A Theory of Shopping by Daniel Miller

Aug 01, 2009

A Theory of Shopping by Daniel Miller.

This book came up in my Interaction Design classes and was recommended by John Zimmerman. Someone did a short presentation on it in the class, and I remembered the book for more than a year, and now took the time to read it in full myself.

Shopping in the Western world is typically thought of as glamorous materialistic hedonistic activity. Like when you’re buying fancy clothes or shoes or a new iPod or something like that. Miller talks about a very different kind of shopping—daily groceries. It’s much less glamorous, but he shows that shopping is about much more than hedonism or sustenance, and that housewivery deserves a deeper interpretation than commonly thought. He explores the key concepts of shopping—treat and trift, and how shopping is sometimes used as a relationship-building tool. You can find out a lot about someone by going shopping with them. (Very true, I say.) And to the people doing shopping for the family, it’s a genuine expression of love, by catering to the explicit needs and requirements of people in the household, but also trying to mold them towards improvement, e.g buying them healthier food than they would themselves.

One point he makes refutes the common thinking that rich people are more materialistic. He talks about single moms who have trouble making ends meet and are very concerned when they must send their kids to other kids’ birthdays, and they have trouble meeting the social norms and buying gifts of the value that are expected. So, in a sense, not-so-well-off people are more materialistic because they are much more preoccupied with things and what they can (not) buy.

He then goes on to connect shopping to sacrifice, as known by many indigenous peoples. The main point of both shopping and sacrifice is that the results hard labor are finally turned into consumption. From that point of view, indeed, there is not that much difference between sacrificing the first harvest to the gods, or spending your hard-earned money to provide for the rest of your family.

I love books like this because they drag me away from the computer and tech world, and open a window into the real lives of real people, in this case half a planet away in North London. Not only is the ethnography compelling to read, but the deeper argument about sacrifice connects the mundane tasks with wider cosmology.