Conversation, Commerce & Obligation in India


A review of Tipping Scales with Talk: Conversation, Commerce, and Obligation on the Edge of Thanjavur, India, by Laura C. Brown. 

This summer a close friend and I had a heated disagreement about the motivations behind the seemingly aimless “shop talk” that we encountered in shops across Istanbul. For my friend, this type of talk existed solely to ensure a successful business transaction; it was a mask which veiled a purely functional desire to sell as much as possible to every customer. I strongly disagreed with my friend, and I am now delighted to suggest that he read Laura Brown’s original and penetrating dissertation, Tipping Scales with Talk: Conversation, Commerce, and Obligation on the Edge of Thanjavur, India. While Brown’s dissertation presents an extremely rich and compelling ethnography of the relationship between talk and trade in South India, her research provides a lens through which to understand the social, spatial and indeed political possibilities of shop speech in a broad variety of settings.

Laura Brown conducted her research in three small shops located on the outskirts of Thanjavur, where shop workers and customers stressed to her the importance of “speaking well” during transactions. She convincingly argues that the ““phatic” function of language,” or language used to further social interactions above other functions, must be seen as “one of the main things that people do with words” in commercial and trade transactions (p. 46). Through particularly penetrating analyses of how debt, credit and talk function in the shops that she studies, Brown demonstrates the mutuality of linguistic and commercial transactions in the creation and maintenance of value.

Brown’s dissertation is divided into seven chapters. The introduction situates the small shops which are studied in their “social world,” and also discusses the bodies of literature to which the dissertation contributes. The second chapter unpacks the idea of “speaking well.” Brown analyzes this form of interaction, which includes both verbal and embodied practices, as a language ideology which allows for the building and maintenance of relationships. She demonstrates that contrary to her (and perhaps our) expectations, to “speak well” during a shopping interaction is to sidestep the need for bargaining. The third and fourth chapters consider the spatiality of the shops and their locations in shopkeepers’ and customers’ lives to inventively theorize them as “backstage” spaces, neither public nor private, within which everyday life is performed, and around which political performance can take place. Chapters 5 and 6 examine the relationship between conversation, credit and debt, focusing on how value is generated through contingent and shifting relationships of talk. They also demonstrate the embeddedness of these commercial establishments within the social worlds of customers by discussing how activity conducted in the shops can intervene in the domestic sphere. The small and informal shops which are studied are contrasted with account-keeping in ration shops, to demonstrate, again convincingly, that in the language ideology of these small shops “speaking well” is of greater significance than the “textualism” of ration-shop accounting. Chapter 7 provides a conclusion to the dissertation.

Brown’s research makes original contributions to recent scholarship on South Asia which considers the specificities and particularities of publics in the region, as opposed to Eurocentric notions of the bourgeois public sphere. This includes the research of Partha Chatterjee, Sudipta Kaviraj, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, among others. The shops that Brown studies are a critical, and woefully understudied, space from which to consider sociality and everyday life in South Asia, and she effectively describes them as a “backstage” space where conversations and interactions take place “off-the record.” Brown’s compelling account of these “backstage spaces” provides a key concept in analyses of public space in South Asia, situated between the interior and exterior spaces theorized by Partha Chatterjee.

Brown’s dissertation also synthesizes and contributes to the fields of both linguistic and economic anthropology. By centering the question of the relationship between conversation and commerce in the production of value, she responds to scholarship in linguistic anthropology, including the research of Judith Irvine, Michael Silverstein, and Webb Keane. Drawing on Silverstein, Brown analyzes the spaces around the small shops and interactions within them as “metapragmatic frames.” In her discussion of the production of value, Brown contributes to research in economic anthropology which traces the embeddedness, rather than abstraction, of money and commerce in social relations.  Brown’s contribution to this field is demonstrating the centrality of language to processes of commerce and exchange. In this, she draws particularly on the research of Viviana Zelizer; Bill Maurer on money, exchange and social relations; David Graeber on anthropological theories of value, and Pierre Bourdieu’s seminal work on markets. It can be noted here that Brown explicitly critiques and argues against political economic scholarship which presents commercial activity as disembedded from and opposed to social life, including the work of Karl Polanyi and Micheal Taussig, among others. Her analysis also seeks to complicate scholarship on the “Trader’s Dilemma.” The Trader’s Dilemma assumes an inherent conflict between social ties and commerce, but Brown did not observe such conflict in her research. Indeed Brown’s account of small shops in Thanjavur sheds light on the complementarity and the mutually constitutive nature of sociality and commercial practice in South Asia and beyond.

Durba Chattaraj
Senior Fellow, Critical Writing Program
University of Pennsylvania

Primary Sources

The study is an ethnography of small shops located on the edges of Thanjavur, in Southern India. The author located her fieldwork specifically in three small shops, recording everyday conversations and conducting informal interviews. She also conducted a survey of other shops in the area, and was an exemplary participant observer of the everyday life in the area in which she lived. I found Dr. Brown’s ethnography to be exceptionally rich and methodologically rigorous.

Dissertation Information 

University of Michigan. 2010. 390 pp. Primary Advisor: Judith T. Irvine.



Image: Phone booth and shop in Thanjavur, India. Photograph by Laura Brown.

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