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Dignity and Small Luxuries

“Even in the poorest societies and even in the most primitive human worlds, human needs and desires are culturally constituted and socially defined,” observed Michael Schudson in his essay on “The Anthropology of Goods.”  He continues:  “Human needs are for inclusion as well as for survival, for meaning as well as for existence. For purposes of social analysis, the notion that there are basic biological needs that can be separated from artificial and created social needs does not make good sense. All needs are socially constructed in all human societies. What people require are the elements to live a social life, the elements to be a person.”

This is one of my favorite essays, as it argues so eloquently for the recognition that people must have something more than the presumed “basic necessities” in order to be fully human.  Schudson cites those famous polar opposites, Karl Marx and Adam Smith, as having recognized something that many moralists today overlook:  the objects necessary for basic social dignity should be treated with equal respect to food or shelter. Both Marx and Smith saw that the requirements for creditability vary from society to society.  For Smith, it was a clean shirt or a pair of shoes; Marx thought tobacco should be included.  So it is important to recognize the variations when we see them.

Asma sells goods organized by Jita, but adds other things her customers desire, from mosquito nets to beautiful saris.

I was reminded of this lesson when Jim wrote the story of Asma, who he interviewed and photographed in Bangladesh last summer.  Asma is in her 50s and has become one of the aparajitas in the CARE Bangaldesh Rural Sales Programme.  Like many of the women in this program, she does not have support from a male (her husband and son are both disabled), so she must work to support her family.  Though not formally educated, she has managed her business into a respectable income, largely by being sensitive to the demands of her customers.  In addition to the goods provided through the CARE distribution channel, she brings in mosquito nets, women and children’s clothing (especially underwear), and, as she says, “everything they need to take care of their bodies.”

But Asma also sells the beautiful things, made locally, like saris, blouses, and petticoats. Indeed, the CARE personnel who manage this system noticed that the colors of the women’s clothing in the areas where the RSP operates had changed from blues and greens to reds and pinks.  In Bangladesh, the men buy the women’s clothing and they seem to prefer cool colors.  The CARE folks inferred that the change to reds and pinks reflected the fact that the women could now buy their own stuff.  Imagine the articulation of control that comes from having to wear someone else’s choice of clothes–and the small but very important liberation that comes from choosing your own.

Asma remarks that her employment in the RSP (now a new company called “Jita”) has given her the ability to buy herself small treats, like hair oil.  Before, she had to beg others for money to do such things.  “Now I don’t need their help, and that gives me pleasure.”

This tight connection between being able to help oneself rather than ask for assistance and being able to afford the small luxuries of good grooming reminded me strongly of Schudson’s contention that these very things are the marks of being human:  “. . one of the requirements of decent or creditable conduct is the ability to afford some things, whose nature is not specified, beyond the things required for decent conduct. That is, the creditable human being must have not only the things needed for decent life, but something extra, something superfluous or sentimental or luxurious. The human being, to be human, must show that he or she is not just an animal or brute, not just biological, and must in some manner make that nonanimal nature visible.”


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