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Overview

Shopping is generally considered to be a pleasurable activity. But in reality it can often be complicated and frustrating. Daniel Miller explores the many contradictions faced by shoppers on a typical street in London, and in the process offers a sophisticated examination of the way we shop, and what it reveals about our relationships to our families and communities, as well as to the environment and the economy as a whole.

Miller's companions are mostly women who confront these contradictions as they shop. They placate their children with items that combine nutrition with taste or usefulness with style. They decide between shopping at the local store or at the impersonal, but less expensive, mall. They tell of their sympathy for environmental concerns but somehow avoid much ethical shopping. They are faced with a selection of shops whose shifts and mergers often reveal extraordinary stories of their own. Filled with entertaining—and thoroughly familiar—stories of shoppers and shops, this book will interest scholars across a broad range of disciplines.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226526485
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2001
  • Series: Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture Series Series , #1998
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 222
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Miller is a professor of anthropology at the University College of London. He is the author or editor of many books, including Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Read an Excerpt

The Dialectics of Shopping


By Daniel Miller

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 Daniel Miller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226526488

1 - INTRODUCTION

To write a book within the framework of the Morgan Lectures sets a challenge for the author: to be audacious in developing innovations to invigorate the spirit of anthropological inquiry, yet judicious in retaining the inherited strengths of the discipline. The topic of shopping may be viewed as a radical choice, elevating a much denigrated, mundane activity. To choose such a topic is an act of refusal, against the use of anthropology to separate a supposed authenticity of past or of small-scale societies from our own presumed inauthenticity. It opposes an anthropology misused to make us feel alienated by creating a myth of the "other" as the inalienable. But it takes from traditional ethnography a holistic approach, which makes shopping a lens through which we can search for new insights into the nature of our common humanity.

This book's subject is not just shopping, but more specifically, shopping in North London. This choice asserts the continued potential of anthropology for sites where we can have no expectation of homogeneity, community, or even history in any simple sense. It begins, appropriately enough for a Morgan Lectures series volume, with a chapter on kinship as revealed through an ethnography of shopping. But while there havebeen societies in which the topic of kinship sheds light on the very heart of institutions and even cosmology, in this setting kinship can be only the first level of inquiry. The next chapter confronts us with the street and neighborhood as a place where people live in juxtaposition, rather than in community, and shopping is analyzed as a means by which they tackle the discrepancy between an idealized context and an actual place. The third ethnographic chapter finds shopping deeply implicated in the awareness a North London population must have of its relationship to the larger world: both in relation to its own cosmopolitan nature and to the world itself as the environment for which we may or may not feel responsible. Shopping is also an activity that relates the shopper to the institutions that create the shops. For this reason, chapter 4 is not ethnographic. It is, instead, a study of those institutions that determine the retail facilities, which, because the shoppers have little or no say in their creation, cannot be understood directly from a study of the shoppers themselves.

The structure of these four chapters reveals the wider ambition of this book as a contribution to an agenda for anthropology. Perhaps it is most radical in what it seeks to retain from the history of anthropology. Holism is of value not because there ever was a social group that was bounded and autonomous, but because understanding social life involved attempting to encompass all that bears on society. And the more fragmented and disparate those influences, the more significant a discipline that continues to recognize that none of them lie outside the remit of our inquiries. So this is not a book in economic anthropology or the anthropology of religion. It is a book about shopping that treats commodities in the way Mauss treated the gift, as forms that implicate every aspect of social life, such that kinship and political economy are brought together within the same volume.

If there is one central claim to this book it is precisely that the more complex and unbounded our society becomes, the more we need the traditional holism of anthropology. This holism infuses the spirit of ethnography, which holds out the possibility that its topic of inquiry--in this case, shopping--might turn out to be about anything and everything. But the discipline cannot be reduced to methodology, and a second claim is that if we are not to be mere positivists identifying the world only with that we can observe, then a holistic inquiry must include that which lies outside of ethnography. So the inclusion of a chapter on political economy that is not ethnographic is intended to stake a clear claim that in contemporary anthropology, ethnography must always presuppose a critique of its own limitations. A third claim is evident through the structure of this book, which is that a holistic inquiry may be attempted by setting up gradations from the intimate world of domestic relationships to the impersonal abstractions of political economy.

The title of this book is not the study of shopping but the dialectics of shopping, and the term "dialectic" signifies, first, a fundamental finding and, second, the ultimate ambition behind this work. For chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5, the term "dialectic" stands for the centrality of contradiction in the processes involved in shopping. Within each of the four topics this contradiction takes on a specific form, but there are tensions shared by them all. Above all, there is the irresolvable tension between a growth of particularity that is associated with an equal growth in levels of generality. For example, over the last decade anthropologists have realized that for most people the more they see themselves as global the more we understand ourselves as local. I will reveal an analogous tension to be at the heart of kinship relations, and in the discrepancy between the ideal and practice of community. Shopping comes to be understood as a constant attempt to at least gain a respite from these tensions, which are never, ultimately, resolvable. In the area of political economy, however, where actual shoppers are divested of power, this tension is shown to be increasingly oppressive and dangerous.

While the term "dialectic" remains a relatively modest claim throughout these four chapters as a way of representing contradictions and tensions that make up the context for most shopping, the wider ambitions of this concept are the subject chapter 6. The topics of the four previous chapters are intended to loosely shadow the structure of another book, The Philosophy of Right, written by the philosopher most closely associated with the term "dialectics," that is, Hegel. Hegel is invoked as a means by which an enterprise that is older than anthropology itself might still be recognized as vanguard in its potential for recasting and making relevant the holistic tradition within anthropology. It is not just that society was never bounded and autonomous, but also that the task of encompassment, of understanding the influences and forces that bear on social life was never totalizing. The holistic in anthropology is not a goal that is to be finally achieved. Social life is dynamic, and just as shopping takes place within contradictions that are never ultimately resolved and in which it can only provide temporary and partial resolutions, exactly the same strictures apply to the process of anthropological understanding. It was never helpful to pit the discipline between relativism and science--as though understanding society was an aim that either could or couldn't be encompassed. It is precisely because there are never final explanations that the drive toward understanding is so pressing and constant. So the larger ambition of this book is to argue that the proper form of contemporary anthropological inquiry is dialectical. This approach would recognize that generality and particularity are generated by the same process--and see our humanity enhanced by our attempts to understand the myriad forces that give rise to us and that we in turn create. Understanding is heightened, not lessened, by our appreciation that is it constantly being made redundant by the dynamics of our world. That it was rarely seduced by the apparent immortality of scientific explanation is precisely what should give anthropology its maturity and relevance to stand against the immaturity of mere relativism and postmodernism.

A more parochial justification for the juxtaposition of dialectics and shopping comes from the trajectory of my own research. If this volume rests upon a loose connection to Hegel's later work, The Philosophy of Right, my first attempt to research consumption (1987) was based on Hegel's earlier work, The Phenomenology of Spirit. That book, Material Culture and Mass Consumption, had two aims. The first was to construct a vulgarized version of Hegel's concept of objectification as a means to transcend the dualism of subjects and objects. The second aim was to advocate a rethinking of consumption as a process by which people attempt to overcome their sense of alienation from the forces that create commodities. At that time, there was little sympathy for any approach to consumption that refused to regard it as other than merely the final outcome and symptom of capitalism. By contrast, today the problem is to rescue consumption from being seen as a mode for the free expression of the creative subject. Indeed, the reason why the topic of shopping was avoided for a considerable time was that it seemed to focus upon consumption as an act of individual choice from goods supplied by the market. For this reason, my first case study was a London council estate (Miller 1988) in which consumption of state services was at issue, and my second case study was the collective appropriation of goods by Trinidad during the oil boom and recession (Miller 1994), followed by a study of the specificity of Trinidadian business (Miller 1997a). Although the latter study included an extensive analysis of shopping in Trinidad, the point made by these studies is that consumption is much more than individual choice set within a market system.

The ethnography of shopping in North London that provides the basis for this volume has also been the subject of two rather different prior treatments. Miller (1998a) focused upon an extended comparison between the study of shopping and anthropological theories of sacrifice. It approached shopping as a primary technology of love within modern relationships. Miller et al. (1998) was a collaborative research project aimed to study the use of space and place in two large shopping centers. By contrast, in the present volume the topic of shopping is reoriented toward the problem of articulating microperspectives such as family relationships and macroperspectives such as political economy.

The scope of this inquiry was never limited to any particular discipline, and the bulk of this book consists of a description and analysis of shopping in several contexts. I have tried to avoid obfuscation and disciplinary jargon in the hope that this text will be accessible to readers from a wide interdisciplinary audience. For this reason, my rather more dense points of articulation with discussions within anthropology are given in the form of an appendix to each ethnographic chapter. For the same reason, the more technical discussion of the use of terms such as "discourse" and "normativity" is provided as an appendix to this introductory chapter. It will also be evident that the task of the final chapter as summarized in the following paragraph tackles the topic at a more philosophical level. Chapters 2-5 do not depend upon this, although my hope is that many readers will come see the final chapter as the appropriate conclusion to the whole.

In The Philosophy of Right as in several other of his works, Hegel develops his ideas and ideals through a sequence of moments or levels. Each of these has a degree of autonomy but also transcends the previous moment. Those employed in the The Philosophy of Right are the family, civil society, and the state. In this volume, the chapters move from kinship to community, citizenship, and political economy. While each chapter, and indeed, each chapter's theoretical final section, has sufficient autonomy to be considered in their own right, there is also a logic to their development. Hegel considered that the fundamental problem of modernity was the increasing distance between particularity and universality and the forms of oppressive abstraction that sundered institutions from their original aim of serving human welfare. Hegel argued that philosophy itself had a major role in forcing us to recognize the ultimate unity within and between these. By analyzing each institution in terms of the forces that would sunder them, and thereby us, from our own humanity, Hegel created a philosophy and the basis also of an anthropology that is ethical precisely by being analytical. It underscores the oppression latent within the institutions we live by and in so doing brings us to consciousness of the threat they pose. On the basis of such an understanding, we may seek to ameliorate the problems of contradiction that are intrinsic to them. So chapter 6 is intended both to transcend the separation into four prior chapters but also to suggest ways of both understanding and intervening that are promoted by the consciousness generated by analysis.

The intention is also thereby to reconnect what have often been separated as macro- and microperspectives. After all, each chapter is concerned with the same people and the same street. Anthropological analysis may first be conducted through such semiautonomous levels and then address the significant connections between them. By insisting upon such ultimate connectedness rather than surrendering to the much easier sense of and representation of contemporary fragmentation, anthropology can, perhaps rather more effectively than philosophy, demonstrate the dangers of allowing micro- and macroperspectives to be imagined as though they were other than different perspectives on the same peoples' lives.

THE FIELDSITE

The street on which lived the bulk of seventy-six households who took part in this study was chosen because it was nondescript. One end of the street (here called Jay Road) includes around twenty shops. One side is dominated by government housing estates, although in Britain these do not have the same implication as do housing projects in the United States in that until a recent decline they represented around one-third of all British housing. Those located in this street would represent more salubrious accommodation than the more notorious "sink" estates that tend to be focused on in the media. The other side of the street includes maisonettes, which would cost a little below average house prices and other terraced housing that would be a little above average house prices. Although for the sake of simplicity I refer to "the street" throughout this volume, some of the side roads (and a couple of households beyond these) provided additional contributors to this research representing more substantial semidetached houses that, while well above average house prices, are not particularly wealthy. In short, the area represented housing that could be found throughout London. The aim was to study households of average incomes including a reasonable spread of both middle- and working-class households. I cannot characterize the street in any absolute sense of income or occupation, since it managed, as intended, to include a very wide variety. It was hard sometimes to see an elderly single person living on state support in a council estate flat where most welfare services have been withdrawn, and a middle-class household of professionals with children at private schools, as living on the same planet, let alone the same street; but they do, both here and on countless other streets in North London. This focus upon the average was intended to reduce any tendency to merely assume the significance of class as a factor in the analysis, although during fieldwork class turned out to be the single most important form of self-classification used by individuals and households to describe themselves in casual conversation.

The street is located in neither the inner city nor the outer suburbs and, as with much of metropolitan London, is not clearly "zoned." It is an area of often quite transient occupation, especially in the maisonettes, which tend to be occupied by families who aspire to a whole house but who are not yet in a position to afford the necessary mortgage. Once again, this is not untypical for a society in which residence in a particular house averages only four years in general. The area is highly cosmopolitan in terms of the number of languages spoken in the local primacy school, and the seventy-six households involved in this project included a wide range of backgrounds from West Indian, through Cypriot, Jewish, and South Asian to South American and West African. There was no dominant "ethnicity" other than the approximately forty English-born Christian households (the precise numbers would depend on quite how these definitions are used). The emphasis in the fieldwork was on shopping with women, although men were the primary or sole informant in fourteen households. The thirty-five households from the council estates were dominated by single-parent or single-person (mainly elderly) households while nuclear families dominated the private housing sector.

This ethnographic project formed part of a larger study of shopping and identity in collaboration with academics from human geography who employed focus groups and quantitative surveys based mainly at two associated shopping centers (see Miller et al. 1998). The ethnography itself was conducted as a joint piece of fieldwork with Alison Clarke (see Clarke 1998, forthcoming a, forthcoming b). My research focused upon formal shopping, while Clarke concentrated on other forms of provisioning such as tupperware parties (see Clarke 1999), car-boot sales, and the exchange of secondhand goods. In most cases we initially approached the households together but much of the subsequent work with these households was conducted separately.

The selection of a street as a unit of study was certainly influenced by a certain localized set of expectations about the nature of sociality. Whether or not the street exists as a community, the ideal that a street is where community naturally resides continues to have considerable resonance in Britain. On the whole, where U.S. soap operas and sitcoms might tend to focus upon relationships in the workplace as their premise, in Britain the dominant television soap operas are about "Coronation Street," "Brook-side," or "Albert Square." Even within academic work, sociological community studies tended to focus upon streets (Young and Willmott 1962) as units of inquiry. There is also now considerable historical evidence for the significance of the street as a genuine core to identification with locality in British working-class culture (McKibbin 1998). This issue is discussed in more detail in chapter 3. As ethnographers, however, we never assumed that a street would necessarily be the relevant context for contemporary socialization, and I cannot claim to have been terribly surprised by our lack of evidence for any local community. But this history and ideology gives the field site a certain naturalizing quality such that it seemed quite straightforward to the participating shoppers that the grounds for their being asked to participate was that they lived in the street that had been selected for the research.



Continues...

Excerpted from The Dialectics of Shopping by Daniel Miller Copyright © 2001 by Daniel Miller. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword Anthony T. Carter
Acknowledgments

1 Introduction

2 The Dialectics of Kinship

3 The Dialectics of Community

4 The Dialectics of Ethics and Identity

5 The Dialectics of Political Economy

6 Get "Real"

Bibliography Index

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