Ethnography of commercial spaces and commercial relations

I work in the field of hypermarkets since 1999 but I've never left behind my passion for anthropology. My site is intended for collecting materials and works concerning anthropology of consumption, economic anthropology and more specifically the construction of an ethnography of commercial spaces and social relations involved in modern commerce.

Could you help me?

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Comment by Nina Briggs on September 8, 2011 at 8:40am
Do you know about Paco Underhill and Envirosell?:
Comment by John McCreery on August 28, 2011 at 7:57pm
Whoops. I see that the review is cut off by the length restriction on comments. Please friend me and use OAC's messaging function to send me an email address, and I will happily send you the whole thing.
Comment by John McCreery on August 28, 2011 at 7:55pm

Gianluca, if I understand you correctly, you and I share a common concern, what Marx called the relations of production that sustain the fetishized surfaces (advertising, packaging, store layout, for example) at which consumers interact with products, largely oblivious to what goes on behind the scene. As a head of department in a hypermarket, the relations of production—in which I include here manufacturing, distribution, finance, and labor relations—are of central interest to you. Why, you wonder, do anthropologists have so little to say about these things?

First, there is, if you look for it, some research to be found, largely under the rubric of the anthropology of work and, in particular, the anthropology of work, especially women's work, in Japan. What follows is a review I wrote of one notable example. 



John McCREERY/Independent scholar


The Changing Face of Japanese Retail: Working in a Chain Store, by Louella Matsunaga. London: Routledge, 2001, xiv+209 pp., £55.00/$90.00 (hardcover ISBN 0-415-22975-8)


Louella Matsunaga has written a graceful book that makes substantial contributions to the study of both Japanese organizations and Japanese gender relations. The Changing Face of Japanese Retail is theoretically sophisticated without ostentation. It is also highly informative without being overwhelming. The writing is elegant, marred neither by excessive dependence on ‘theory’ nor by the woodenness of ‘scientific’ writing. I plan to use this book. I know of no better introduction to the people engaged in the central battleground of the retailing industry – the sale of basic commodities to middle-aged housewives doing their family shopping. This book is short enough for graduate students to read in a week. I would, however, recommend a slower read. The book’s simple structure and readable prose make it too easy to swallow whole, and its value is in the detail.

The book opens with a Japanese press report, dated February 2000, announcing the bankruptcy of Nagasakiya, the firm in one of whose chain stores Matsunaga did her fieldwork. This is an excellent way to frame the theoretical issues she addresses in her book, and casts the following chapters in a slightly eerie light. Matsunaga then reviews previous studies in which ‘the Japanese company’ is treated as a set of essential attributes: a group of Japanese males characterized by lifetime employment, pay determined by seniority, and an enterprise union. After noting empirical reasons to regard this model more as management ideology than an analytic description of social reality, she turns to more theoretically driven approaches,


moving away from the view of culture as a static given, something ‘out there’ for an anthropologist to discover, towards a consideration of culture as process, a system of negotiated meanings (p. 5).


In framing her own research, Matsunaga draws on the work of Abner Cohen, whose description of community (here organizational) boundaries shows how different boundaries look from outside and inside. From the outside, observers see the public face, idealized and simplified. Insiders see multiple private faces, ‘refracted through all the complexities of their lives and experience’ (Cohen, 1985: 75, quoted here on p. 8).

Nagasakiya is an interesting object of study for two main reasons. First, it was a retailer, and that alone makes it of interest in a literature largely dominated by studies of manufacturing firms or financial institutions. Secondly, it was a firm with a very large proportion of women among its employees, a counterexample to stereotypes of the Japanese company as a largely male preserve.

Chapter 2 situates Nagasakiya in the hi

Comment by Gianluca Mantoani on August 24, 2011 at 2:04pm

Thank you so much, I've take contact with John Sherry last year and he was so kind to put me in contact with Stefania Borghini who worked with him and actually teach at Boccconi University in Milan. I also found the works of that research  group very usaful and fascinating. They are marketing scholars who really give the right value to the ethnographic method.

But I think that consumer behaviour cannot be the only focus of interest for the ethnographic study of consumption and commerce. As Ben Fine argued, the "vertical" chains of different systems of provision powerly affect the whole mattter.

I'm interested in the institutional and relational side of this complex. Working as head of departement in an hypermarket my direct experience of this arena showed me the big interest of taking in the ethnographic account of the shopping relations the firms point of view as well as those of the workers and, of course, the shoppers. The painting is also complicated by the institutional role in social organization of commerce (sunday opening, opening hours, labour legislation and so on.

Comment by John McCreery on August 24, 2011 at 12:43pm
Gianluca, do be sure to include the numerous publications by John Sherry,from Notre Dame:

Sherry's own work on consumer behavior and retail spaces is fascinating and his bibliographies are voluminous.


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