Megastore Politics

Wal-Mart, with its 3,500 stores across the country (as well as plans to add nearly 10 percent more in 2004), is the most visible part of the trend toward "big box" stores, giant warehouse-style discount stores that offer every conceivable product under one roof—from food and clothing to gardening equipment and tires. Recent research shows that at least 82 percent of American households make at least one purchase annually at Wal-Mart.

The arrival of these stores on the landscapes of the nation's urban and suburban communities, as well as their original appearance in small-town America, have had profound implications for retailing and communities. But no one can quite agree on exactly what the effects are. "It's widely recognized that the nature of shopping is changing in America," explains Daniel J. Hopkins '00, a second-year graduate student in government. "Larger retailers are coming to play a larger role in people's shopping habits, as well as in social communities."

Though some sociologists have been quick to leap to near-apocalyptic conclusions—one researcher wrote that the big-box stores had produced "a landscape of scary places, the geography of nowhere, that has simply ceased to be a credible human habitat"—few studies have actually measured the impact of this shopping revolution on communities. Hopkins started researching how the changed environment affects community involvement and political participation while studying with Malkin professor of public policy Robert Putnam last year and joining in his civic-engagement project.

Hopkins zeroed in on the issue of commercial sprawl—the tendency to locate large shopping centers and big-box stores near major highways, instead of in historic downtowns. For evidence, he turned to the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (SCCBS, which, under Putnam's leadership, collected data from nearly 30,000 Americans and is the most comprehensive dataset available on civic engagement) and readily available zip-code-based census data on retail patterns. That enabled him to identify the percentage of retail firms that employ fewer than five, 10, or 50 people, and firms with more than 250 employees (known as megastores), and thus determine the retail makeup of a given community.

He tested statistically whether the homogenization brought on by megastores affected people's attachment to their communities or neighborhood social networks, and whether the huge stores' presence altered residents' political participation. Given the heated rhetoric surrounding the issue, the findings might come as a surprise. "Simply put, there is no evidence that the social network or community attachment hypotheses are correct," Hopkins writes in his paper, Discounting Politics: The Impact of Large Retailers on American Communities. "Only political involvement seems affected by the composition of firms in one's community." Individuals in communities with high concentrations of big-box stores are one to six percentage points less likely to join political groups or participate in marches and demonstrations. The results held up even after controlling for race, gender, age, education, and household income, indicating that the effect is what social scientists call "robust."

Hopkins speculates that this apparent impact of megastores on more activist political behavior stems from one of the largest sea changes linked to malls, if not big-box stores: the privatization of public space. The outdoor historic Main Street business district has given way to sterile mall corridors decorated with plants and fountains. "People are congregating in different places," Hopkins says. "They're not going to downtowns, and they're not going to places where they're interacting with politics." Contrary to the free-flowing discourse on a downtown's public sidewalks, most malls in America are apolitical by design: malls generally forbid protests, petitioning, and other overtly political acts on their premises.

Instead, the emphasis is on product sales, not preserving social capital. It's a widely recognized principle in political science that a democratic government requires space for citizens "peaceably to assemble"—a right so fundamental that our Bill of Rights enshrines it. Hopkins posits that by privatizing and regulating the space in which people live their daily lives, large retailers and shopping centers are barring local activists from their traditional recruiting grounds—"the marketplace," where people come for quotidian reasons. "Local politics needs a place to happen," Hopkins says. "People need to be mobilized to do these things, and that typically happens outside their homes."

In future work, Hopkins hopes to ask whether the giant retailers actually cause people to disengage with politics, or if perhaps the megastores purposely target apolitical areas, hoping that such locales will be less likely to erect roadblocks to expansion. (Occasionally communities have organized, sometimes successfully, to prevent the construction of Wal-Marts, as happened earlier this year in Inglewood, California, a Los Angeles suburb.)

Hopkins admits that his research left aside a lot of questions and hypotheses regarding large retailers. For example, there are potential positive impacts, such as ways retailers could build social capital by providing networking opportunities for employees. But his study is at least a starting place to debate what the explosion of Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Circuit City, Best Buy, Target, and Costco mean to America's sense of community.

~Garrett M. Graff

Read more articles by Garrett M. Graff

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