Editorial Note by the Guest Editor
Johan Fischer, Roskilde University
The Retail Revolution and a Changing Consumer Culture: Spotlight on South Asia
This issue of Perspectives explores why and how landscapes of production, trade, regulation, and consumption are transformed in contemporary South Asia. It does so by exploring a specific relationship or tension: that of bazaar economies and standardised economies. Conventionally, bazaars or bazaar economies of South Asia and elsewhere are associated with trust, personalised exchange, authenticity, and exoticism. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously described bazaar economies as traditional and lacking in organisation.
Right now, a major transition from a bazaar economy to a standardised economy is taking place across South Asia and not least in India and Pakistan. In standardised markets/economies, buyers can collect information about economically substitutable commodities prior to purchase through direct comparisons or consultations with other buyers. Hence, in the standardised commodity market, brand names and trademarks work as classificatory devices through which the provenance of goods becomes identifiable and consequently their quality becomes more predictable. With the declining importance of personal loyalty within the labour market (landscapes of retail in India and digitised financial markets in Pakistan), experience, training, skills, and formal qualifications assume increasing importance. In standardised shopping spaces, such as super/hypermarkets/malls, and also cyberspace/telecommunications, a vast amount of information is transmitted. Furthermore, super/hypermarkets/malls are themselves standardised spaces in terms of their design, allowing for the proper handling of goods. Standardised spaces or economies, physical as well as virtual, are often criticised for embodying materialism and globalised capitalism in artificial milieus reserved for the privileged classes in contradistinction to the bazaar which is accessible and ‘democratic’. It is this relation or tension that the two Perspectives contributions explore.
Saikat Maitra, Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, studies work-regimes, skill training, and education in India based on ethnographic fieldwork. Dr Sebastian Schwecke, Director at Max Weber Forum for South Asian Studies, Delhi, works on markets in modern India with a focus on exchange, debt, and trust. Their contribution explores why and how retail landscapes change in India with specific attention to new consumerist spaces and a corporate culture attuned to the demands of a new India. The image of the Indian retail revolution, the authors argue, has little in common with the actual practices of retail.
Noman Baig, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Habib University, Karachi, examines the intersection of economy and religion in Pakistan based on ethnographies of moral discourse and meditative practices. Noman’s contribution is an ethnography of Karachi bazaars in the context of the opening of markets to globalised forces of capitalism, consumerism, and technology. He shows that bazaar practices and imaginations are gradually shifting towards rationalisation. More specifically, Noman’s contribution explores labourers’ use of emerging branchless banking systems to transfer value from urban to rural areas.
Consumer landscapes in India and Pakistan have significantly changed since the 1990s and the consequences of these developments have reconfigured the relationship between bazaars and standardised markets. Despite the magnitude of South Asia’s retail revolution and rapidly changing forms of consumer culture, these transformations and their effects are not well understood in empirical terms, that is, ‘thick’ descriptions of how everyday political economy frames and conditions the production, trade, regulation, and consumption of a wide variety of commodities and services. The 1990s reforms allowed for the presence of multinationals whose commodities and services are mostly associated with the standardised economy.
These transformations also mirror wider societal changes, most notably evidenced by increased affluence and better material status as well as a large proportion of middle-class groups involved in production, trade, regulation, and consumption. In turn, these transformations mirror wider societal inequalities between those with access to consumer privileges and spaces and those that are left behind. For example, agro-food chains are being rapidly transformed largely because of changes in income, consumption, and work patterns propelled by economic development. Marketing is being strengthened through the gradual liberalisation of the retail sector, coupled with an emphasis on investment and the rise of organised retail.
My research, for example, revealed that SPAR, a Dutch multinational that manages food retail stores, was among the first chains to introduce the sale of fresh meat within its hypermarkets in India. Nevertheless, traditional butcher shops still retain their importance within the Indian retail landscape. Notably, butcher shops are predominantly located in the bazaar while super/hypermarkets need more space that is often found at the outskirts of cities. There is a world of difference between the traditional butcher and super/hypermarkets and this example shows that the relationship between these two types of economies is not only changing but also that coexistence is possible, even if this is fraught with multiplicity. It is this changing and complex relationship that is at the core of this issue of Perspectives.
Noman Baig on Disruptive Transformation: Digitising Financial Practices in Pakistan.
Saikat Maitra and Sebastian Schwecke on Shopping Elsewhere. Retail Revolutions and the Spectacle of Retail in Contemporary India.
For previous issues of Perspectives, please click the respective links:
November 2020 (Inaugural issue)
Note: The views and opinions expressed in the Perspectives are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the journal’s or the publisher’s position.