Quality and inequality: creating value worlds with Third Wave coffee

Edward F Fischer (2019)

Socio-Economic Review, Online first

Abstract. Based on a study of the burgeoning high-end (‘Third Wave’) coffee market in the USA and on research conducted with Maya farmers in Guatemala, this article examines how economic gains are extracted by translating values across symbolic and material worlds. Drawing on anthropological understandings of value and the analytic tools of convention theory, I show how roasters, baristas and marketers have developed a new lexicon of quality for coffee, one tied to narratives of provenance and exclusivity that creates much of the value added in the Third Wave market. This disadvantages smallholding coffee farmers who are heavily invested in land and the material means of production but who lack the social and cultural capital needed to extract surplus symbolic value from their crops. In this unintentional way, the quest for artisanal quality in the coffee market perpetuates classic dependency patterns of global capital accumulation across these value worlds. 

Link to the review