Mary Robertson

Mary Robertson, CSRPC Residential Fellow; Ph.D. Candidate, Dept. of Anthropology

CSRPC Residential Fellow; Ph.D. Candidate, Dept. of Anthropology

Mary Robertson is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her research interests focus on changing intersections between capitalism, politics and the production of racial difference, concentrating on the context of South Africa. Her dissertation, “Selling Aspiration, Recognizing Difference: Race, Class, and the Politics of Advertising in South Africa”, utilized ethnographic and archival research, as well as interviews, to investigate the production of advertising as a way to explore these intersections. It shows how historically in South Africa, entrenching racial hierarchies, configuring differently-valued kinds of consumers, and constituting unequal political subjects have been mutually implicated processes. It provides a fresh perspective on theorizing the configuration of social difference based on race and class in a global context in which there is an increasing interpenetration between the realms of branding and politics.

During segregationist and apartheid South Africa, racist legislation kept Blacks from participating in the national polity and restricted their access to a consumerist lifestyle - with both being reserved as privileges for Whites only. This served to configure unequal consumer citizens based on race. In post-apartheid South Africa, all have formal citizenship, but not full access to the consumer lifestyle with which it was articulated during apartheid, with many Blacks remaining impoverished and marginalized from the formal economy. The dissertation examines how those who produce advertising - an industry that remains dominated by Whites - engage with these dynamics as they attempt both to recognize difference and offer aspiration in the campaigns they produce. It argues that evolving tensions inherent to the practice of advertising and branding overlap with those involved in constituting political collectivities, as both must calibrate the relationship between difference and inclusion, presents and futures, the contingencies of desire and stable projects of value. It shows how those who create advertising project these tensions onto a series of consumer ‘others’ - marked by race, class and gender. These 'others' serve to define a default national self - no longer the explicitly White consumer citizen of apartheid, but now a middle-class self, ostensibly racially unmarked, but shaped by a history in which middle-classness was conflated with whiteness. 

The dissertation research has been supported by funding from various sources, including the Wenner Gren Foundation, the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, and the Lichtstern Dissertation Fellowship.