Making social relations and identities through consumption: A Botswana case study

Colman, Juliet A. (2013) Making social relations and identities through consumption: A Botswana case study. Doctoral thesis, University of East Anglia.

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This research utilises the concepts in Miller’s anthropology of consumption (1987; 1988; 1994; 1995a; 1998a; 1998b) to enable an analysis of social relations, including gender, through looking at what and how people consume. Goods not only express individual identity and status, but are used as a means of objectifying personal and social systems of value, which, in the lives of people living in a central ward in the village of Mochudi,
Botswana, signify the importance of social relationships. An analysis of social change since the 1920s and 1930s when Isaac Schapera (1940, 1971) spent a period of fieldwork in the same location and wrote extensively on married life here, is undertaken through familial and life-course events.
Informants took photographs of objects, the significance of which is explored through one-to-one enquiry. Generational and gendered differences in consumption choices point to the stage in life reached and lifestyle. An older woman is found to gain pleasure from the purchase of plastic chairs, ensuring she has enough for family or communal events, where all who turn up may expect to partake of a feast; it is through these chairs that social relations are objectified and her wish to be identified as a ‘good’ woman is fulfilled. Similar projections can be made with older men and desire for livestock – the ultimate signifier of
masculinity and role of ‘provider’ - which are considered ‘useful’ as a means to sustain the social importance and inclusivity of communal gatherings.
Young, single men and women are found to conform more to the stereotypical view of consumption as the development of individual identity (Miller 1998b:35). Yet here, within courtship relationships, material things are utilised as a means of expressing and assessing love. This may have become out-of-kilter, with young men under pressure to compete with gifts for the affections of women who ultimately can decide to walk away. Marriage is constructed around consumption. Time slips the distinction between courtship and engagement, co-habitation and marriage, or even leads to indefinite delay. Marital relations
replace courtship gifts with ‘material acts of caring’ (Miller 1998b) such as provisioning on behalf of husbands, and washing of clothes by wives.
The family home in the village draws people back for kinship events, such as weddings and funerals, which act to connect people together. White weddings, driven by the fantasy of the
bride, are big consumptive events, and yet may be read as being less about conspicuous consumption than an objectification of love which carefully interweaves kinship, tradition and modernity. Through the crisis of AIDS, funerals have altered to reflect a sensitivity which places importance on sober and modest approaches, yet also combines this with a need to ensure the many people who attend are well fed. Large social gatherings reflect the Tswana value system in which consumption acts to reinforce social structure, gender identities and family and tribal belonging, and yet, over time, also acts to bring about change.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Faculty \ School: Faculty of Social Sciences > School of International Development
Depositing User: Users 2593 not found.
Date Deposited: 09 Apr 2014 12:10
Last Modified: 09 Apr 2014 12:10

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