In anthropology, culture is the full range of learned human behavior patterns. (O’Neil, 2006). In the United States, this culture could be defined as a massively multi-ethnic, materialistic consortium of merging cultures from around the world. Known as the melting pot the world over, America has the distinction of being a nation built from emigration. While smaller subcultures exist and are referred to as the American Way, they are not mutually exclusive, nor are they sole proprietors of that title. So, when challenged to conduct an ethnography and desiring to focus on Americans, the search began to find a site that offers the greatest convergence of these various subcultures. A possible solution: Wal-Mart.
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Everyone shops at Wal-Mart. This may seem like a gross generalization, but, an analytical study of register activity conducted by the NPD Group, a global analytics and survey firm, showed that a staggering 95 percent (let that sink in) of Americans bought something from Wal-Mart in 2016 (Where Consumers Spent in 2016, 2017). Even a brief period of observation in this institution of American commercialism must provide a terrific opportunity to see a cross-section of our vibrant multi-cultural society.
Through the allotted 25 minutes, four anthropological concepts emerged. First, a pattern of gender norms was identified. This is closely related to the second concept, the family dynamic. Third was socialization. Due to the density of people in a relatively confined area, cultural norms were both demonstrated and could observed being passed to the next generation. And finally, a definitive material culture was assessed by observing the types of goods being bought. Being limited in observation time and the scope of this ethnography, the conclusions drawn are likewise incomplete.
With more than 5,000 stores in the U.S. alone (Wal-Mart Locations Around the World – United States, 2018) the layout of both the store and it’s supporting parking lot are familiar to most of us95% of us apparently! For this observation, the store is fed from a large rectangular parking lot with row upon row of horizontally oriented parking stalls providing space for just over 500 cars. It being just after noon on a Saturday, the store is doing a brisk business and throughout the parking lot, the activity is frenetic. Cars and SUVs zip up and down the aisles hunting for that premium parking spot close to the entrances. It is here we see our first hints of deviance, speeding and cutting across parking stalls were both very commonalmost to the point of becoming the social norm. The vehicles run the gamut of cost from six-figure German imports to rickety dirt bikes and everything in between. Business is so good at this store as to warrant the permanent presence of a police cruiser.
Heading through the triple-wide automatic sliding doors, the ubiquitous paid Greeter says a perfunctory hello to passers-by that only vaguely acknowledge him. The store itself is immense. Hundreds of feet in both length and width, it is lit by wall to wall soft fluorescent lighting that only just pales next to the midday sun that was baking the parking lot outside. The noise is a muted rumble of dozens of people, shopping cart wheels on hard floors, the shuffle of feet and, above it all, the higher-pitched and unmoderated voices of excited children exclaiming over this or that bauble. The firmly conditioned air is a steadfast 74 degrees based on my watch mounted thermometer. As shoppers tromp up and down the aisles they are assailed by a myriad of smells: coffee, plastic, rayon fabric, ozone, body odor, and various perfumes and colognes.
While the purpose of this ethnography is not to explore the demographics of Newport Country, a quick review of that data will help to identify if the observed population is a fair representation of the feeder community. According to the 2017 U.S. Census Bureau, Newport County’s population of roughly 80,000 is predominantly white (86.2%) with Hispanics (5.33%) and black people (2.96%) making up the bulk of the minority. Population by sex is almost completely even at 50.4% female. The median age is 44.2 years old (U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts, 2018). With a market penetration of 95%, stores like this Wal-Mart offer a terrific opportunity to perform an ethnographic study over a random sampling of the population.
Throughout the observation period a couple of gender trends became evident. First, was the distribution of genders in the various departments of the store. Women were observed in disproportionate numbers shopping in children’s clothing, housewares, and the infant care departments when compared to men by a ratio of three to one. Most of the men were found shopping in typically masculine departments like sporting goods, automotive and electronics, outnumbering women two to one. Overall, more women were in the store than men with 57 of 78 adult shoppers being women.
Another disparity was the number of each group of adults that was accompanied by children. Women were again the stronger showing. Of 33 distinct sets of children, 21 were accompanied solely by an adult female, six were accompanied solely by an adult male, and the remaining six were accompanied by both an adult male and an adult female.
From these observations, it may be assumed that American women are predominantly focused on the traditionally feminine roles when shopping for household goods whereas men are more likely to shop for prototypically masculine household items in support of kinetic (sports and outdoor diversions) and technical activities. A second conclusion might be that women are more likely to be charged with child care, even outside of the home based on the higher incidence of female guardianship observed.
Some insight into family dynamics was also gained through this ethnography. Most notably was the number of family units (for the purposes of this observation, any group consisting of at least one adult leading at least one child or one geriatric) when compared to single adult shoppers. Family units represented 68 percent of all shoppers. This would follow reason since the store boasts departments for every age from infant to geriatric. While shopping alone would certainly be more expeditious and less contentious, it seemed that shopping as a family was more important.
Not only were children more often led by women, but multi-generational groups also appeared to center around a woman more often than they did a man. In fact, even when an adult male was present, most of the conversation and, ultimately the decisions on what product to select, was conducted between the woman and her elders. This would imply a matriarchal dynamic in the context of shopping here. Interestingly, this held true even over a couple interactions that occurred in the automotive departments.
Another facet of this dynamic centered around the shopping cart. In the majority of cases, the adult that was pushing the shopping cart was the ego of the group. The path around the store, the pace of that transit and quite often the decision on what did or did not go in were all decided by the pusher of the cart. Females were predominantly in this position, edging out the men in family groups 23 to 14.
Socializing is the act of passing on or learning a cultures rules and values. On several occasions, parents were seen taking the opportunity of shopping to socialize their children. Teaching them to modulate their voices, keep their hands to themselves and exercise restraint were the predominant themes of this instruction. From this, it might be concluded that American culture is a conservative one where public behavior is concerned! These acts of socialization were reinforced even by apparent total strangers through either verbal or non-verbal means. Some adults would give looks or sighs at social deviance and some would straight up comment to either the offender or the offender’s apparent guardian, offering encouragement or criticism. Neither form of input seemed to be particularly welcome, but the parents would invariably reinvigorate their instruction to the children.
Beyond this, there was very little real interaction between groups or family units. Most of the time, these parties were more likely to avoid eye contact, move to avoid close proximity to strangers, and were more often than not self-centered. This is not to say that overt rudeness was displayed at any point, more a general indifference. These are not the norms of community and shared experience we normally associate with American living.
Consumerism is a primary facet of American life and that was observed at the registers. However, without discussing each purchase with the shoppers themselves, it is difficult to say if the goods bought were selected for materialistic reasons. Most of the items in these carts were not what would normally be considered essentials. Sure, there were food stuffs and basic household goods, but the vast majority of items purchased were for entertainment, quality of life, and luxury items.
Based on a very limited observation window I would draw the following conclusions. American culture, at least in the context of shopping is slightly matriarchal, with strong familial ties and a healthy respect for elders. (Traditionally) Feminine roles are predominantly performed by women and masculine roles by men. Public behavior tends towards the conservative at least until you get to the parking lot! Wal-Mart does provide a healthy cross-section of the local community, but I do not believe it is the best representation of American culture. People don’t go to Wal-Mart to socialize or interact and so it is unlikely to see any real examples of culture beyond the ravenous consumerism that is our societies bad side. From my personal experience in less urbanized areas, I would paint a much warmer and communal picture of our culture than what I saw at this Wal-Mart.
Two People of Wal-Mart an Ethnography Experiment. (2019, Jun 24).
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