'Just Looking': Domestic workers' consumption practice and a latent geography of Beijing

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Journal Article
Gender, Place and Culture, 2008, 15 (5), pp. 475 - 488
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The post-socialist Chinese city has been an important site to explore the formation of modernity in its everyday shape and manifestations. A common way of understanding urban experiences is through the prism of consumption. Rural migrants in the city cannot compare with urban residents in terms of their consumption level, but they are seen to be equally enthusiastic in partaking in consumption, and their identities are also believed to be (re)shaped by consumption practices. Drawing on several years' extensive ethnographic research in Beijing, this article suggests that these scenarios cannot adequately account for the diversity and complexity of rural migrants' experience in the consuming city. In this article, I put forward a methodological argument for considering the lived spatiality of ethnographic subjects in conceiving and considering consumption. Then, through an investigation of how migrant domestic workers use urban spaces, I consider the 'dialectic of freedom and constraint' which marks their agency and their individual choices and decisions. Finally, I explore the social production of space by considering migrant domestic workers' 'subversive' behaviours within rather than in opposition to the capitalist commercial logic and space. This discussion demonstrates that consumption practices are at the same time spatial practices, and despite the many obstacles and constraints, migrant domestic workers are actively availing themselves of the opportunities that the city has to offer. This creative process is crucial if we are to gain a new and more nuanced understanding of consumption as a social practice. I further argue that it is also a process by which rural migrants hold on to their sense of dignity and self-respect in an environment of exclusion and discrimination.
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