Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

The Social Life of Responsibilization

Marriage as a ‘Life-Project’ in Botswana

Prof. Rijk van Dijk


This project aims at researching the ways in which the allocation and acceptance of social responsibilities appears as a dynamic process. The term ‘responsibilization’ allows for the recognition that this allocation may shift across generational, class, gender and ideological divides. Across a life-span, the allocation of responsibilities may shift according to growing age, or may be relocated from one generation into another or may become differentially located in relation to social mobility. In addition, the term ‘responsibilization’ draws attention to the rise of new pedagogies and institutional practices and discourses aiming at instilling a changing level of personal and social responsibility in view of particular concerns. Here responsibilization indicates the production of particular (moral) teachings, trainings, communication of messages and instructions that have the explicit intention of imparting (new) notions of responsibility to subjects. Thus, by bringing a Foucauldian perspective on the rise of social techniques of responsibility together with a social-structural approach concerning the shifting allocations of responsibility, the project aims at mapping the various trajectories that ‘responsibilization’ as a social phenomenon can take.

This ‘social life of responsibilization’ across time and space can profitably be studied for the institution of marriage, which in the African context in recent years has become the subject both of new relocations of responsibilities, and of new pedagogies of responsibility that are often of a religious and moral nature. Taking Botswana as a case in point where marriage is perceived as an institution in an oxymoronic state of ‘constant crisis’, the project will explore how marriage has become – partly due to the AIDS-pandemic – the object of a new pedagogies of responsibility through the rise of a range of ‘life-skills’ oriented discourses and practices. These ‘life-skills’ pedagogies include behavioural change-related programmes (especially in the context of HIV/AIDS), moral/religious messages and education, as well as counselling in which the reformulation of the marital relationship and the reformulation of the gendered roles of the couple are often framed in terms of ‘becoming responsible’ for the marriage – financially, emotionally, sexually or otherwise. In this context, marriage appears as an individualized project, that is, as an institution for which responsibilities are now devoluted onto the person, including the individual pursuit of a greater emotional commitment to the relationship.

Yet, at the same time, marriage in Botswana has undergone major changes in the allocation of responsibilities in socio-structural terms. The arrangement of marriages has now squarely moved into the hands of the younger generation. Their location in the new economy of Botswana has meant an emplacement of this relocation of marital arrangements in rising consumerist desires, styles and appetites that often mark upward social mobility. While in the historic shift away from arranged marriages the elderly generation has become increasingly de-responsibilized, the marriage itself has become an important status-marker for which the younger generation has become fully responsible, yet one which at the same time becomes increasingly exclusionary for the few that can afford the enormous expense that is involved in becoming married. While both dynamics of responsibilization turn the marital relationship into a ‘life-project’ that requires planning, consultation, and careful decision-making when starting a family and developing its resources through initiating various (business-)projects, the two dynamics of responsibilization, outlined above, are at odds with each other. Saving marriage from (financial, emotional) crisis yet having to live up to (often globally inspired) consumerist ideals and expectations, and being responsible for safeguarding status, respect and prestige in this regard, create new and often unexpected dilemmas.

Taking marriage in Botswana as a case for the study of the social life of responsibilization will contribute to a further comparative understanding of how the allocation and acceptance of social responsibilities appears as a dynamic process in Africa and beyond.