Consume This! Alternative Urban Consumption and Chile’s Shopping Malls

In our May issue of Consume This!, Liliana De Simone takes us on a tour of the research around—and social implications—of Chile’s shopping malls, and introduces us to the work of the Observatory of Consumer, Culture, and Society (OCCS UC), at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

—Jennifer Smith Maguire (Section Chair)

LDS blog

Consume This! Alternative Urban Consumption and the Right to the Mall in Chile

By Liliana De Simone

In early 2009, at the P. Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC-Chile), we started a project called ‘No hay mall que por bien no venga,’ directed by my dearest friend and mentor, the late urban sociologist Rodrigo Salcedo (1969-2017), and with the kind advice of Joel Stillerman. The project name, translated, is a rephrasing of a Latino saying ‘There is no mall (as malo=bad) that comes with no good.’ Through it, we aimed to study an emerging phenomenon surrounding shopping centers in Santiago’s urban periphery.

We discovered that the formerly suburban shopping malls were becoming urbanized, in their architecture as well in the consumer practices that took place in their surroundings and interiors. The city fabric had engulfed some malls, and the mall owners had responded with a very openminded approach, blurring their physical and symbolic boundaries, and melting with the practices of a Latin American city.

Chile is the country with the most square meters of shopping malls per inhabitant in Central and South America. They are mostly urban, located inside dense city centers. Even though they are quite recent, in thirty years they have become significant places in the daily routine of millions of Chileans. They are not public spaces, but neither they are entirely private.

Scholars all over the world have approached malls as places of social control, exclusion, and surveillance. There is also a general impression that malls are a cause for why many public places are now empty. The malls have always been a suburban artifact, and mainstream academia said that malls were supposed to be a non-place, a globalized form of inauthentic consumption. In fact, the business of shopping malls started to show strong signs of deacceleration in the USA, and many European cities were making strict laws to avoid shopping centers in downtown. But recent research shows us there are alternative urban retail cases, with greater socio-political implications, in which Chile can be compared with other Latin American countries or European cases.

In Chile, scholars noted a domestication and appropriation  of consumer places that was enacting a new kind of pseudo-public space, where people gather, socialize and interact. Whereas the typical anchor for the North American mall was historically a department store, the Chilean malls included hospitals, museums, universities, Metro stations, and even State offices. We hypothesized that this had to do with recent socio-political Chilean history. The first mall arrived in Chile in the early 1980s, in the middle of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, at a time when the militarization of the streets and the curfew discouraged any kind of use of the public spaces in the city.

We also knew that the shopping malls were seen as a symbolic weapon for political discussion in a very repressed political arena. In the 1980s and ‘90s, leftist intellectuals used the figure of the mall to attack and denigrate the neoliberal agenda of the regime. Conservatives saw it as an immoral, unchristian show of opulence in a poor country. Right-wing supporters saw it as confirmation of the success of the neoliberal reforms that were leading Chile to an American way of life seen in US movies and sitcoms.

Thus, the mall meant many different things at once, and its effects in Chilean urban culture were a way to understand the impacts of higher socio-politics processes. To that end, I proposed the concept of Metamall to grasp its complexity. I started studying malls as a lens on experiences and phenomena linked with gender studies (how women see the malls as safer places than public spaces in vulnerable areas); legitimization studies (how corporative discourses of retailers tend to communicate an institutionalized vision of retail industry as a public plaza for the commons); and urban studies (how shopping malls, when located inside city centers, tend to develop a kind of city fabric mediated thought consumer practices, that transform citizens into consumers of space, and malls as producers of urbanity).

How did the mall become part of Chileans’ urban imaginary? Why has it flourished when there are simultaneous examples of retail and commerce organizations, such as Amazon and Alibaba, turning their backs to the city and ‘real’ space? My most recent research addresses three possible reasons for how and why the globalized consumption form of the shopping mall has developed in such a distinctive way in Chilean cities.

First, there is an urban reason. Malls in Chile are clean, secure and comfortable urban places, in areas where there is a lack of suitable public spaces. Even if they are private places and have rules of conduct, in which the economic means determine the possibility of access to the malls,  they are seen by users as a safe and pleasant space to develop a social life, located in well-connected areas inside the cities, where the accessibility to hospitals, state offices, etc. help to mitigate the private dimensions of consumer space.

Second, there is a geo-political dimension. Chile is a very long and narrow country, with a capital city that has 40.5% of the national population; it is therefore a challenge for the State to develop territories in the extreme north and south. In this, the private sector has taken a lead role. Developers and retailers have managed to spread shopping malls all over the country, claiming their malls bring urbanity and progress to every territory, and providing a symbolic presence even in remote territories where people often feel isolated from and forgotten by the central government. People in remote islands of Patagonia in the rainy south, or Arica in the northern desert, have claimed what we have named as ‘their right to have their own mall.’ The right to the mall is seen as the right to participate in a global consumer culture, ‘just like any other Chilean citizen.’

And third, there is a symbolic aspect. Contemporary Chilean society has set a promise of integration through consumption, in which the access to goods is perceived and signified as an integration with the rest of the world. People in Chile feel that the ‘global way of life,’ seen in TV and movies, is finally here, for everyone. And this symbolism in Chilean retail is spreading to other countries of the region, as developers are building a transnational business of retail.

However, further research is needed on how shopping malls are reshaping consumer society in other Latin American countries, and how this could be useful for understanding other consumer cultures around the world. So, in 2017 we started the Observatory of Consumer, Culture, and Society (OCCS UC), located at the Faculty of Communications at PUC-Chile, with the mission to reunite interdisciplinary research and comparative studies on consumer society in Latin America. We want to engage in a global conversation about the sociology of consumption and consumer cultures.

At OCCS, we are starting a 3-year research project, funded by FONDECYT Nº 11180678, and we want to bring global experts to share ideas with us. The project aims to study the urban restructuring brought by shopping malls recently built in dense areas, how this process impacts citizens imaginaries on urbanity, and how media discourses shape the installation of retail in Chilean cities. Even more, we want to start a networked discussion on consumer practices, sociology and urban communication.

We will be thrilled if we can share these findings in other universities and make partnerships to study alternative consumption in a comparative manner. If you want to engage, discuss or collaborate with us, please contact us at occs@uc.cl.

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About the Author

Liliana De Simone—PhD in Urban Studies. Assistant Professor, Faculty of Communications, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Director of the Observatorio de Consumo, Cultura y Sociedad OCCS UC.

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