Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako on Fabricating Transnational Capitalism

Fabricating Transnational Capitalism

Interview by Janet Connor

Janet Conner: Why is fashion so good for thinking about capitalism?

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Fashion as an industry has several key aspects that make it good for us to think about capitalism. Most importantly, they include the claim to aesthetic distinction, which identifies design as the key component of value; the celebration of the creative artist as the producer, obscuring design as a complex, interactive process involving many participants; the related emphasis on knowledge and expertise not only about design but also about branding, marketing and distribution; the imperative to constantly produce a seemingly new product; the historical contexts in which, for example, one finds that Italian fashion was transnational from its inception as an industry; and finally, its simultaneous production of and reaction to asymmetries in changing relations of global power.  Other industries undoubtedly have some of these features but they are especially visible in fashion.  These characteristics enabled us to to challenge what are commonly taken as the core features of capitalism (viz, the wage-labor relation, the pursuit of profit, private property and inequality).  We were able to emphasize the contingency of how various transnational capitalist projects converge that do not always reside in a narrow definition of the economic, and how the accumulation and distribution of capital emerges in those contingencies. Studying the fashion industry ethnographically led us to theorize how commodities are not the only things made in the production process, which also includes the production of dispositions, social practices, identities, and subjectivities. It further includes the production of labor power. Marxist theories generally assume that labor power is transhistorical,  pre-existing the production process, and that workers bring their labor power to the workplace with them.  We found that in tracing the fashion industry’s key characteristics, labor power is instead constituted through the specific relations of transnational collaboration.

Janet Connor: The book is split into three parts (the negotiation of value, legacies and histories, and kinship and transnational capitalism). While they overlap with the key dynamic processes of transnational capitalism that you argue for in the book, they’re not an exact match. How did you decide to organize the book in this way? And more of a stylistic question, I was wondering how you decided to write Part I together, while in the other two parts you deliberately chose not to write in one voice.

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: The organization of our ethnography emerged gradually through our discussions about what stood out in the fieldwork materials we had gathered. We had these discussions as we were doing the fieldwork and also afterwards. We agreed that several practices seemed prominent: first, in the context of a transnational relationship of production and distribution, it was clear that the various Italian and Chinese managers whom we came to know constantly asserted their own skills and knowledge in comparison with and contrast to their foreign partners, as well as sometimes in relation to others within their domestic orbits.  It was not that either side had a homogeneous view, this was not a binary contrast, but across the heterogeneity of different kinds of social relations of production, the various people involved emphasized their worth, their contribution to the value of what all agreed was Italian fashion.  This practice was prominent in all of our interviews and conversations. It led us to our argument that value is an ongoing process of negotiation rather than a sociological formula based on fixed social relationships. Nor is it simply a direct result of capitalist investments or a recent effect of global capitalism presumably unhinging what were previously more stable ways to calculate value. Rather these ongoing negotiations were an outcome of how people assert their cultural capital, including their knowledge, identities and habitus.  The negotiation of value had to be its own section.  As to historical legacies and revisionist histories, again our various interlocutors often invoked their national histories to explain to us the particularities of why and how they engaged in the fashion industry in the ways they did. Italian managers, for example, often mentioned the long history of fashion in Italy as compared to China.  Chinese managers tended to grapple with the legacies of socialism.  The prominence of historical legacies thus also caught our attention.  We both described and interpreted these legacies.  Our interpretations highlighted how Chinese managers, for example, wanted to erase the socialist past through a nostalgia for a revisionist version of pre-socialist life in China, especially in Shanghai, while Italian managers sometimes naturalized fashion taste as part of what they called Italianità.  Kinship became the third theme because it, too, has played a prominent part in the organization of fashion industry’s production and distribution relationships, though quite differently among Chinese firms and Italian firms.

These three key practices encompass the dynamic processes of capitalism we identified — privatization and the public/private division, the negotiation of value, the rearrangement of accumulation, the reconfiguration of kinship, and the outsourcing of inequality. They do so to different degrees but it made more sense to us to start from the ethnographic material and work out.

Stylistically, we thought the first section had to be one chapter as the back and forth between the interlocutors would come out most clearly in that way. Conversely, while our interlocutors sometimes invoked their historical legacies to interpret their relationships with their foreign partners, there was much more about that history that needed to be explained and interpreted in our analyses.  Similarly, while kinship was a key social relationship, its force varied among Italian and Chinese firms. To put all that needed to be explained in one chapter for these themes would have both chopped and stretched our analysis, not to mention they would have been very long chapters! 

Janet Connor: One of many important interventions in the book is your questioning the existence of a division between public and private, particularly in relation to the common equation of neoliberalization and privatization. Can you say more on how you think about the relationship between public and private?

Lifa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Our argument about the relationship between the public and private came out of our feminist approach to capitalism, as well as the history of the role of the state in capitalism.  Feminist anthropologists, historians and other feminist theorists have long argued that public and private are ideologically defined and vary historically and cross-culturally and that this division is empirically unfounded. To say this division is empirically unfounded is not to assert this division is a mere fantasy. Feminists rather argue that taking for granted the division obscures the work these ideological distinctions do to maintain gender and racial hierarchies.  As African American feminist theorists have long maintained, the private was never an attainable sphere for black women and families in the U.S., with racist consequences.  Yet, with a few notable exceptions, these insights have been consistently ignored in analyses of neoliberalism and, more generally, capitalism. The dominant vision of privatization under neoliberalism is derived from North American social arrangements and imaginaries. We developed these insights about contemporary practices of capitalism first because, as Lisa explains, in post-socialist China, it is often impossible to discern whether some Chinese companies are fully private or fully public, which is a deliberate strategy for multiple reasons. Second, as Sylvia explains, the state’s role has been central in Italian industrialization up to and including the present. In other words, there is a history of state-private enterprises that long predates neoliberalism. We found that employing feminist critiques of the public/private divide helped us to analyze the multiple meanings and practices of privatization, including the often-blurred relationships among them. We argue that instead of trying to fix a definition of the private and the public we should trace ethnographically and historically how this division in itself is made, challenged, and remade and how its ideological effects produce inequality.  

Janet Connor: The book includes a multitude of voices and viewpoints, not just from both of you but also with the chapter by Simona Segre Reinach, and in the writing style of including many rich ethnographic stories about a range of interlocutors. The style of the book seems to me to be doing several things at once. On the one hand, it’s an example of a kind of collaborative methodology, both in terms of how you do fieldwork and how you write. At the same time, the polyphonic character of the book is making an analytic intervention against conceiving of transnational capitalism as one unified thing or as having a predefined set of structural features. Could you say more about how you think about and write collaborative ethnography?

Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako: Collaborative ethnography can take multiple forms and approaches.  In our case, the collaboration was grounded in our long-term engagements with China and Italy and in particular with their textile and clothing industries, and Simona with the fashion industry.  We realized that our deep sets of knowledge would enable a study of transnational capitalist relations of production and distribution, including what is often called commodity chains, that could move us beyond the methodological challenges of a sole anthropologist doing fieldwork in a single place. It further gave us an important historical depth to our study, so that we could challenge assumptions about the neo in neoliberalism. We also followed the lead of our interlocutors.  Beginning in the 1980s and increasingly in the 1990s, Italian textile and clothing firms outsourced manufacturing to lower-wage countries, including China.  China, for its part, was opening up a market economy at that time and welcomed foreign investment. Our theoretical insights that challenge the idea of capitalism as structured by a single logic or as having a singular modal form arose from our ability to carry out an ethnography that could attend to multiple experiences rather than just one side and that could demonstrate the contingencies of capitalism.  The way we organized the book to include multiple voices and viewpoints arose from our desire to highlight these analytical challenges to economistic approaches to capitalism. We offered not merely a method of data collection but a methodology for the study of cultural production that entails both methods and concepts.

Janet Connor: Comparison has long been an important analytic strategy in anthropology, and more recently anthropologists have begun to see the comparisons made by our interlocutors as an object of study. It seems to me that your book contributes to both of these strands of comparison, both with how you think of the writing as moving beyond conventional analysis and in your ethnographic examples of how the ways that your Italian and Chinese interlocutors see themselves and negotiate value through comparisons across many different scales. How are you thinking about the ways that anthropologists can study and participate in comparative work?

Yes, we tried to emphasize that we were not doing a comparative study, at least not a comparative study of Italian and Chinese capitalisms.  What we offered instead was an analysis of the co-production of Italian-Chinese transnational capitalism. Our collaborative ethnography offers an alternative to the conventional comparative method in anthropology of different cultures, one that is better suited to the modes of cultural production in the world today. We viewed our interlocutors as making comparisons but within a relationship in which they were intimately tied to one another.  That said, your point that we compare ourselves with past conventions in anthropology is well taken.  It echoes the way our Italian and Chinese interlocutors compare themselves with their national historical pasts.

Joshua Bluteau on his dissertation

My temptation is to hedge my bets and confidently claim that I have two page ninety-nines. This is true in the sense that there is a literal ninety-ninth page, and a different page that is paginated as 99 – the former being a colour plate and the latter the first page of chapter 3, entitled:

“Other Elizabethans: the digital trope of the individual”

This disparity serves to highlight the juxtaposed nature of appearance and actuality, and how such concepts may not be a clean cut as they initially appeal; a theme that runs through the thesis.

This thesis spans the offline world of high-end bespoke tailors, shops and fashion shows in London, and the online world of Instagram, the images these tailors post online and a network of followers that surrounds them. The colour plate in question is a press photograph from a Joshua Kane fashion show I attended in 2016 as part of my fieldwork.

Page 99

At this event the boundary between online and offline was at its thinnest, and a wave of glowing smartphones rose and fell in the hands of onlookers seeking to capture the latest designs – images of which would appear online moments later.

There is an intentional mirroring, or perhaps reframing of Foucault’s (1990, 4) ‘other Victorians’ in the title of Chapter 3, as I develop a concept for how to conceptualise a group of men who shop at the kind of tailors who are known for outlandish and flamboyant design. My other Elizabethans are men who do not fit into established normative notions of how men in the UK dress – they are individuals.

“I will use the definition postulated by Dumont (1986) where the individual is an autonomous actor beyond the restrictions of society, though crucially my informants are at odds with Rapport’s (1993) notion that despite how we present ourselves, we are always inescapably ourselves. There is an important echoing of Dumont’s work in the way that my informants conceive of their own individuality as not “innate but learned”, or perhaps a better term would be ‘crafted’ (Morris, 1991, 263). In addition to this native category of the individual, I will also use an analytical category in line with the work of Berger (1970), who suggests that individuals are moulded by the society in which they live, becoming “collective constructs…reflecting social position” (Berger, 1970, 375 in Rapport & Overing, 2000, 193). This in addition to the work of Goffman (1980, 245), who conceptualises the individual as a performance, and one which can be altered for differing situations will form the basis of my analysis of my informants as individuals who are able to present different individual selves in the digital and terrestrial worlds; selves which are able to adapt to changing digital and terrestrial landscapes in which they exist.”

Fundamentally, this PhD asks two simple questions: why do certain men spend so much on particular clothing; and what is the nature of the digital world in which many of them display these clothes? In the same way that there are two page ninety nines, there are multiple selves that exist simultaneously online and offline, crafted through performance and dress. It is this contention that this thesis engages with, partially through a reflexive engagement of researcher as digital participant. Chapter 3 is preceded with a quote from The Three Musketeers where impetuous young D’Artagan knocks over Porthos and displays part of a garment he was trying to keep hidden.

“If Porthos had been on Instagram, this unfortunate incident need not have occurred. Dumas’ Musketeer could have displayed his partially embellished shoulder belt using artfully angled photographs which showed off the glittering gold front whilst keeping the buff behind invisible. As it was, his cloak attempted to craft his appearance through concealment but was undone by the unfortunate collision and subsequent entanglement with D’Artagnan. Whilst it is possible to affect such a manipulation of appearances, attempts to craft one’s self misleadingly in the terrestrial world are easily exposed; in the digital world however, such exposure is much harder to engender. This, Sartre (1993) would tell us, is the essence of acting in ‘bad faith’, attempting to deceive others around you as to your station in life.”

The nature of the digital landscape is complex, ever changing and ripe for crafting deceit, but it is a fieldsite like any other full of  ‘digital tribes’ lacking anthropological investigation.

Reference List

Berger, P. 1970. Identity as a Problem in the Sociology of Knowledge. In The Sociology of Knowledge (eds.) J. Curtis., & J. Petras, 373-384. London: Duckworth.

Dumont, L. 1986. Essays on Individualism. Chicago: University Press.

Foucault, M. 1990 [1978]. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 An Introduction (trans. R. Hurley). London: Penguin.

Goffman, E. 1980 [1956]. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Pelican.

Morris, B. 1991. Western Conceptions of the Individual. New York: Berg.

Rapport, N. 1993. Diverse World-Views in an English Village. Edinburgh: University Press.

Rapport, N., & Overing, J. 2000. Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge.

Sartre, J.P. 1993 [1988]. Essays in Existentialism (ed.) W. Baskin. New York: Citadel.


Joshua Bluteau completed his PhD at the University of St Andrews in 2018, and has ongoing research interests in digital anthropology, dress and adornment, the anthropology of fashion, menswear, gender and performance. He is currently a Lecturer at the University of Manchester, and can be reached at or followed on Instagram @anthrodandy