Fakultäten » Philosophische Fakultät » Sozialanthropologie und Empirische Kulturwissenschaft, Institut für » Ethnologie » Prof. Dr. Annuska Derks » Derks

Completed research project

Title / Titel A Social Biography of the Coal Briquette: Exploring Vietnam through an Ordinary Commodity
PDF Abstract (PDF, 14 KB)
Summary / Zusammenfassung One of the most remarkable features of contemporary Vietnam is its rapid development. Since the onset of the 1986 economic reform program known as đổi mới, generally translated as “renovation”, the country has experienced high economic growth, a remarkable reduction of poverty and a concomitant increase in household wealth. This rapid development triggered new levels and kinds of consumption and substantial transformations in family and gender relations. However, it also accelerated disparities of income and environmental damage. Within this context, one of the major questions that arises in contemporary Vietnam is how to balance development with environmental protection and social equity. This project seeks to contribute to the discussion on these issues by focusing on a particular source of energy that is polluting and harmful yet indispensable for millions of, especially, poor Vietnamese – the beehive coal briquette (than tổ ong).

Following Mintz in his influential study on sugar (1985), this project argues that the anthropology of just such a homely, everyday thing can contribute to an understanding of how the world changes from what it was to what it may become, while at the same time manages to stay, in certain regards, very much the same. This project adopts a biographical approach in order to explore the birth, rise and demise of the coal briquette through time and to follow the thing from its source (the coal mines in Northeast Vietnam), through its transportation, production and trade, to the households and street stalls in which it is used, and the final waste product. The project seeks to explore in a detailed and innovative manner the intersections between the state and the private sector; between rising energy needs and environmental degradation; between urbanization and cooking practices; between household economy and gender; between post-socialist development and social equity; and between the material and the immaterial world. This study of the coal briquette thus goes beyond the various dimensions that determine its material life, and explores inter-relations between its social, spiritual and ecological life – and aims to contribute to a highly timely debate regarding the interchange between humans and their material environment and between social and economic change and (un)sustainable development.
Publications / Publikationen Derks, Annuska (2015). Fuelling change: A biography of the beehive coal briquette in post-Đổi Mới Vietnam. Journal of Material Culture, 20(3):331-349.

Derks, Annuska (2015). Stars, Spirits and Coal: Materiality and Immateriality in Northern Vietnam. The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 16(1):1-16.

Project leadership and contacts /
Projektleitung und Kontakte
Prof.Dr. Annuska Derks (Project Leader)
Funding source(s) /
Unterstützt durch
Universität Zürich (position pursuing an academic career), SNF (Personen- und Projektförderung)
In collaboration with /
In Zusammenarbeit mit
University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University
Duration of Project / Projektdauer Feb 2011 to Dec 2018