Service Encounters: Class, Gender, and the Market for Social Distinction in Urban China

By Cheng, Man Chuen | Journal of East Asian Studies, September-December 2011 | Go to article overview

Service Encounters: Class, Gender, and the Market for Social Distinction in Urban China


Cheng, Man Chuen, Journal of East Asian Studies


Service Encounters: Class, Gender, and the Market for Social Distinction in Urban China. By Amy Hanser. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008. 235 pp. $55.00 (cloth); $21.95 (paper).

Amy Hanser's Service Encounters: Class, Gender, and the Market for Social Distinction in Urban China is an impressive ethnographic study that examines how social inequality is reproduced and sustained through everyday dealings across service floors. To capture the experience of service encounters, Hanser conducted thirteen months of fieldwork at three distinctive service settings in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province in northeast China. These settings were Sunshine, a high-end private department store; Harbin No. X, a state-owned department store; and The Underground, a low-end clothing bazaar consisting of numerous small-scale private merchants. Adopting a Bourdieuian lens in understanding inequality, Hanser maintains that the "unequal access to and distribution of resources and opportunities" are results of the practice of social distinction that translates "perception of groups of people as different or distinct" (symbolic boundaries) into "forms of social closure and exclusion" (social boundaries) (p. 6). Following this line of argument, Hanser develops the concept of "structure of entitlement," which refers to "the often-unconscious cultural and social sensibilities that make certain groups of people feel entitled to greater social goods" (p. 3), and which is formed by the combination of "cultural dispositions and the structures of feeling experienced by various social groups" (p. 8). She points out that in the retail field of contemporary urban China, such "structure of entitlement" is expressed through the practice of "distinction work" (p. 9) on both the organizational and the individual level. On the organizational level, stores that target elite customers engage in distinction work through strict adherence to the standardized requirements in recruitment practice that places young modern urban femininity over rural or less educated urban women, as well as labor control that scrutinizes the appearance and conduct of their salesclerks, to distinguish them from those employed by their lower-tier counterparts. On the individual level, social distinctions are produced through service interactions where salesclerks perform deference to customers.

Sunshine epitomized the practice of distinction work. On the organizational level, Sunshine labored distinction work by conveying class distinction by constructing a new configuration of gender norms, the "rice-bowl-of-youth-norm" (p. 98), which emphasized its salesclerks as "young, well-disciplined, and attractive" (p. 97) women who were well suited to serve their customers. Hanser asserts that such a well-disciplined workforce was produced by maintaining two sets of control. The first set involved controlling the appearance, posture, and physical deportment of salesclerks by enforcing strict regulations. The second set went beyond organizational control to engaging salesclerks to actively scrutinize their own conduct at work. On the individual level, salesclerks delivered a sense of respect and esteem to their customers by deferring to them. The salesclerks' practice of "the customer is always right" (p. 108) recognized their customers' social position and entitlement to deferential services.

The distinction work produced by luxury stores such as Sunshine was contested and destabilized by their marginalized counterpart The Underground.

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