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UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 9 | Sep. 12, 2006

Buying Socks in Harbin

After our interview, Aunt Liu and I stroll over to the nearby clothing market, where she plans to purchase some new socks for herself and her daughter. I have spent a good part of the morning asking Aunt Liu questions about her family’s finances and their everyday consumer practices: Where do they shop for food, and why? Where do they purchase clothing? How often? Do they worry about buying sub-standard goods when they shop? During the interview, Aunt Liu insists that she rarely worries about the quality of the goods she purchases.

I am in the city of Harbin, in northeastern China, to investigate how recent and rapid economic and social changes in China are shaping the consumer habits and practices of ordinary Chinese city residents. I am interested in some big and sometimes abstract questions: How does economic and social inequality manifest itself in the realm of daily consumption? What kinds of consumer strategies do families of different economic levels adopt, and how do these strategies shape their daily lives?

But this afternoon, my goal is simply to observe. I stand at a market stall where stacks of short nylon socks embroidered with flowers are on display. Aunt Liu carefully inspects each individual sock before setting it aside as purchase-worthy. She pulls each sock over her hand, stretching her fingers apart so she can spot any flaws — a pull, run, or mis-stitch. Each time Aunt Liu discovers a problem, she insistently points it out to the sock vendor, who rolls her eyes in frustration at Aunt Liu’s earnestness. After 20 minutes or so, Aunt Liu finally manages to select 10 pairs of socks, and she digs around in her cloth bag for her wad of money. Later, we stop to purchase pantyhose from another stall, and Aunt Liu repeats this careful inspection of the merchandise.

Aunt Liu’s behaviour is part of what I have come to understand as a “stratification of risk” in relation to consumption, shopping, and marketplace practices in urban China today. In particular, low-income shoppers like Aunt Liu spend their limited incomes in marketplaces offering few or no quality guarantees, whereas wealthier shoppers opt for higher-status settings that offer service and merchandise guarantees. This results in fundamentally distinct experiences of markets and consumption and in dramatically different sets of shopping strategies and consumer practices. Although she herself denies that she engages in such anxious shopping behaviours, Aunt Liu’s careful inspection of merchandise marks her as a low-income, low-status urbanite in China today.

It is my hope that the interviews and observations I conduct during this summer research trip will enable me to explore in some detail the contours of a stratified consumer culture in urban China. Ultimately, I am interested in both what stratified consumer practices reflect about inequality as well as the ways in which such practices actually create urban inequalities. Indeed, these different shopping practices and stratified consumer mindsets are themselves a form of inequality and a fundamental aspect of urban culture in China today.

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From: Asst. Prof. Amy Hanser
Harbin, Northeastern China

Amy Hanser, an Assistant Professor of Sociology, has spent six weeks in China’s far northeast interviewing people about their family consumption patterns as part of a new research project on consumerism in China. Among other things, she plans to integrate her findings into her course on social inequality.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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