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The other side of otherness – Reflections on fieldwork in Sainsbury’s

A supermarket store in the posh London Borough of Islington might come across as an unlikely choice for a research project in anthropology – a discipline whose historical association with the study of the exotic and the esoteric by (mostly) White, European men in remote places is well-known. But here was I, an Indian student finding my way in London, hoping to unravel the “other”, in this case the people of London, by studying the Malinowskian “imponderabilia” of the social life of the average British citizen as observed in the supermarket. The Sainsbury’s store, where I was first intiated into the ritual of supermarket shopping, was to be my “field” – that geographical space where I was to construct the “sense of a ‘there’ to ‘be’ in” (Coleman and Collins 2006). For people from India, the supermarkets and the large malls of the West have always symbolised the kind of material wealth and luxury we aspire for in our part of the world; which is why in India, the coming up of new malls and supermarkets are routinely celebrated as a progressive march towards the ‘Western’ model of development. Thus the field that I had chosen also bore a symbolic significance. The project was intended to be an exercise in understanding the material culture of the erstwhile coloniser and documenting, in the process, my own experience of otherness.
The father figure of British social anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski, had famously studied the Trobriand Islanders braving cultural alienation and lack of knowledge of the local language. In deciding to study the neighbourhood Sainsbury’s store though, the nature of challenges I grappled with were of a different nature altogether. As far as language goes, my English skills were on par with the average Londoner, thanks to the English education I received back in my school in India. This ensured that I did not suffer from any significant communication problems with potential informants in the field. Cultural alienation, however, was something that I had to grapple with in my initial weeks in London. One of the earliest instances of cultural alienation had happened at this Sainsbury’s store. The first time I had walked into this store in September, I was awestruck by the sheer size of it. The shop has a floor space of 36,000 square feet, the store manager later told me in an interview conducted in December. Never before had I come across such an immense variety of food items representing a multitude of world cultures. I could count more than a hundred different types of cheese and butter alone! The store, I noticed, had a separate World Food section stocking everything from Chinese herbs to Indian tikka. On my first visit, I ended up getting lost inside the store and had forgotten what I had come to buy in the first place. Another aspect of the store that had captured my attention was the system of the self check-outs. I found them alientating because it meant that it was not a smiling billing counter assistant you went to with your day’s purchase but to a machine that gave you instructions in a monotone. Though store service personnel were around to offer help, doing so also made one feel clumsy and foolish.
Later on as I began to reflect on these experiences at the store (and I do not have notes for these first impressions) the questions forming inside my head were this: are Londoners insatiable gluttons? Or was it the free market principle of expanded choice as a marker of human freedom, working itself out on the shelves of Sainsbury’s? Or was it simply a colonial hangover to feed on the exotic cuisines of the global South? I could not have confirmed my doubts by walking up to a shopper and asking, for instance, if he preferred to choose from more than one hundred different types of cheese to go with his wine. Nor could I have gone to a ‘White’ woman pushing her trolley down the aisle and asked if people of her race had a craving for exotic food. To me it appeared both inappropriate and rude to interrupt an unsuspecting shopper thus because they came across as if they did not wish to be disturbed. I was new to the city and did not know what the code of acceptable behaviour was. I used cultural relativism as a means to make sense of the otherness I experienced. Back in India, grocery shopping is a modest affair. You usually go to a small kirana store round the corner where the shop keeper, whom you have probably known for years, would even offer food on credit if necessary. If I were to return to the neighbourhood in Kolkata where I grew up, my local grocer would identify me by my pet name, smile a lot and make polite enquiries about my family back home as he packs my day’s purchase. I knew such possibilities could never arise here in London. When I had raised the issue of how impersonal and alienating the self check-out machines were, my course tutor (Richard Axelby, personal communication, 2011) responded that it would be awkward to go to a store and read out a list of goods – a dozen eggs, some milk, etc. – and the self check-out thus afforded more privacy to the shopper. This comment provided a window into the mind of the ‘native’ British citizen. To me it seemed that the concept of individuality had been over-emphasised in this part of the world. I revived these early impressions from memory and wrote them down later, after I started the research project, keeping in mind Malinowski’s observation of how “certain subtle peculiarities, which make an impression as long as they are novel, cease to be noticed as soon as they become familiar” (1922).
I was looking to have some detailed interviews with people of English origin to discuss their supermarket shopping experience. In Michael Houlgate I had found the knowledgeable informant most ethnographers wish to have. Sam Pack has emphasised the need for a friendly relationship between the ethnographer and the informant for a richer and more consistent final product (2006). Michael was a flatmate at Paul Robeson House, the student residence where I lived, was English, and had been shopping at supermarkets for groceries ever since he remembered. This personal rapport, I thought, would ensure research cooperation, and given my friend’s interest in matters culinary (he is a die-hard fan of the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver), I hoped to benefit from his knowledge of British food and culture as well. I decided to accompany him on one of his shopping trips to Sainsbury’s. The research role I adopted was one of a shopper, so that I could participate in the activity while using that as an opportunity to make relevant observations as well. I was comfortable adopting this role as it afforded me the flexibility for entering and exiting the field at will and provided opportunities for informal conversations as well.

* * *

Excerpts from field notes on shopping trip to the Sainsbury’s with Michael 

It was around 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and the store had a decent number of people. Right at the entrance was a stack of newspapers with cigarettes and mint beside. The store beyond was divided into long rows of shelves stocking meat and fish on one end, then fruits, vegetables and flowers; followed by toiletries, milk and eggs, cheese and butter, breads, confectionary, et al. We started out by looking at oranges on sale for ‘half price’. Michael told me he would never pick up ones with the ‘organic’ label in it because they cost more. We drifted towards the section which had ‘Fresh fish’ written on top. Michael said, “Fresh doesn’t mean it is freshly caught. It just means it is not frozen.” Products sourced from Britain carried a ‘Taste of Britain’ logo on them, but such items appeared to be fewer when compared to imported food. My eye also fell on the salmon that carried the ‘Responsibly Sourced’ label on it. I asked a store helper what that meant and he said that they were intended to allay buyer fears that the sea is being over-fished for profits. I also noticed how Michael did not value human interaction much really. When I told him how back in India the local grocer is likely to know us by our name, his reply was: “Oh! I don’t think people here really care so much about that.”
I spoke to Shahid (name changed upon request), a part-time store helper who was an immigrant from Pakistan. I caught him giving me curious looks, perhaps because I was taking down notes, and thought he might be interested in a conversation. He was helping customers having trouble with the self check-outs. I asked him why so many people were having a problem with it. “The problem is people do not know how to use them. We cannot train them all,” he said, mildly frustrated at those who kept turning to him for help. Then why have them at all, I asked, to which he said it was company policy which he could not comment upon. I also asked him questions about his hours of work, his pay, to understand the life of an immigrant employee in a supermarket store better. Shahid answered everything but requested me to keep his name anonymous as he thought I might publish the report. He said I looked like a journalist (which I am back in India). I agreed with an assurance that this was only meant for a college assignment. I approached the store manager for an interview who said he could only give me a few minutes for asking questions. I asked about the size of the store, the population it caters to, buyer preferences, etc. He answered and also proudly declared that during Christmas, the store had served 98,000 customers with record sales worth a million pounds. When I tried probing further on how much food they stock is out-of-season, whether the multi-cultural nature of the food available was due to demand from immigrant population, etc. he advised me to approach their head office in Holborn and excused himself.

After this field experience when I returned to my desk to start writing I wondered how to make sense of it all. I also realised that while taking down field notes I had spent all my effort in recording what others were saying or doing, but had not documented my own thoughts or actions. Much of what I had observed in the store – the labels on food packets, the store manager boasting about profits, the reluctant helper at the self check-outs and Michael looking for the best bargains – were at best fleeting impressions of the social world in which the average Londoner lives. I revisited the store a few more times, hoping to meet familiar faces and probing further as to what cultural meanings the supermarket created in the lives of ordinary people. I could not find Shahid again, but I did manage to “cast the net” on a few customers, as some anthropologists have described their experience of convincing unfamiliar people to speak to them (Rabinow, 1977 pp. 126).
However, I had this constant feeling of getting nowhere with my thesis. I worried about my report failing to be anthropological enough to impress my course supervisors. Would this wandering around in the store even count as meaningful “fieldwork”, I thought. Reassuringly, I read Paul Rabinow landing up in Morocco and declaring that now that he was in the field, everything he did there was fieldwork (1977, pp.11). Thus with no rigid template to adhere to I was free to follow my instinct. I decided to investigate into the economic roots of the supermarket business to see whether the luxury of a global cuisine it afforded in this part of the world could be responsible for necessity elsewhere. This involved making connections between ‘local’ and ‘global’ processes which I hoped to do by investigating into the pricing of food sold at the supermarket, which spawned a ”buy more” culture, and seeing how it translated into economic benefits (or exploitation) for people in those parts of the world where the food was sourced from. As an afterthought, this idea was prompted perhaps by my readings on globalisation and neoliberalism for another coursework essay.
Access denied
But with the gatekeepers of information managing self-representations in ways that would promote their own interests (like the store manager I spoke to) and blocking access to data that would help me to understand the food business the task at hand seemed more difficult than ever. I visited the Holborn office of Sainsbury’s hoping to meet their representatives in the marketing and product planning unit. They denied access on account of excess work to meet Christmas sales target in the first week of December when I first approached them. Later when I called the customer care number seeking permission to interview higher officials, an executive replied, “Sorry. We are getting too many such requests from students for research access. We cannot entertain them all. You can fill up the online query form on our website and send it over and we will get back.” I filled up the query form and a week later I was directed to the corporate website of Sainsbury’s. Thus the only material I could gain access to was what the organisation had manufactured for public consumption. Back in the store I had to believe what I saw – the big banners claiming low prices and savings for the consumer, the labels proclaiming the product to be fresh. Studying a store that is part of a powerful corporate firm in the UK is not the same as walking into a “Third World” ghetto and interviewing a poor man. There are problems with “studying up” and other anthropologists who made similar attempts have managed to negotiate field access through the use of personal and professional networks (Julian, 2011) which I could not do as a newcomer in London.
The field and the transformation of the self
My intial conception of the Sainsbury’s store as a symbol of British culture began to fall apart after several field visits. I became aware of the dangers of broad assertions such as ‘English people crave for exotic food’ or London has a consumption culture driven by ‘greed’ as not all informants I encountered in the store fitted into this representation. I interviewed a lady in Sainsbury’s who only complained about how expensive food had become these days. Thus “being there” in the field resulted in my “ideas and notions being continually challenged and resisted by the actions and words of those within the setting” (Grills 1998, 4 cited by Dewalt, 2002, pp. 13). I also realised how the mental barriers of “us” and “them” that I had erected could not be maintained, because not only had my own relationship with “the field” changed through an unconscious process of assimilation into London culture, but, also because what was supposedly ‘British’ did not necessarily originate within the geographical confines of the country. When I asked Michael as to what an authentic British meal would comprise of he had laughed and said, “Oh! Bangers and mash maybe. But people of this generation no longer eat what you might consider “authentic” British. My grandmother does, but I don’t.” Michael then directed my attention toward the videos of Jamie Oliver in which he traces the origin of what many consider British food today to immigrant cultures from all over the world. For example, ‘fish and chips’ originally came from Jewish communities.
For these reasons I concur with what Gupta and Ferguson have said about the field being “a highly overdetermined setting for the discovery of difference” (1997). As Appadurai has pointed out, “the ethnoscapes around the world are no longer familiar anthropological objects, insofar as groups are no longer tightly territorialised, spatially bounded, historically self-conscious, or culturally homogenous” (Appadurai 1991 : 191, 196 as quoted by Gupta and Ferguson, 1997). To resolve the dichotomy between the local and the global then, I followed the ideas of George Marcus on multi-sited ethnography in which I could preserve the ethnographic focus of observation and participation on the Sainsbury’s store, while developing by other means and methods, the world system context. This way I could work in archives, adapt the work of macrotheorists and other kinds of scholars “as a mode of contextualizing portraiture” in terms of which I described and analysed my local subjects (Marcus, 1995, pp.2). What I had gleaned through my field work was how the idea of a local English culture had been marginalised by macro-processes of the global food industry. To borrow a term used by Rapport and Overing (2007) modern-day supermarkets are ‘zones of transit’ where culture is produced on the move and actions performed within this space could not be understood in isolation from the larger processes of globalisation determining them. Therefore, I turned to secondary literature on the subject of food, globalisation and culture to construct the broader canvas within which I was to locate my subjects. The time that I had spent in the field gathering data were at best an exercise in anthropological legitimation. I retained most of the details I gathered from informants in the field about their experience of shopping and food including their fascination for world cuisine, but held back aspects of the conversation such as discussions on the London weather (which I often used as a way to begin a conversation with strangers) since it was irrelevant to my study.
Quoting Paul Ricouer, Paul Rabinow has noted that fieldwork is about the comprehension of the self by the detour of the comprehension of the other (1977). In attempting to locate “the culturally mediated and historically situated self” of the ordinary Londoner in the “continuously changing world of meaning” created in a globalised supermarket store, I too had comprehended my cultural self. I realised how my regular excursions to the store had encouraged me to experiment with Italian pasta sauces, Thai red curry, Middle Eastern hummus and other exotic foods which I did not eat back home. They were the newfound luxuries that had become part of my life in London. What had therefore started as a pursuit of cultural otherness thus led me to discover that I was united with the “other” through a common gastronomic greed, an expression perhaps of the common humanity which Malinowski had discovered among the Trobriand islanders.
COLEMAN, S. & COLLINS, P., (2006), ‘Introduction’, in Coleman S. & Collins, P. (eds) Locating the field:
Space, place and context in anthropology. London: Berg.
DEWALT, K. & DEWALT, B. (eds.) (2002). Participant observation. Altamira: Oxford.
GUPTA, A. and FERGUSON, J. (1997). ‘The field as site, method and location in anthropology’. In Gupta,
A. and FERGUSON, J. (eds) Anthropological locations: Boundaries and grounds of a field science.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
MALINOWSKI, B. (1922). Subject, method and scope. In Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul. Ch.1, pp 3-75.
MARCUS, G. (1995). ‘Ethnography in/of the World System: The emergence of multi-sited ethnography’,
Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 24, 95-117.
PACK, S. (2006). ‘How they see me vs. How I see them: The ethnographic self and the personal self”,
Anthropological Quaterly, vol.79, 104-135.
RABINOW, P. (1977). Reflections of fieldwork in Morocco. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
RAPPORT, N. and OVERING, J. (2007) Social and cultural anthropology : the key concepts. London.


About Vidya Venkat

Senior Assistant Editor, The Hindu. Anthropology graduate from SOAS, UK.


One thought on “The other side of otherness – Reflections on fieldwork in Sainsbury’s

  1. Very thought provoking and throughly enjoyable to read. Keep writing 🙂

    Posted by Rasha Tarek | October 9, 2012, 1:23 pm

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