Listening to experts: The Politics of Consumption and the Culture of Urban life

Bianca Murillo came to talk to us about the politics of consumption.  In particular, Bianca posed four major questions to the class:

  1. What does local consumption tell us about global capitalism?
  2. What is consumer culture?
  3. What might studying consumer culture in a Ghanaian context look like?
  4. How does our perspective influence the way we interpret the flow of “global” and “local”?

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Bianca helped guide the class through these questions using her own work on the politics of consumer culture in late-colonial and postcolonial Ghana.  She argued that studies of consumer culture help us think about the social logics of demand:  what underlies or prompts people to participate in consumption?  In particular she highlighted two issues:  cultural industries that develop around consumer culture and the systems/technologies of distribution.

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Bianca argued for a social history of economics, which uses the experiences of consumers and retailers to understand the relationship between abundance and scarcity and the relationship between production, consumption and waste.  While these questions are central to theories of business and marketing, we often do not think very carefully about how the answer to these questions might look in the lives of people whose existence is inherently precarious.  Bianca pointed in particular to African commercial intermediaries who bridged the gap between European importers and African consumers, taking on large amounts of debt.  The debt itself put these commercial intermediaries in a tenuous financial position.  However, intermediaries saw debt as a symbol of social value and status.  The ability to hold debt without risk was a sign of commercial success and skill.

All of these questions help us think more carefully about how the identity of “the consumer” is produced.  Are they merely passive victims of marketing and commerce, are they self-fashioning, active agents, or are they somewhere in between?  To what degree does the debate about “kalabule” (or corruption) reframe how the consumer is defined?  Undoubtedly, consumer and retailers found themselves in the political crosshairs of military dictatorships who associated their activities with the greed of corruption.  Market traders, in particular, were subject to significant violence and regulation throughout the postcolonial period as consumers sought to use postcolonial governance as a way to protect themselves from the vagaries of global capitalism.  Ultimately, however, Murillo argued that it is not any particular history of victimization or empowerment that makes the history of African consumer culture important.  Rather, thinking about Africans as consumers–not just producers or laborers–disrupts narratives of the global economy.  And, in the absence of any significant system of domestic production, the history of African consumer culture forces us to pay more attention to systems of distribution – in the Ghanaian case, market trading and the network of intermediaries who distributed goods and facilitated exchange throughout the region.

In exploring these questions we should be careful not to assume that seemingly “global” movements were adoptions without local roots or motivations.  Likewise, we cannot ignore either the politics of the state or the social and cultural politics of gender, race, and generation.  Consumer culture in 20th century Ghana was certainly influenced by both forms of politics.  But it also shaped those politics in profound ways.

Prof. Ato Quayson joined us via Skype to talk about his book, Oxford Street, Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism, and help us think about the ways that these questions are manifested in the urban space of Accra and its historically cosmopolitan district of Oxford Street.  As Prof. Quayson notes, questions about consumption are inextricably linked with the politics of class, race, and space.  This is particularly true of Accra, the inhabitants of which negotiated the overlapping identities of the city as trading town, indigenous Ga capital, decentralized kingdom, British colonial capital, and commercial center.  The layers of influence from indigenous Ga populations, Asante and other northern ethnic groups, and various European trading and political interests (Dutch, Danish, British, German, etc., etc.) ensured that city life in heterogeneous Accra was constantly debated and contested.  Prof. Quayson’s book traces the history and culture of that debate and the ways it manifests in a uniquely local version of transnationalism, beginning with the history of spatial culture and cosmopolitanism in colonial Accra and shifting in the second half of the book to more ethnographic studies of what he identifies as incarnations of transnational culture.

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In our discussions, Prof. Quayson helped us extend the observations in his book to the concerns surrounding the impending election in Ghana.  In particular, he discussed the culture of corruption that pervades the cultural politics and political culture of the country and the profound inequalities and desperation of many of its citizens, even in the face of seemingly constant construction and growing affluence among an elite majority.  He left us with a number of important questions, which the students continued to explore in Ghana and through their own research:  What does development look like in Ghana?  Who is included and who is excluded?  What implications does populism mean for the country’s political culture in this election?  In the future?  What role does Accra play in Ghana more generally?  To what degree is it representative?  To what degree is it exceptional?

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