Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Center for Contemporary South Asia

Besky wins grant from Wenner-Gren Foundation

November 16, 2018

Sarah Besky headshot

Sarah Besky, CCSA's Director of Undergraduate Studies and the Charles Evans Hughes Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs at the Watson Insitute has one a Hunt Postdoctoral fellowship from the Wenner-Gren Foundation.  The grant will support additional research and writing of Besky's forethcoming book on 'Market Qualities: Indian Tea And The Composition Of Value.'  The asbstract for her project is included below. Additional information can be found on Besky's website.

What is the place of quality in capitalism? How is it produced, where does it circulate, and in what forms? This book project answers these questions through a study of one of the world's most recognized and popular products: mass-market black tea. In the Indian tea industry, the term 'quality' has two meanings. First, quality indexes taste. Second, quality refers to social relationships, including market transactions. This book traces how contemporary tea industry reformers have mobilized notions of quality in attempts to refit a colonially rooted product and industry for a 21st century global democracy. My analysis of the effort to make 'quality tea' at a time when India is trying to secure a place as a global economic leader shows how, together, the materiality of plants and aesthetic and technoscientific practices mediate--and perhaps impede--economic and political reform. The book examines how quality became a discrete category of knowledge from the final decades of British rule in India to the early years of Indian independence. This historical work is paired with ethnographic research both on plantations and among an array of Indian experts, from soil scientists and chemists to professional tea tasters and traders. I describe how these groups discuss and debate the quality of mass-market tea through an esoteric lexicon of descriptive terms, an ever-changing range of laboratory techniques, and a shifting set of philosophies regarding the regulation of the market. Bringing together theory from anthropological political economy, science and technology studies, and sensory ethnography, I suggest that traditional analyses of value 'chains' must be rethought. I argue for an approach to quality that sees it not as a final destination for economic, imperial, or post-imperial projects, but as a generative opening for those projects.