Roger Owen Book Award

Johan Mathew

Rutgers University

2017 Winner

Johan Mathew

Johan Mathew

Margins of the Market is an empirically rich and theoretically sophisticated account of what realms of trade that move between the lawful and the illicit tell us about the market as a whole: how “free markets” came into being through the exclusion of certain practices as illegal “trafficking”; how struggles at the boundaries of the free market constituted capitalism itself. Using a wide array of archives from merchant families, banks, and various states (in India, Zanzibar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Oman, and the United Kingdom) networked around the Arabian Sea of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the book documents how institutions, beliefs, cultural attitudes, and political structures shaped the operations of markets for slaves, weapons, and currency.

The book uses a carefully reconstructed social history to revise fundamental categories of political economy. The chapter on firearm regulation and commoditization recasts private property rights and the roles of violence in the market; the chapter on slavery documents how the dispersed social networks of the local slave trade meant that British abolitionist efforts focused on formal slave markets encouraged a distinct regime of human trafficking through non-market exchanges of adoption and marriage; the chapter on the struggle to establish a standardized currency tracks particular circulations of coins to demonstrate the limits of monetary authority. All these stories trace the persistence of trade patterns through changing regulatory regimes.

As a history of and from the “margins,” the book will provoke a broad rethinking in several fields. The author argues convincingly that a history of the geopolitical margins of the Middle East revises conventional accounts of British colonialism. The book returns to the center of the history of capitalism lost framings and practices of commercial activity. Particularly original is Mathew’s analysis of the materiality of the sea and the trade plied there: the specific ways that dhows worked; the changing definitions of private property; the physical properties and paths of monsoons and shorelines, the bodies of people, and the shape of bullets. Margins of the Market is inventive in its methodology, “big” in its theoretical scope and ambition, and an engaging, beautiful read. As a result, we expect it to influence scholarship in fields well beyond its own.

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