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Unformatted text preview: cultural geographies 18(1) 324 The Author(s) 2010 Reprints and permission: sagepub. co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/1474474010377549 http://cgj.sagepub.com Corresponding author: Erica Schoenberger, Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218, USA Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Why is gold valuable? Nature, social power and the value of things Erica Schoenberger Dept of Geography and Environmental Engineering, The Johns Hopkins University Abstract The paper proposes a social history of the value of gold that stresses its connection to the acquisition, use and defense of social power. Golds natural scarcity has continually been reinforced by an artificial scarcity arising from how powerful groups have used it, but the ruling class monopoly of control has alternated with periods of more widespread social access. In one period, gold is very closely held by a small number of very high-status people, followed by a time, often related to war, when the distribution of gold is significantly expanded socially. Then gold is drawn back in to the center and is closely held once more. This pattern is evident in Antiquity and, surprisingly, the 20th century. The paper explores the way in which the value of things established under one social order may continue to inflect the perception of value in later periods. Keywords gold, money, value, social power Introduction Gold has been valued extremely highly by nearly all societies over much of human history. The reasons people want it appear self-evident. It is beautiful, its color and sheen suggest the sun (on the whole, among the more reasonable objects of human worship), it is highly malleable and it does not corrode. All of these desirable qualities are anchored and amplified by the fact of its extraordinary scarcity in nature. Copper is present in the earths crust at 55 parts per million (ppm) and iron at 56,000 ppm. Gold is found at .0038 ppm or just shy of .004 grams per ton of earth. 1 Given its desirable physical qualities and its natural scarcity, it seems hardly surprising that gold has always had a very high social value and that its ownership and use have been restricted. These are not the only factors underpinning its value, however. For much of its social history, the natural scarcity of gold has been significantly amplified by a wholly artificial scarcity produced by the way gold has been used by those who possessed it. We know that scarcity of natural resources or commodities in general is not absolute or entirely a function of the physical abundance of the substance or the goods. 2 But gold is such an extreme case of physical scarcity that it hardly seems necessary to consider how it is made scarce or wonder at the fact that it has through much of human history been the monopoly of the ruling groups in 4 cultural geographies 18(1) society. Here I want to show how much work actually goes into making it scarce historically and society....
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