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Sue Benson Prize for Best Part IIB Dissertation

last modified Sep 14, 2015 10:36 AM

Winner: Camille Lardy (Sidney Sussex College)

Vignoble du Cognac (credit: OT Cognac / H. Chaillot)

Every year, the division awards a prize of £200 to the most outstanding IIB dissertation. The prize is named in memory of Dr Sue Benson (1955-2005), an anthropologist who lectured, supervised and directed studies in Cambridge for 26 years and was an inspiration both personally and intellectually for generations of students.

We are pleased to announce the winner for this year’s Sue Benson prize is Camille Lardy (Sidney Sussex College) with her dissertation ‘Cognac Houses and Bottlenecks: Information Networks in the International Cognac Trade’.

Of her research and winning the prize, Camille had the following words:

Cognac brandy is produced and commercialised by a four-hundred-year old professional network which encompasses its manufacture at the regional level of Charente, France, and its sale on the global market. Each bottle of cognac follows a similar trajectory, passing successively between the hands of wine growers, spirit distillers, and cognac merchants before being shipped overseas to reach the tables of British aristocrats, Japanese businessmen, or members of the Chinese Communist Party. Over time, anecdotes about these international consumers have followed a reverse pathway along the network to reach the town of Cognac, mingling with the local folklore to such an extent that they are perceived as banal rather than exotic. Nevertheless, these stories influence the social and cultural divisions of Cognac and the surrounding countryside insofar as they are only known by members of the cognac production network, and not shared more widely with other inhabitants of Cognac.

My dissertation investigates first the historical constitution of the international cognac trade, and then the local forces currently at play in Cognac between members of the cognac production network and non-members. In particular, it aims at understanding the uncharacteristic sharing, in cognac stores, of stories specifically featuring African-American rappers. I argue that rap music videos in the past decade have transcended the traditional image of cognac consumption, and in so doing overcame the jaded attitude toward international anecdotes displayed by members of the cognac network. References to rap videos in cognac stores, at the interface between the production network and the other inhabitants of Cognac, now contribute to bridging over the cultural discrimination previously separating the society of Cognac on the basis of individuals’ knowledge of the ‘culture of cognac’.

Having grown up in the region of Cognac, the choice to quite literally do anthropology ‘at home’ proved to be both genuinely reassuring, as the research process highlighted the extent to which I was already immersed in the folklore of Cognac, but also decidedly angst-inducing, as I hoped to do justice to my own neighbours’ and family’s anecdotes and culture. It is in this latter respect that I am deeply grateful to the Department for selecting my dissertation for the Sue Benson prize, a thrilling outcome to which I wish to associate my supervisor, Dr Chris Kaplonski, whose support and optimism were invaluable throughout the year (and who notoriously refused to let me change my joking work-in-progess chapter titles into something more formal once the dissertation was ready for submission!)


Quais Charente Cognac, (credit: OT Cognac / P.Chaillot)