Discerning Value: Taste As an Economic Fact


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




Probing Ceylon tea as an ethnographic object, this project proposes that aesthetic judgment, as exemplified in the practices and discourses of professional tea tasting, is a constitutive component of economic valuation. It suggests that value, as quantified within price, is a product of the merging of calculative rationality and cultivated discernment, which systematically enacts tea as an object of both market speculation and taste expertise. The project follows tea along an intricate value chain from the plantations to the brokering and export firms that taste and trade it, and, ultimately, to the cup. By diverting attention back to spaces of production and processes of valuation, it shows that the economic function of taste extends beyond a mere grammar for consumption patterns. In doing so, it explores how aesthetic judgements get crafted and shared within market settings as well as across the divide between producers and consumers, experts and amateurs.