For my first ethnographic analysis I decided to head to a location where I could observe all types of people in just one area: people who were working, playing, eating, and shopping. That’s right, I took field notes in an all-American shopping mall. Being a place I go on a monthly basis, I was not expecting to notice much out of the ordinary, but my field notes surprised me by revealing a truth I had never yet noticed.
The nice thing about observing people in a mall is that one has access to men, women, children, and elderly of all ages and ethnicities. The event is a fairly typically one for most people. Whether they are just killing time there out of boredom or if they are shopping for the perfect outfit for tomorrow’s big party, the mall is a place that people come to somewhat frequently. Some people came with friends while others went solo. It seemed that more often, people with friends were there to window shop and “hang out” while the people who were alone were more likely to walk out of whichever store with a bag.
The reasons people found themselves at the mall also depended on their age and gender. Ethnicity did not seem particularly relevant to this event, although people of all ethnicities were represented in the single location. I was surprised by how many elderly people were there. And what was even weirder was that they were there for polar opposite reasons. Many of the elderly positioned themselves in the seating areas and sat there with blank expressions for long periods of time. But those who were not sitting vacantly were actively speed-walking around the premise, never going into stores but doing it purely for the exercise. The fact that there was no in between these things was strange to me, but the peculiarities did not stop there.
The people most inclined to shop were women from the ages of 13 to 50, I’d say. The younger the women, the more likely it seemed that they would be in a group. Occasionally there would be men shopping along with the women, but I noticed that most often, if a man and woman came to the mall together, the man would usually (similar to the elderly) sit down in one of the scarce chairs in a store and stare vacantly until the woman finished shopping. Oftentimes, the women shopping brought their children with them. Children occupied themselves by climbing on and hiding in racks of clothes or they would play in the conveniently located, giant play area in the middle of the mall. Children typically seemed happy and in my time observing there were no visible or audible meltdowns.
Based on my observations, I noticed a larger problem that intrigued me. Women and children were the most satisfied consumers in the shopping mall while the elderly and men seemed to be much less enthusiastic about their situation. This was surprising to me because this society is largely patriarchal and values the elderly by pouring billions of tax dollars into their care every year. So why is it that one of the largest meeting grounds for Americans caters mainly to women and children?
American women have historically been the “shoppers” in the family, so when malls first came around in society this layout would have made sense. But as the lines between gender norms in America are blurred, it seems that locations like these are not able to keep up. This society seems to be unaccommodating to several types of people such as the more progressive families where the women go off to work and the men do chores such as shopping and caring for the children. It also seems as if there aren’t many options for the less active elderly, outside of sitting and not doing much of anything. It would be interesting to know exactly how the subjects felt about the event, but based on their facial expressions, most men and most elders were apathetic and/or bored. Women appeared to enjoy spending their money on clothes and shoes and the children liked eating fun snacks and playing hide and seek in the clothing racks. Although the mall attracted all kinds of people, only certain kinds enjoyed their time there.