How do you quantify something as abstract as energy? Furthermore, how do you attach a price to it? It seems like an impossible task in theory, however Brazil’s booming crystal market illustrates just how feasible it is.

Josef Wieland, graduate student in anthropology, was recently awarded a $25,200 National Science Foundation Fellowship to study the economic consumption of quartz crystals based on their supposed energetic properties—which he plans to do by following the gems from their origins in Brazilian quartz mines to the treatment rooms of spiritual healers of the American Southwest.

“The focus of my study is ‘crystal energy,’ since miners, wholesalers, and crystal healers have all told me about different experiences with this seemingly inherent energy,” he writes in his entry for the Soc Sci on the Fly blog. “Whether these experiences are real or imagined is irrelevant to me.  What is important is how these experiences come to shape both the world’s multibillion-dollar quartz market and alternative spiritualities throughout the Americas.”

To conduct his research, Wieland will complete one year of ethnographic research in Diamantina, Brazil; Tucson, AZ and San Francisco, CA, conducting interviews and observing participants. He will take a close look at people’s assumptions of “use-value,” or what they believe something to be worth regardless of its physical function. This research can be applied to other commodities in the future as well, such as religious artifacts and intellectual property.

In addition to shedding light on how personal experiences and narratives can influence the value of unusual commodities, Wieland also believes his research contributes to social understandings of mineral resource markets around the world. Findings from this research will provide insight into the factors that promote the stabilization of mineral markets by examining the extent to which local environmental policy, social history and global demands impact mineral values.

Wieland’s fellowship begins in June 2015 and runs through May 2016.

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