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Africa and the Global Life of Things

by Jeremy Prestholdt

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Inquiries into commodification, social distinction, and fashion have offered fresh perspectives on social relations and cultural formations in Africa. Imported consumer goods were both elemental to social relationships and a cornerstone of Africa’s global interfaces. This article explores how the social dynamics of consumer demand in Africa were shaped by, and gave shape to, larger social, economic, and political relationships from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. This approach underscores the interrelation of African cultural imperatives and histories of globalization. Focusing on East Africa in the late nineteenth century, the article begins with a snapshot of consumer trends before the nineteenth century. It then examines three dimensions of consumption in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: marketing consumer objects, the social relations of consumption, and the ways manufacturers accommodated African consumer demand. Taken together, these themes augment our understanding of social change in Africa, contribute to wider reflections on consumption as a mode of trans-societal relation, and highlight how manufactured objects can be conceptually and physically transformed throughout their global life cycles.

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