Department of English and American Studies

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts

Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Eva Tročilová

The Social Significance of Shopping in Late Twentieth Century Cultural Theory

Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: Stephen Paul Hardy, Ph.D.


I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.


Author’s signature


I would like to thank to my supervisor, Stephen Paul Hardy, Ph.D., whose critical comments were of great importance to me.

Table of Contents

Introduction 6

Chapter One: Young “Tricksters” 13

Chapter Two: Women Go Shopping 23

Chapter Three: Shopping for Identities 31

Conclusion 40

List of Works Cited 47

Resume (in English) 50

Resumé (česky) 51


The general endeavour of British cultural studies is to study the activities people practise in everyday life and to look at the meanings people attribute to these everyday practices. With the rise of capitalism in the early nineties, the cultural theory ascribes great importance to the Marxist literary criticism and the theme of resistance against this profit-based capitalist system comes into focus. What most cultural theorists argue is that people do not mindlessly consume every product that is offered to them by the market-dominated society, but rather, that they take the products and utilize them for their own creative uses. Therefore, the activity of shopping within the terms of the cultural theory of the late twentieth century must be viewed as a form of consumer activity1 through which a shopper can subvert the social system and/or express his own identity rather than as a mere activity of the selection and purchase of goods.

The basic assumption of cultural studies is to think of culture politically. Therefore, the approach to the study of the components of culture (represented by shopping in this work) is also significantly influenced by politics. As John Fiske puts it, “the term culture, as used in the phrase ‘culture studies,’ is neither aesthetic nor humanist in emphasis, but political . . . [Culture is] a way of living within an industrial society that encompasses all the meanings of social experience” (“British” 214). The branch of cultural studies itself is grounded in Marxism. According to John Storey, author of an extensive piece of work on popular culture, Marxism informs cultural theory in two basic ways. First, the meaning of culture is analysed in relation to the social structure and its history. Second, there is a continual struggle over meaning, in which the subordinate groups (divided unequally along ethics, gender and class lines) resist the meanings imposed on them by the dominant groups. This struggle is an ideological one and therefore it can be stated that ideology is the central concept in cultural studies (Storey viii – ix). Shopping is consequently seen as a social activity that always comprises a symbolic battle between domination and subordination. To be more specific, there is a constant struggle between the power of a ruthlessly profit-based capitalist system and the various forms of resistance to such a power. The main purpose of this thesis is to consider this ideological struggle within the activity of shopping and comment upon the convergences and divergences of various approaches towards shopping in late twentieth century cultural theory.

This thesis deals with the activity of shopping in relation to popular culture, or the culture of everyday practices, which is crucial to the investigation of cultural studies. Popular culture can be generally defined as an aspect of culture that is accepted and is consumed by a significant portion of society; it is a culture that reflects experiences, values and interests of common people. At this point it is necessary to highlight that this definition has a rather inclusive character since it recognizes all genders, ethnic, class, and even age groups, to be equal producers of popular culture, all of which are fully competent to resist the powerful market-dominated system (Morley and Chen). In the essay “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular’,” Stuart Hall views popular culture as a field of hegemony, claiming that “popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is also the take to be won or lost in that struggle. It is the arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured” (qtd. in Samuel 239). John Fiske, one of the leading scholars in the field of popular culture, follows the ideas of Stuart Hall and in his work devoted to the understanding of popular culture, he explains the effect of the hegemonic power as a consequence of consumer resistance: “Popular culture is made by subordinated people in their own interests out of resources that also, contradictorily, serve the economic interests of the dominant. . . . There is always an element of popular culture that lies outside social control that escapes or opposes hegemonic forces” (Reading 2). Accordingly, the ideological struggle within popular culture is inevitable. As Fiske further emphasizes, “popular culture is always a culture of conflict, it always involves the struggle to make social meanings that are in the interest of the subordinate and that are not those preferred by the dominant ideology” (Reading 2).

A considerable part of this thesis is dedicated to the subordinate group, who takes the resources provided by the dominant system, which disempowers them, and uses them to their advantage. The first chapter called “Young Tricksters” deals with the empowerment of young people inside shopping malls, and considers their “tactical raids” upon the coercive capitalist system as described by Michel de Certeau. In his work The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau focuses on the “tactics” which are used by the weak against the “strategies” of the powerful and shows how the young make their own “spaces” within the “places” where the strategy operates, in this case, shopping malls. Fiske, following the thoughts of de Certeau, points out that “for unemployed youths, [shopping malls] are a place to trick ‘the system,’ to consume the images, warmth, and places of consumerism, without buying any of its commodities. The meanings of shopping malls are made and circulated in social practices” (Reading 3). Discussing the young and their relationship to the shopping mall, it is also necessary to look at the thoughts of Lauren Langman, a contemporary American sociologist, who considers the shopping mall to be a place where young people meet, negotiate their identities and assert their dignity. As he puts it, it is the place where they come of age (Langman, “Neon Cages” 58). All in all, through discussing the ideas of de Certeau, Fiske and Langman, this chapter looks at the social practices of shopping that establish the significance of a shopping mall. It focuses on the discussion about what shoppers do and what they understand by “shopping” and why the young people serve as a good example of the disempowered.

Chapter Two, “Women Go Shopping” applies to the empowerment of women in the process of shopping and explores what shopping can reveal about gender dynamics in society. It is argued here that female shoppers constitute a kind of resistance towards the patriarchal system in which men are the dominant individuals. In his work on popular culture, John Fiske explores the sense of feminine empowerment inside the shopping mall and views shopping as an activity that has a rather liberating meaning for women. This exclusive female practice brings them not only apparent self-esteem and independence but it also enables them to mock masculine power and disrupt the established gender organization in the society where man is always the dominant gender. Also the approach of Mica Nava, a contemporary cultural theorist and feminist, is of great importance in this chapter. Nava understands capitalism as an exploitation of both the consumers and the producers, and points out the limitations of the neo-Marxist analysis cultural studies maintains. Unlike Fiske, she advocates that the practices of everyday life are not just various forms of resistance, providing the ideological struggle over meaning; this view seems too narrow for her and therefore she employs the idea that these practices are primarily driven by desires, dreams and a need for consolation. Nava leaves the idea of ideological struggle behind and allows the shoppers to enjoy themselves while shopping. She views the activity of shopping in a rather positive way, weighted in the favor of shoppers.

Since, as Fiske claims in his work, “culture is the constant process of producing meanings of and from our social experience, and such meanings necessarily produce a social identity for the people involved,” (Reading 1) it is essential to devote the last part of the thesis to the ways identities are established through the process of shopping. The chapter “Shopping for Identities" deals with the changing status of individual identity in the context of shopping and considers the thoughts of Lauren Langman who views the shopping mall as a new signifying structure in the contemporary modern society. The main focus of this chapter is to show how identity and place are bound together in the practices of shopping and how the meaning of oneself is being created. Moreover, the chapter inquires about equality of the shoppers and freedom of their choice. It shows that while Alan Tomlinson views shopping as a mere illusion of freedom, Rob Shields maintains that empowerment is on the part of the shopper, whatever his financial status is, and thus claims relative equality of all shoppers. The main question Shields asks in his research, and which constitutes a subject in the last chapter, is: “How are we to think of the shopper’s gaze, the incitement and exchange of looks – that make up a large and often neglected part of the experience of shopping?” (“Spaces” 13) As Shields himself suggests, shopping malls must be viewed as places where shoppers look for the objects that define their identity, whether they be concrete items or just images; and thus this thesis also looks at the shopping mall in this particular way.
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