Date of Award

Winter 12-23-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Donna Goldstein

Second Advisor

Carla Jones

Third Advisor

Carole McGranahan


This dissertation is an ethnography of a people, a place, and a plant, in which I follow the ways in which ideas about what makes coffee good, and what makes good coffee, change across space and time. I take a multi-sited approach that combines participant-observation within the specialty coffee industry and with coffee growers in the Orosi Valley of Costa Rica. Coffee production once supported and is now challenging Costa Rica’s welfare state model. It provided the financial backing for the welfare state via taxes while its organization of social life maintained the values of equality and obligation on which the state’s ideological apparatus rested. That is, coffee engendered a sense of social responsibility and conciliation in Central America, where militarism and rule of the few was the norm. Costa Ricans thus credit coffee for their exceptionalism, and it anchors national identity.

Since the 1980s, however, the ways in which farmers labor and connect with the state have been refigured. During that decade the price of coffee collapsed, Nicaraguans fleeing the Contra War arrived, and the first wave of economic liberalization began. Concomitantly, specialty coffee began offering consumers a higher quality product than conventional by focusing on the techniques and conditions of production at origin and the narration of a coffee’s unique life history. This appears to defetishize the commodity by putting human relations at the center of the narrative, but instead its enactment serves to reinforce inequalities and object agency. Specialty offers higher prices, but at a cost that is not purely financial. Once-independent farmers must now meet buyer requirements under conditions that clash with the notions of reciprocity and independent decision-making that underpin sociopolitical life.

In 2009 CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, went into effect, and its implementation has bred distrust because it has begun dismantling state support systems. As first coffee and now the state have retreated from their roles as anchoring points for identity, Orosians express anxiety and fear about the future in terms that nostalgically recall a communal and cooperative past that, in contrast to today, epitomized Costa Rican identity and values.

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