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Rethinking Global Commodity Chains: Integrating Extraction, Transport, and Manufacturing
International Journal of Comparative Sociology (2009)
  • Paul Ciccantell
  • David A Smith

The global commodity chains (GCCs) approach is an insightful way to understand issues of “development” and how processes of production and consumption vary across physical and social space. The key questions that this perspective prompts are inherently both sociological and geographic, integrating social and natural processes. How and where do these commodity chains “touch down”? How do they affect local people and places? Acknowledging the analytical usefulness of the GCCs framework, we propose rethinking it in three basic ways.

First, many of the studies associated with GCCs research tend to focus on only part of the commodity chain – and that we need to, in effect, lengthen the chains. Despite an initial view that was more comprehensive (see Hopkins and Wallerstein 1982), most recent research using the GCCs approach focuses on manufactured goods and ignores the “beginning” of the chain. We propose remedying this by picking up a theme initially developed by Stephen Bunker (1984): “commodities can emerge only from locally based extractive and productive systems” (1017). The modern world-economy is dependent on a wide array of key raw materials. Beginning GCC analysis with these primary products forces the examination of various modes, techniques and technologies of extractive regimes, as well as of the key role of transportation systems that move these often heavy, bulky, materials from remote agricultural and mining locales to urban and metropolitan places where manufacturing and consumption take place. This leads to a rather different interpretation of globalization, the rise of a “new international division of labor,” and economic restructuring.

Second, focusing on this “longer chain” opens up room for more analysis of spatially-based disarticulations and contestations over the shape of the future of the capitalist world-economy. Mineral deposits and agricultural economies tend to be tied to specific “natural” geographies – thus, “enclave economies” develop that are often globally integrated but locally disarticulated. Local populations define and use natural resources in very different ways from global mining firms, and these different definitions and uses are creating an increasing number of conflicts in many remote, raw materials-rich regions. Transportation systems (especially of bulk products) are extremely vulnerable to disruption and have changed dramatically over time (for instance, the dramatic increase in the size of oil tankers and the concomitant growth of massive port infrastructures). Thus, lengthening the chain not only provides a more comprehensive and complete story of contested transformation sequences, but it also reveals new types of geographic and spatial disarticulation and inequalities in the global economy.

Third, we explicitly focus on tightly integrated social and natural processes across a wide range of industries. The goal is to build on existing work in the world-systems tradition that focuses on the relationship between long term changes in the world economy and the natural environment, as well as on research in environmental sociology and environmental history that has long examined the relationship between society and nature, particularly in natural resource-based industries.

Our larger goal is to utilize world-systems theory to construct a methodological approach that lets us look at very different industries, times, and places and make meaningful comparisons that can then serve as the basis for state and non-state actors to build a more socioeconomically and ecologically sustainable future.

Publication Date
Citation Information
Paul Ciccantell and David A Smith. "Rethinking Global Commodity Chains: Integrating Extraction, Transport, and Manufacturing" International Journal of Comparative Sociology Vol. 50 Iss. 3-4 (2009)
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