A Conversation with Sharon Zukin

By Nicki Lisa Cole, Pomona College

szukin headshotSharon Zukin, chair-elect of the section on consumers and consumption, is a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She started out as a political sociologist, became an urban sociologist, and now combines those interests with studies of institutions, spaces and cultures of consumption. She has received the C. Wright Mills Award, the Robert and Helen Lynd Award for career achievement in community and urban sociology, and the Jane Jacobs Award for urban communication. Her most recent book is Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, and her most recent article looks at restaurants and racial identity in a gentrifying area of Brooklyn.

Nicki: You began your academic career in political science. How did you come to study consumer culture and its implications?

Sharon: During the 1980s, I was excited by new historical work, and by new translations of historical work, that show how ideology is shaped by material cultures of consumption. Most important, I read the social theorist Walter Benjamin’s essay “Paris, Capital of the 19th Century” and learned about his meticulous archival research on the development of consumer culture in Paris in that era. Benjamin could connect a bustier in a shop window with ideology– I wanted to write like him!

I was also impressed by the anthropologist Sidney Mintz’s terrific historical study Sweetness and Power. Mintz shows how, during the Industrial Revolution, the global commodity chain of sugar connected African slaves on Caribbean plantations with English factory workers. You suddenly grasped how all of British capitalism depended on persuading vast numbers of people to drink tea with sugar.

Nicki: What troubles you most about consumer culture today? If anything, what delights you?

Sharon: The worst thing about consumer culture today is the way it invades and permeates our lives, transforming the human capacity for pleasure into an insatiable desire to buy. DORITOS® and Frappuccinos®–note the trademarks!– turn us into addicts with highly specific cravings. New media like Facebook and Twitter are also addictive—and they track our every keystroke.

Anyone who has read my book Point of Purchase knows I am delighted by farmers’ markets.  But after I read Michèle de la Pradelle’s wonderful study Market Day in Provence, I realized I am easily taken in by the air of conviviality and even social intimacy that, according to de la Pradelle, the local vendors and resident shoppers carefully construct!

As someone who has lived in big cities all her life, I revel in the visual pleasures of products on display—in shop windows and outdoor markets and on other people’s bodies. It’s the lack of balance between display and manipulation that disturbs me.

Nicki: You have a long, storied career, and have won some impressive accolades for your work. What are you most proud of?

Sharon: Right now I’m proud to be a part of our new ASA section and to have been entrusted by other members with one of the guiding roles. I’m grateful for this huge vote of confidence.

I also admit to feeling really proud when my book Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disney World won the C. Wright Mills Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems. To have my work associated with Mills—such a powerful, critical writer!—was very gratifying.

Nicki: Absent any constraints, what is your dream research project?

Sharon: Actually, I am completing a transnational research project that in many ways has been a dream.

During the past three years, I have worked with colleagues in six major cities around the world to study local shopping streets. We carried out parallel studies, funded by patching together student assistantships and a lot of good will, in New York, Toronto, Amsterdam, Berlin, Tokyo and Shanghai, focusing on two neighborhood shopping streets in each city, including streets in immigrant communities. And we have met together in three annual workshops: in New York, Shanghai and Amsterdam.

Coordinating this project has given me great pleasure, starting with travel to each research site. I have learned a huge amount of not obvious information about each city and about the social relations and visual discourses of shopping streets.

Now we have a contract to publish our multi-authored book and create a website for it, and the dream project faces the reality of meeting deadlines and making sure the individual projects turn into a coherent narrative. We will succeed if our work inspires people to support their neighborhood shops and store owners, and local consumer culture survives the dual onslaught of homogenizing chain stores and competition from online sales.

I believe a dream project should tackle significant issues, promise transformation…and require travel outside of familiar zones.

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