Producing Consumption: Doing Work On A Supermarket Shop Floor

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This dissertation addresses the dearth of research on the retail sector by adding significant data to theories of consumption that privilege the consumer and render the retailers and their millions of workers invisible. Based on an innovative methodology of reflexive participant observation as a full-time retail clerk at a large urban supermarket, my findings overturn the stereotype of lowwage work as low-skill. The conceptualization of work as a process of "doing" allows for the inclusion of the compromises and contentions involved in working on a supermarket shop floor. The study begins with a discussion of the methodology of reflexive participant observation and is grounded by an historical account of the rise of the supermarket superpowers. The main chapters illustrate the concept of "producing consumption": stocking the supermarket shelves, staffing the store, and "doing work" on the shop floor. Stocking and staffing the store illustrate two contradictions of food retailing. Although supermarket shelves seem flush with items, the process of stocking belies the variety. Second, although lowwage workers are assumed to be interchangeable, the rationalized hiring process requires them to be skilled at being unskilled. The socialization of the supermarket worker and the processes involved in learning to manage the self and others are discussed in the following chapters. The mental and physical demands on the self illustrate the specificity of retail jobs and "doing work" on the supermarket shop floor includes unpacking cases of food as well as developing strategies (some unintentionally detrimental) for dealing with the drone of repetitive tasks, an enacted social inequality, and the encouraged subordination of self. Inherent in interactive service work is the presence of customers, and employees developed informal scripts to manage customer service interactions. Social networks provided much needed support for employees but gossip also worked as a form of surveillance and social control. Premised on the need to include retailing in theories of consumption, supermarkets in studies of the food system, and workers in our analyses of both, this research illustrates the embodied reality of "doing work" and "producing consumption" in the food system.

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Service Work; Retail Industry; Supermarkets; Social Inequality; Consumption; United States


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Sobal, Jeffery

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Williams, Linda Brooks
McMichael, Philip David

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Development Sociology

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Ph. D., Development Sociology

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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dissertation or thesis

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