Select issue
Year Issue
Article search ?
Add authorDel author
Add keywordDel keyword
Full text

all these words
this exact wording or phrase
one or more of these words
any of these unwanted words
You are here: Home Archive 2016 Marsden, Magnus: Trading Worlds. Afghan Merchants Across Modern Frontiers

Marsden, Magnus: Trading Worlds. Afghan Merchants Across Modern Frontiers

Book review Erdkune 70 (3) 2016, 287-288 by Hermann Kreutzmann

Marsden, Magnus: Trading Worlds. Afghan Merchants Across Modern Frontiers. XV and 432 pp., 13 figs. and 9 maps. Hurst Publishers, London 2016, £ 30,-

Clandestine and complex networks of traders are among the most difficult linkages to be understood anywhere in the world. A business advantage needs not necessarily to be disclosed as trade margins remain only profitable when kept as a secret. In the past traders were mainly categorised and perceived as members of an exclusive community that was defined and shaped by kinship, regional belonging, mutual trust and/or cooperation. The Merwaris all over India, the Shikarpuri between Sindh and Central Asia, Ismaili, Bohra and Memon between Gujarat/Maharashtra and East Africa have represented such communities which were the focus of numerous studies. Magnus Marsden has selected one of the most complex and least tangible group of traders – Afghan merchants – and he is challenging a number of established notions and conventional wisdoms about trading communities, function of exchange corridors and routes, application of certain strategies and elaborated techniques to cross borders, and in general about trading in a globalised world. By putting Afghan merchants into the centre of his attention and by understanding them as contemporary actors in a multi-sited, globalised and mobile world he challenges traditional views from various perspectives and theoretical considerations. The core of his investigation is devoted to Afghan traders in Afghanistan and in Tajikistan. Most of his fieldwork was done there. As the networks of these traders are much more wide-spread Toronto, London, Birmingham, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Odessa, Moscow, Dubai, Bandar Abbas, Tashkent, several cities in India and Pakistan, and Chinese coastal cities come into the picture; the list of trading places is much longer. He builds in the introduction a multi-dimensional framework which addresses conventional convictions, provides references to previous work and insights. Often his findings contradict conventional viewpoints; they sound convincing as they are based on extensive fieldwork and established friendships with traders. Over longer periods of time he could build an arena of trust and met and interviewed his interlocutors in various locations, in Central and South Asia as well as in China and Europe. By this conceptual approach insights are provided into the chances and constraints of doing business in our world and how to make use of all kinds of personal and professional networks. Tradition, ethnicity, neo-liberalism, morality are among the buzzwords and concepts that are debated from various angles in his work on ‘trade across multiple borders’ (p. 3). Afghan traders cannot easily be grasped or categorised as a group or community although they are not perceived as accidental traders either. Their common denominator would be an affiliation with Afghanistan and languages spoken there; the main characteristic of Afghan traders is their heterogeneity when looked at from a community or group perspective. Magnus Marsden is always aware of the dangers of these groupings and begins every chapter with a discussion of existing work and with an announcement how he will implement his methodological and theoretical considerations to the fieldwork that is grounded in individual cases.
Chapter one opens up the variegations of activities and actors of Afghan connections in Tajikistan. Here he applies his multi-dimensional matrix in looking at traders from a wide spectrum of different angles. He identifies Afghan traders as ‘portfolio capitalists’ in contrast to ‘ethnic niche specialists’ (p. 82). Chapter two is devoted to trade routes that rarely function as corridors for major groups. He breaks the notion of trade routes down to the individual and presents them in simplified sketch maps. When he comes to the individuals in the following chapter he applies a method that has been the core of the ‘Crossroads Asia’ approach as well. Surpassing a classical area studies’ approach the individual can have different opportunities to cross borders and can have relevant and important connections to the rest of the world despite his or her rootedness in the Afghan/Tajik context. Biographical sketches illuminate the many degrees of freedom that can emerge from trading flexibility when this is perceived as a virtue. The multi-facetted approach is challenging conventional ‘linear models of the formation of trade networks’ (p. 154). A further asset of the book is that it makes the reader understand how the author has gathered his information and insights. It is especially valuable as it is theoretically informed and presents sound and extensive empirical evidence, a rare commodity nowadays. The reader participates in the process of research and gets a feeling how convincing Magnus Marsden’s arguments and observations are.
One of his interlocutors stated that there is ‘no book of trade’ (p. 236) from which the art of trading can be learnt. That might be true, but Magnus Marsden provided us with a very readable and remarkable book on trade that can support a better understanding of the complexities in ‘trading worlds’.

Hermann Kreutzmann



Document Actions