anthropologist, 2010. Vol. 112, Issue 1. [PDF]

Website

Poster (PDF):