The World of ‘Resources’
Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt
CONTESTED GROUNDS: ESSAYS ON NATURE, CULTURE AND POWER by Amita Baviskar Oxford University Press, 2009, 269 pp., 650
January 2009, volume 33, No XXXIII

This book brings together within its beautiful covers ten extremely relevant and timely articles written by world renowned scholars from multiple disciplines working on the conceptualizations of and contestations over ‘natural’ resources. The term is put within quotation marks here because the labelling suggests the existence of these resources outside of culture, something that is not of human-construction. This book contests this notion and affirms that hidden within the term natural resources are notions of property and possession, stewardship and responsibility, the right to use and appropriate, and the need for efficient management. The term ‘natural resource’ is a contemporary keyword which, when examined along with words such as waste, scarcity, security, conflict, expertise and community, maps a distinctive world of meanings.

By offering a powerful challenge to the absolutist interpretations of resources, the editor of this book, Amita Baviskar, exposes how the meanings of resources lie within the cultural and political domain where power, process and practice assume formative roles in understanding resources.

Indeed, a range of scholars from geography, history and anthropology have lately moved away from materialist explanations of resources to a reemphasis of the ‘social life of things’, adding notions of value beyond the material. This body of work has also marked a shift from political ecology, which, whilst drawing attention to the unequal power of different interest groups over a certain resource, such as forests, stays largely within the materalist use value of the resources. But there is a lot more to resources than just materilist use value; almost all resources have value within a larger economy of signification which crucially shapes their modes of appropriation. Collectively known as cultural politics of resources, this genre of work has drawn attention away from the physicality of resources, rendering them a social life, and treating identities, interests and resources not as pre-determined givens but as emergent products of the practices of cultural production and reproduction. In this view, resources are not purely repositories of profit and substance but as containers of culturally held meanings and values that are so enmeshed and embedded in the physical material that in everyday life they remain inseparable.

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