Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 20, April 2009
Amy Hanser

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

Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2008,
ISBN: 978-0-8047-5837-6 (pbk); viii + 235 pp.; $US 21.95

reviewed by James Coates

  1. Anyone who has braved China's markets and shopping centres within the past two decades will find Amy Hanser's Service Encounters; Class, Gender and the Market for Social Distinction in Urban China (Stanford University Press) a vivid depiction of the contrasting, and at times chaotic, world of post-reform retail. Hanser entered three sales contexts for a period of a few months each in the Northeast Chinese city of Harbin, part researcher, part employee, to explore how economic reforms over the past two decades have affected the daily lives of urban Chinese people. The retail context, primarily staffed by women and full of encounters between managers, staff, buyers and sellers, well demonstrates the extent to which class, gender and other forms of social distinction are all entangled in contemporary post-socialist China. Her three examples are carefully selected in this regard, demonstrating how class and gender are performed in differing ways depending on the service context. These include: the state-owned department store Harbin X; the glitzy Sunshine department store, and the chaotic Underground market. Hanser, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, shifts deftly between each context to provide a fantastic example of both 'multi-sited' ethnography and Clifford Geertz' cherished 'thick description' of a particular context during a particular time.[1]
  2. Each example demonstrates well how class and gender are inextricably linked within Post-Mao China. Hanser utilises Pierre Bourdieu's work on cultural economies of distinction in conjunction with Michele Lamont's concept of 'symbolic boundaries' to organise her point.[2] She argues that different 'structures of entitlement' are produced and re-produced in the service context through the maintenance of certain symbolic boundaries (pp. 197–98).
  3. The encounters found within Harbin No. X department store represent a context where egalitarian and socialist ideals play significantly in the symbolic boundaries created by staff. The staff members position themselves as experts, often instructing the customer to buy a particular item despite the customer's differing preference. Hanser shows how this, in conjunction with a familial 'auntie'-like approach, asserts an air of resistance in what is an increasingly deferent service culture. Happy to rely on the store's socialist symbolic capital and working-class ideals, the staff espouses an egalitarian ideals when dealing with management, experience a greater deal of autonomy in the workplace and feel more assured in declaring their authority when dealing with customers. The staff at Harbin No. X is generally older than the women working in the other two contexts and justify their style of service using a nostalgic concept of candid working class warmth (reqing). Distinguishing themselves from both the hyper-sexualised women found within the Underground market and the overly deferent women in the Sunshine department store, the women at Harbin No. X present themselves as bastions of working-class consumption where 'good quality and good value' (p. 175) are more important than profits generated by the store.
  4. In contrast to Harbin No. X, The Underground represents the cheaper, riskier alternative to department store shopping and embodies contemporary anxieties about 'primitive' getihu capitalism (p. 136) and the rural–urban class divide. According to Hanser's research, the women working in The Underground were perceived as deceptive or false (xu), with many tricks (shuofa) and generally willing to do anything for a sale (p. 134). This portrayal was again exacerbated by the perception of The Underground as a place run by young rural women, whose fashion, bodies and wares embody the 'unsophisticated, unfeminine, unscrupulous' (p. 135) and sexually promiscuous stereotype of young outsiders (waidiren). Hanser shows however, how these images are destabilised, resisted and performed in the service encounters found in this context. She argues that The Underground also served as a 'theatre for counter performances of distinction' (p. 137). The comical and lively examples provided in Service Encounters show how the salespeople in The Underground blur the boundaries between the getihu market and the larger department stores. Claiming the differences to be mainly cosmetic, the women in The Underground advertised their wares as the same as Sunshine or Harbin No. X, but at cheaper prices. Similarly, other actions such as mimicking the returns policies of Sunshine all served as ways of adding legitimacy to the sphere of their small individually-run stores.
  5. Hanser's final example at the Sunshine Department Store is far less lively than either The Underground or Harbin No. X. It nevertheless, serves as perhaps the strongest example of how service work is distinction work. The managers at Sunshine utilised strict forms of control and habituation in order to maintain a symbolic boundary between the women who worked under them and other women service workers (p. 97). This involved not only the careful monitoring of the workers' appearance but also a vigorous campaign of 'subject-making' where the women actively reshape themselves. The target of this process argues Hanser, is to have workers that not only appear to be the youthful, feminine and deferential, but actually are. This involved both classes for employees on proper behaviour and grooming, self-disciplining action amongst staff themselves, and strict age limits. This section provides the most theoretically interesting and detailed section of service encounters as Hanser explores the way the groomed, deferential bodily practices of the women in Sunshine serve to create a space of distinction. This space is one where the women working in it are almost invisible and where recognition of the customer 'is in fact recognition of class entitlement' (p. 106).
  6. Criticisms are hard to find in reviewing Hanser's Service Encounters. A minor reservation is her emphasis on concepts of class and distinction in neglect of the subjectivities and pleasure that potentially motivate such practice. In particular, some further thought as to why young women working for Sunshine willingly adopt and encourage each other to embody certain ideals, whether these appeal to their own aspirations, and how they contrast with the pleasures associated with the sense of socialist nostalgia for women at Harbin No. X, would have further strengthened her already excellent work.
  7. Hanser provides a vivid account of the everyday implications of Post-Mao era economic reforms and how boundaries of class and gender are both articulated and made permeable. Her concise and careful use of social theory makes it a useful introduction to practices of class and gender distinction. It also provides a clear description of policy changes in the reform era, making this an ideal text for anyone new to cultural research in Post-socialist China. However, this recommendation is not to imply simplicity. The clarity and rigour of Hanser's work makes it a pleasure to read, a vivid ethnographic account and an important contribution to gender studies.


    [1] Clifford Geertz, 'Thick description: toward an interpretive theory of culture,' in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, New York: Basic Books, 1973, pp. 3–30.

    [2] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984; Michele Lamont, 'Introduction,' in Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality, ed. M. Lamont and M. Fournier, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp. 1–17.


Intersections acknowledges the assistance of the Gender Relations Centre, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University in the hosting of this site.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 20 March 2009 1420

This page has been optimised for 1024x768
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.