Including shopping malls on a list of former unifying institutions

It not news that Americans have less confidence in institutions and participate less in civic and voluntary associations. Yet, can we include shopping malls as part of a list of institutions that used to bring Americans together? Nancy Gibbs, the former editor-in-chief at Time, suggests as much:

For reasons cultural, economic, demographic, psychographic, we are divided as a country perhaps not more, but differently than ever before. What were once unifying institutions are declining—Rotary Clubs, churches, even malls. Unifying values, around speech and civility, freedom and fairness are shredded by rising tribal furies and passions. We have a president for whom division is not just a strategy, it’s a skill.

The best argument I have seen for how shopping malls bring people together is from sociologist Elijah Anderson who argues in The Cosmopolitan Canopy that certain shopping areas can bring together people across race and class lines. Malls in the past and present were places that could encourage contact – at least some proximity – between people of different backgrounds as they hunted for consumer goods or entertainment.

However, shopping malls are not doing well these days. With the rise of big box stores and online shopping, people simply do not go to the mall as much any longer. They may have similar experiences encountering the other in other retail settings – as one professor once told our class, you need to go to Walmart to see the real America – but there is now much freedom to avoid other shoppers all together.

Ultimately, I am a little hesitant to place shopping malls past or present on a list of unifying institutions. This is because much of the activity is driven by consumers seeking out the best deal with themselves and occasionally interacting with or noticing others. Malls are about consumption, not interacting with people. In contrast, traditional markers of civic decline – like political behavior or participating in voluntary organizations – require a higher level of interaction with people. If the shopping mall is the best we can hope for in terms of Americans interacting with each other, we are already in trouble.

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