Circuits of Consumption

If the first research theme grapples broadly and variously with our relationships with others, this research theme focuses on our relationship to ‘stuff’ – again, theoretically, empirically and ethically. 


Most fundamentally, we need to revisit ways in which materiality and the material world – specific things, as well as the planet at large – have been comprehended and apprehended. Modern social orders have treated the material world as inert and plastic, wholly available for human regulation and consumption. What happens then, to our ways of thinking and acting when we attribute elements of agency and potency to the material world, as a sphere beyond wholesale human subjugation?


The human consumption of material stuff has been central to the production of human sociality, culture, inequality and power from their inception, with things invested with historically and geographically specific repertoires of meaning. As the metaphor of circuits suggests, patterns of consumption take transnational forms, as goods and the ideas, desires and ambitions associated with them, travel across the globe.  But the ways they arrive in particular destinations are shaped by more national and local considerations.  In the attempt to understand these journeys of things and their impact on peoples’ everyday lives, politics, identities,  we need to theorise the nature of consumption and the factors that shape consumption histories.  And this in turn will draw on empirical research across a wide range of topics.  This might include – inter alia – biographies of ordinary objects (eg cars, shoes, dress, pills, cell phones, computers, magazines – the list is endless); and the many ways in which patterns of consumption link up with histories of gender relations, sexuality, class, status, inequality, violence, corruption, war and domination.  


Along with the traffic in things and their images, we are also interested in the circuits of imagination and aspiration that accompany them:  versions of ‘the good life’ and the conditions of its accomplishment, and how these have shifted over time and place.  To what extent and in what ways have global consumerist norms and desires been appropriated and remade in developing contexts such as South Africa and other countries on the continent?  What are the particular histories of consumerism across the African continent?  In part an inquiry into histories of advertising, branding and market research, such questions also prompt research into the shifting cultural politics of everyday life, understood in the context of colonialism and its aftermath, and the thoroughoing politicisation of consumption that these histories produced.  Along with a lens to the realm of representation and discourse, therefore, we are also concerned with revisiting questions about the workings of class, status and honour, in the pursuit of upward social and economic mobility in contexts of racialised inequality.


As with the first theme, the geographical focus of this research theme is wide-ranging, although with a particular interest in South Africa and the African continent at large – but in ways that are cognisant of the worldliness of local histories of consumption.  So the links with the USA, China and Japan are interesing and important, as well as comparative discussions with other parts of the world – such as India, Brazil and post-Soviet Russia.


In the case of contemporary South Africa, such issues have an obvious salience.

One of the most dramatic features of democratisation in South Africa, as in many other countries struggling to shake off authoritarian pasts, has been the spectacle of consumption – particularly on the part of people newly liberated – closely associated with changing patterns of class and status formation, and new generational styles of identity and self-display.  New repertoires of consumption are obviously crucial in determining the post-apartheid polity, economy and modes of sociality – and need to be understood historically, as having roots many decades back. Consumption patterns and lineages have also been profoundly formative in locating South Africa in more global economic, political and cultural fields, often as a marker of worldly aspirations and identifications. Yet South Africa’s consumption history is virtually entirely unwritten.  This lacuna is connected, in turn, with a significant gap in existing histories of the workings and legacies of race. The apartheid version of race was, like most others, a judgement about peoples’ worthiness to consume; the production of racial hierarchies regulated the propensity to own, display and accumulate things. In opening up the study of consumption in South Africa, this programme will therefore also deepen the study of race and its articulation with issues of culture, generation and gender, here and elsewhere.  


Charting histories of consumption in South Africa will in turn add to efforts to understand new elites and their historical trajectories, including the erstwhile bantustans.  Likewise, this research theme will open up questions on meanings and histories of corruption, here and elsewhere.


This research theme also encompasses ethical questions and debates on the place of material things in our lives: as vectors of care, love, dignity and other personal and social goods, as much as tools of power, exploitation, lust, and the distortions of consumerist regimes of value.