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Fieldwork

Walmart in China

A few weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised to receive my complementary copies of Walmart in China. Many of the papers in the collected volume were presented at a workshop on Walmart organized by Anita Chan held at Beijing University.  The conference brought together a wide variety of scholars and activists from Australia, greater China, and North America.  For me it was a great opportunity to see the wide variety of work done on Walmart both in Chinese and English.

Although I was pretty sick at the time with a Beijing cold, I managed to present work from my (then) recently-published essay on store culture at Walmart, China.  The essay, “Wal-Mao: The Discipline of Corporate Culture and Studying Success at Wal-Mart China”, examined the idealized, utopian corporate culture of Chinese Walmart stores in the context of China’s recent Maoist/Collectivist past and hyper-competitive capitalist present.

Following the Beijing Workshop I reworked much of the data from the Wal-Mao essay adding more interview material from China–and material from Walmart stores in the US.  The book chapter, “Corporate Cadres: Management and Corporate Culture at Walmart China,” provides a much more comprehensive overview of store culture in China and its tense and contradictory relationship with the demanding rule-driven management system of the global corporation.  Focusing primarily on upper store management, it looks at the complex ways that managers are pushed and pulled between the staff below them and the vast corporate apparatus above them.  (I was happy to see that the chapter was mentioned in an article in The Atlantic, “How Walmart is Changing China” by Orville Schell. I was less excited, however, that he got my name wrong in the article.)

Thanks to the generous support of the Summer Collaborative Research Program for undergraduates at Hamline University I involved one of my students, Taylor Seeman, in my Walmart research.  Taylor worked with me during part of a summer collecting oral histories from managers.  One manager was particularly generous with his time and the many hours of conversations with him became the foundation for a second chapter in the Walmart book, “A Store Manager’s Success Story.”

As one of the most successful corporations of the period of globalization picked up speed in the last decade of the 20th century–Walmart’s success was, as Nelson Lichtenstein and others have observed, “Made in China.”  It is one thing, however, to build a company importing cheap goods from China and selling them at low prices to Americans.  It is quite a different thing to sell those same goods as a domestic retailer in China.  I continue to be fascinated by Walmart and how its move to China is working out.

My interest in Walmart, however, has always been part of my larger project on the contemporary fascination with “the art of success” (成功学)” in China.  It was a field site for the larger project–studying the ways employees saw the company as a model for success that could teach them something about how to be successful in their own lives.  So, for the time being, the Wal-Mao essay and the chapters in Walmart in China are all I plan to write about Walmart.  Since I am finished with Walmart in China for now, I thought I would celebrate the publication of Walmart in China by sharing a collection of my research images.

Anthropologists create their own archives as they research and it is a limitation of our research methodology that those archives are not often shared–making it difficult to do followup studies or comparative studies with the data of other researchers.  Of course, there are important issues with confidentiality, but I see big advantages to sharing research archives when possible.

I have posted a collection of 142 images of Walmart, China on my Flickr page which mostly illustrate aspects of corporate culture in stores. I have not had time to provide descriptions or titles to the images, but many of them are discussed in the Walmart essays.  All of the images were taken with the permission of the store managers at various Walmart stores and I maintain photographic rights to the images.  I am happy, however, to share them with credit and if anyone is interested in doing research on Walmart in China and would like access to the rest of my collection please do contact me.

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  1. Pingback: Anthropology Book Update - July 2012 | Anthropology Report - July 2, 2012

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