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Objects of Exchange: Used Clothing as Commodity, Gift, and Waste in England and Poland


This dissertation is a multi-sited ethnography of the valuation of used clothing in Poland and the United Kingdom (UK), along one of the world’s major value chains of used clothing. The central question guiding this research is: How is used clothing made valuable? Economic sociology has long been concerned with understanding the workings of cultural logics of exchange and the social mechanisms that make economic valuation possible. Studies of valuation in economic sociology and neighboring disciplines are increasingly pragmatic and situated in concrete material contexts, focusing on the constitutive use of material devices and infrastructures in the production of value. This dissertation focuses on the objects of exchange, how they are produced, and what role those material-semiotic objects play in relations of exchange, evaluation, and value production. Data are drawn from participant observation, in-depth, semi-structured interviews with key informants, and informal interviews in sites of collection, sorting, and retail in the UK and Poland. Analysis is informed by theoretical approaches to commodities, gifts, and waste from economic sociology, anthropology, human geography and Science and Technology studies. Four empirical chapters trace the movement of used clothing from donation through resale. In UK charity shops, commodities and gifts are produced alongside each other in competing assemblages. The wholesale market for collected textiles produces commodities by balancing value production with concerns of waste production. In the Polish retail market, sellers must produce knowable and desirable commodities from heterogeneous things. Polish consumers judge the quality and value of used clothing in material encounters. In each of these spaces, used clothing is made valuable through its material and symbolic production as gifts, commodities, and waste. This dissertation contributes to economic sociological studies of commodification and valuation with a discussion of the valuation of heterogeneous, non-standardized goods. This is the first research carried out on the global used clothing industry in an Eastern European country and in a country that is a major re-exporter of used clothing.

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