Food Shopping in Urban China in 1996 and 2006: Homogenization and Stratification

Veeck, Ann; Hongyan Yu; Burns, Alvin C.
January 2008
Advances in Consumer Research;2008, Vol. 35, p682
Academic Journal
Over ten years ago we first collected data related to the widesweeping changes in food consumption behavior that had occurred in urban areas of China in the post-reform years (Veeck 2000; Veeck and Burns 2005). Since that time, in response to state reform policies and market mechanisms, changes related to the food provisioning of families have been, if anything, even more rapid. These myriad changes lead to a number of questions related to how this transformation of the marketplace is being experienced by consumers. Since food shopping and other food-related tasks are highly social experiences (Lupton 1996; Valentine 1999), as well as serving individual, task-driven needs, a primary question involves how new shopping patterns alter and absorb roles and identities. Are these changes in food provisioning behavior reflecting, or even contributing to, a breakdown of social systems and the rise of individualization that is frequently associated with modernity (Beck 1992; Giddens 1991)? As urban dwellers become farther removed from the sources of their food, they are relying on increasingly distant and complex chains of production, distribution, and processing to deliver their food. Some researchers have associated the shroud of mystery that accompanies modern food systems with an environment of distrust (Fischler 1980; Mennell, Murcott, and Van Otterloo 1992). This leads to the question of how Chinese urban consumers evaluate new food options and ensure the safety of food that they serve to themselves and family members. Another important question involves the extent to which emerging social distinctions are being defined and altered through food-related tasks. A growing disparity in China in occupational mobility, access to resources, and, simply, life opportunities has been well-documented (e.g. Bian 2002). Given the primacy of food-related activities in defining relationships and establishing roles and identities, the food retail environment in Chinese cities is an important place to examine the ongoing stratification of society. The data from this research are based on two sets of food shopping observations and interviews, conducted in 1996 and 2006 in urban areas of China. In both studies, we asked each of the participants to allow us to accompany them as they conducted a routine food shopping trip, starting and ending at their homes. Following the shopping trips, we conducted an interview with the participants in their homes and surveyed their cooking and dining areas. For both sets of observation/interviews we took hundreds of photographs of the food shopping trips and the homes. We audiotaped our observations from the marketplace, as well as each interview.…


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