Woodward, I., Emmison, M., and Smith, P.  (2000)  'Consumerism, disorientation and postmodern space: a modest test of an immodest theory', in British Journal of Sociology, Vol 51, No 2: 339 - 54

Many commentators believe that post-modern spaces offers a distinct experience for people using them. They are organised around 'consumption, leisure and the image... and are regulated by surveillance, gate keeping and crowd disciplinary technologies' (339). There are further supposed to be links between the buildings and certain kinds of developments in human consciousness:  'they also exert a determinate impact on subjectivity' (340).

Jameson's (1991) essay on the Los Angeles Bonaventure Hotel is the classic example. The interiors are supposed to be so complicated that people experience anxiety and disorientation, as their normal methods of location and navigation are overwhelmed. Such disorientation is one of the things to be tested. Soja (1989) emphasizes this effect as well. Disorientation leads participants vulnerable to advanced capitalism: they cannot grasp totality, and they are vulnerable to consumerism.

The shopping mall also offers a classic location for this kind of analysis. For example, Shields 1994 refers to a  'drifting  "mall- walker"' pulled and pushed by the attractions on offer (341). Works such as de Certeau stress the politics of everyday life where pedestrians confront capitalist rationality, but for people such as Shields, such activities have lost their political meaning: flaneurie, for example, is induced by the spatial logic of the shopping mall. In this way, marxist perceptions about consumerism more generally find a new embodiment. However, these claims  'remain largely untested' (342), and authors often simply cite each other.

It is possible to test four concrete hypotheses, however:

Hypothesis one --  Spaces which are more postmodern should generate stronger feelings of disorientation and spaces which are less postmodern...
Hypothesis two --  Persons who report acute disorientation will be characterised by a more hedonistic attitude towards the shopping experience...
Hypothesis three -- Younger people will be less disoriented than older people  [who have grown up with modernist spaces]...
Hypothesis four -- Persons to make more visits to a given mall will be less disoriented than persons to visit the mall only infrequently  [which is the authors' own view that people can learn to negotiate postmodern space and overcome any disorientation] (342-3).

This alternative and opposing hypothesis is to be tested by examining the ways in which shoppers find their way around malls. There is some existing literature to draw upon, including studies of 'wayfinding'-- the ways in which people understand physical space and 'generate problem-solving strategies on the basis of their shopping needs' (343).  [Some interesting earlier research on such wayfinding is summarised, pages 343-344.] Thus some people develop 'active' modes of 'shopper search', navigating by following their own 'order of commodity acquisition', while others are more passive and allow actual encounters to dictate this order. Other studies refer to the ways in which people process 'social and cultural cues' to navigate their way around'. Males generally tend to be better at developing spatial strategies, so some experimental work indicates. Other studies indicate a kind of ['rational choice'] approach, involving a balance of costs and opportunities. Overall, these suggest that  'the disorienting effects of design, consumerism and age will be weakened by the influence of rehearsal and the stock of knowledge and skills acquired by shoppers over time' (344).

There is even some support from more general social theory. Bourdieu argues that practice involves complex negotiations within total systems that may not be understood --  'the Kabyle [Algerian] peasant is able to accomplish goals within a semiotic universe that seems every bit as complex and bewildering as the Bonaventure Hotel' (344). An ethnomethodological study by Sharrock and Anderson (1979) showed how visitors to hospital were able to organise the directional signs into a system of their own. This work suggests that  'people should be able to adapt post-modern spaces given the opportunity to develop practical routines... Repeat visits to a given locale are one way [in which this happens]' (344).

The authors chose three shopping malls in Australia for study, and invited shoppers to fill in questionnaires on their shopping behaviour and experiences. The malls reflected different levels of postmodernist architecture, graded from 'minimally postmodern' to 'highly postmodern'  (345). 165 shoppers were sampled, divided into those shopping on weekdays and those shopping at weekends. Roughly equal proportions of men and women were sampled. [Quota sampling was chosen --'every 5th person in their line of sight' (346).

Shoppers were also tested for their responses to statements about disorientation or inability to navigate. Only one-third of shoppers felt disoriented and unsure about navigation. Shoppers were asked to recall their experiences during earlier visits. About 26 per cent of them admitted they were slightly lost and confused on the first visit, but only three per cent on their most recent visit [so the earlier figure of one third is a personal aggregate or average?] . 51 per cent said they had initial difficulty finding their way around on the first visit, but 25 per cent on the most recent visit. The different types of mall seem to have had no effect on disorientation [compare this self-report data with the regression analysis below though].

The literature on shopping styles was used to construct  'shopping style vignettes' (347). Early work had suggested four basic types of shopper -- the economic, the personalising, the ethical and the apathetic shopper [how discrete were these I wonder -- I seem to be able to shop in all 4 modes at different times]. Other researchers have noticed differences in terms of whether they were brand or store loyal, problem solvers or  'psycho-socialisers -- that is, more inclined to be influenced by existing consumer choices' (347). Using such work on shopper typologies is a break with the more familiar material on routines and rituals involved in shopping  [which stresses the cultural values involved]. It is common also to use ethnographic or textual methods rather than survey research. Shoppers were asked to compare themselves to the different vignettes, enabling them to be classified on a four point scale ranging from not enjoying shopping to loving shopping. There was a gender difference here, with women opting for the more enjoyable and social kinds. Subsequent interviews confirmed this, showing that for example, women were 'more likely to arrange to meet friends, dine in the mall, stay longer, and engage in the purchase of commodities that are contingent on a browsing mode of shopping, such as fashion' (348).

All the data was subject to regression analysis with the dependent variable as levels of disorientation. Independent variables were considered to be mall type, gender, shopping style, age, and frequency of visit in the last four weeks. A table on page 349 gives the overall results. Initially, mall type did seem to have an effect on disorientation [when entered first], which provides some evidence that the most postmodernised mall produced more disorientation  [hypothesis one]. That effect persisted when demographic variables and shopping styles were added. However, when the effects of frequency of visit were added to the analysis  'the importance of mall type wanes, and our competing hypothesis [4] that persons who make more visits to a given mall will be less disoriented than persons who visit the mall infrequently is confirmed' (349). The evidence did not support the other two hypotheses.

The results are not conclusive, because the sample size was small and not random. Studying shoppers rather than a sample that includes non shoppers could also introduce distortion by including those who happen already to have 'particular forms of disorientation or orientations to consumerism'  (350). However, the sample did not only include enthusiastic mall shoppers, and staying away altogether might be another indication of flexibility. Conducting similar research in larger and more recent malls would be interesting, though.

The authors think that the evidence for hypothesis 4 is the most interesting. It seems to support the idea of active and pragmatic visitors, and suggest that  'the influence of architecture is eroded over time and consequently the fatalistic vision of the mall by scholars and post-modern architectural theorists is misplaced' (350). Further research might investigate the ways in which 'spatial and navigational capital' is actually acquired. One intriguing possibility is that full-time workers are in a better position to acquire it than casual visitors: this runs 'counter to traditional patterns of stratification under capitalism' (351). The relation of this kind of capital with the other kinds should be investigated. Finally, Bourdieu can be used to understand why so many theorists and academics appear to have experienced disorientation. Anthropologists attempting to theorise about practice also experience it: it is an example of the  '(disad) vantage points of spectators' (351), and leads to an overemphasis on structural accounts rather than practical action.'Indeed, it is the intellectual, not the shopper, who constitutes the ideal typical flâneur of contemporary postmodern spaces' (351). The results arise from  'academic-cum-touristic activity' (351) not the everyday way finding strategies that enable participants to navigate. This intellectual perspective seems not to have led to particular 'methodological and theoretical reflexivity', but to a self confirming theoretical perspective --'the analyst's own lack of practical mastery is projected back into their social theory and forwards on to the people and places they study' (352).

[This is the most valuable part of the study in my view, and says very elegantly what I was blundering about trying to say in my own 1996 book, or in the piece on the Disney visitor in attempting to explain the curious pleasures of intellectual detachment as opposed to the more bodily pleasures of the participants.]

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