28 May

Now let’s talk about shopping

Posted By Politybooks

First posted 23rd August 2010

As August is traditionally the ‘silly season’, talk about shopping might seem just the thing. However, far from being silly, shopping, aka ‘consumer confidence’, is deadly serious. As the UK holds its breath waiting to know the scale of the cuts expected in the autumn, there is much comment on consumers also holding onto their purses and how, as a result, retail and travel firms are suffering. Despite the ease with which patronizing remarks about shopping as ‘the religion of our times’ are made, the social reality is that to live we have to shop. An activity central to the lives of all urban dwellers, now the majority of the world’s population, the activity of shopping is nevertheless often mocked. Yet, after work and sleep, it is how we spend most of our time; and as time spent on an activity is a fair index of social significance, to better understand how our society works we had better take shopping more seriously.

J.K. Galbraith saw shopping as ‘the last leg of distribution’ and couldn’t understand why the ‘crypto-servants’ who undertook to shoulder the bulk of household shopping did so, as they received no personal reward in terms of money or prestige, while their labours benefitted producers, carriers, stores and the ‘final consumers’ more than it did them. Yet these crypto-servants (in Britain mainly, but not exclusively, women) do keep on shopping. Not because, as one common fantasy about shopping has it, of women spending extravagantly on luxuries for themselves, but because shopping is a central part of family life and the ‘kin-work’ done by most women. Aside from the practical reason for going shopping, (that we can’t grow or make all that we need to survive), shopping is an activity suffused with social meaning. While some of this meaning attaches to the goods bought, much more attaches to the thought and effort, the keeping in mind of other people’s likes and dislikes, and makes shopping an act of love and care. The meaning of shopping derives also from its place in a larger system of routines, rhythms and rituals, interactions, exchanges and transitions which make up everyday life, as well as personal and social identity. When we shop, as well as how or where we shop, is part of our identity, and as such is something integrated with its context.

As a species, humankind is distinctively adaptive and as modern society becomes increasingly ‘retailized’, minimally understood as the expansion of retail footage, so too are we. We work less and shop more, and shopping regularly tops the list of Britons’ favourite leisure activity. However shopping is not all about spending money and, save for some teenagers living at home, is not how most of us spend most of our money, but shopping is socially important because it is both more and less than buying. Shopping is a skill, a source of pride and respect, and of independence, as well as a bore and chore. The need to go shopping provides structure and pattern, and how it is fitted into the day, week, month and year, as Christmas comes round again, is part of how shopping gives meaning to our lives. Critically everyone, except the Queen, goes shopping, and while we do not all have the same amount of money to spend, shopping is the most common of common activities and produces an unmatched degree of social mixing as different social classes at least rub shoulders. Despite the growth of the internet most of us still do most of our shopping in the traditional way – by going to the shops – and not to be able to do this, for example, because of being housebound, is a form of social and cultural exclusion. Just going for a walk, if we live in a city, will generally mean passing by some shops and whether we enter or buy from them or not, they offer us a topic of conversation, a short cut, somewhere to shelter from the rain, or wait for a friend. We are sad to see shops close, or be boarded up, but we treat them, as many of us do our own family, with some disdain: complaining about them, avoiding them, but still expecting them to be there when we change our minds and want them.

The current global economic crisis has focused all our minds on the threat of cuts, lost jobs and, especially, perhaps, the difficulties likely to be faced by the young. Retail is where most young people in Britain get their first job, a step on the ladder, and this will be harder as more shops close and shoppers become cannier. However, as the austerity measures kick in many of us will be spending more of our time in the high street or shopping centre, ‘people watching’, stretching out a cup of coffee, checking stock, or daydreaming, since shops are a form of open college, of learning too. In abolishing the infamous ‘Asbo’, Home Secretary Theresa May showed, perhaps, a woman’s wisdom, knowing that wearing a ‘hoodie’ is no guarantee of causing trouble in a shopping centre, and that shopping holds society together far more than its critics, left or right, acknowledge. Shopping is part of a broad system of support and interdependence which works because it is taken for granted, which is also a reason we don’t take it seriously but slag it off as synonymous with the ‘social ills’ of consumerism, materialism, individualism which many, including moral philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, hold responsible for the supposed moral vacuum at the heart of modern life. Yet it does not take much to see how well shopping, as it is actually done, fits with the definition of practice MacIntyre gives, namely ‘a coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity’. For MacIntyre the loss of practice to the modern world was a moral catastrophe and one reason why he was so keen on it was that it afforded those who participated in it what he called ‘internal goods’, for example a sense of achievement and joy in work well done with others. These goods were unobtainable except by taking part in ‘practice’ and had been all but lost to life in Britain as a result of the industrial revolution which destroyed household production. The fall out of that turning point in the economic and social history of Britain has been much examined, and not least the impact which it had on women and the devaluation of their labour. The place occupied by shopping in much political discourse in Britain today, that is, as an object of scorn and derision, is part of that legacy.

A more detailed analysis of all this discussion can be found in Jenny’s new book Shopping: social and cultural perspectives, along with analyses of the place of shopping in everyday life, in our hearts minds and memories, in nudging us along the life course and in mediating the rapids of class.