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The Supermarket: Reflexive Essay on the Ambivalence of Work and Play

I stood at the corner of queues, typing my field observations. The short queue in front of me quickly emptied. The adjacent queue was long, however, and barely moved for a few minutes. Looking up, I saw that two of the three ‘Single Basket Checkout’ counters were unmanned. I exclaimed the situation to my parents in the queue. Yet despite the folded arms and knitted eyebrows, no one moved—certainly not to the long-empty ‘Self-Checkout’ queue.

Such irrational behavior can be understood if we examine the dynamics situated in the supermarket. This 16-hour NTUC supermarket which I frequent acquires an ‘everyday’ character through patterned movement and a shared engagement in work. Yet it is also a highly heterogeneous space characterized by regular breaches to discreetness. These elements combine to produce an emergent social order marked by a managed ambivalence between social reticence and contact.

Patterned Movement

The first time I visited this supermarket after a revamp, I entered through the exit. It was adjacent to the entrance, but I did not see the arrows on the floor. It was upon seeing the queues of shoppers looking in my direction that I took a U-turn and never made that mistake again.

Despite the mild embarrassment, I did not subsequently make navigating directions in this supermarket a conscious endeavour. Instead, I adopted a pragmatic attitude where I transform “new and unfamiliar things into familiar and typical things” and was “interested in coherences only in so far as they are necessary for the management of practical life.” (Hitzler and Keller 1989, 99) This ordinariness has also taken shape in my regular route of movement within the supermarket. Such patterns of movement are directed, but not determined, by the supermarket’s layout. Shoppers tend to follow regular routes of movement, but may take deviations depending on their contingent needs.

Without exchanging words, all shoppers lined themselves into neat single-file rows, instead of jostling for priority around the cashiers.

All routes of movement, however, culminate in a highly systematic end: payment queues. This is sustained by a formal, rationalist logic driven by efficiency, unlike the more informal, queue-less arrangements commonly found in wet markets. Using elements of institutional ethnography (Grahame 1998), systematic queues indicate an ideological account driven by bureaucratic accountability, which produces the taken-for-granted experience of the supermarket through work activities and in relation to broader social relations.

Domain of Work

With only my family in close proximity, I took two navel oranges and started juggling them. Within 10 awkward seconds, my father instructed me to ‘stop playing’—not because I might damage the fruits, but because others might see.

This was an attempted breaching experiment where I “ask[ed] what can be done to make trouble,” (Garfinkel 1967, 41) and deliberately behaved in an abnormal manner to disrupt the invisible social order within a specific setting. My family’s initial silence suggests they needed time to “reconstruct the “natural facts”” (54) in relation to my unexpected behaviour. My father’s censure shows he not only interpreted my tossing of fruits as play behaviour, but also perceived it as unacceptable to staff and other shoppers. This reveals an implicit understanding of the supermarket as a domain incompatible with play.

A frowning employee kicked a box around. A housewife called home and asked her boy to check if there were still fish nuggets at home. My mother sent me to get a box of ice-cream on discount. I took the second box of ice-cream instead of the first.

The supermarket is conceived as a domain of work. For employees, it constitutes routine actions for which they are paid. For shoppers, it exists mainly in service of the domain of home; purchases are made to cater to the family’s needs and wants, with active thought given to meals and budgets. As prices are non-negotiable, there is no room for the play of bargaining. Yet despite this, shoppers do adopt practices to maximize their purchases, such as waiting for discounts and cherry-picking items.

Social Interaction

As I loitered “aimlessly” amidst a moving crowd at the fresh produce section, I noticed a Malay father tracing my movements with a hint of suspicion. I gently slipped away, catching a glance at a man—dressed in semi-formal—moving quickly with earphones plugged in. Elsewhere, kids scurried around excitedly with little censure.

The attention I attracted hints that I was committing an inadvertent breach of ordinary behaviour in the supermarket. I was looking at people, rather than the products as most were. This shows that despite the volume of traffic, the predominant mode of interaction is between human and commodity. There is an atmosphere of social reticence, enabled by clear price tags which remove the need to ask. The supermarket is thus constituted as a transactional space where work overrides play.

This is encapsulated in working adults, who appear to move more hurriedly and even resort to entertainment devices to escape from the direct experience of the supermarket. For them, grocery shopping constitutes a second shift (Hochschild 1989), or shadow work (Illich 1981) where one has to work and pay. Yet kids also move faster, running around and talking loudly to their family. They are usually afforded greater license to indulge in playful activities. This may point to differing social orders for adults and kids. Yet the supermarket is a highly heterogeneous place, and such a division is complicated by gregarious adult behaviours.

At the fresh meats counter, my mother was a lively presence. She chatted with the fishmonger and recounted oblique details of life. She asked a fellow shopper if they could share half a fish each. At the payment counters, she engaged in conversation across the aisles with three cashiers she was familiar with.

My mother’s behaviours are breaches which she interestingly need not account for. While the fellow shopper maintained little eye contact—suggesting discomfort—she was able to perform accommodative work to adapt to the situation and consider a stranger’s proposition without bewilderment. The fishmonger, too, was responsive to my mother’s chatter despite speaking minimally with other shoppers. Their responses show that social order is not rigidly imposed, but emergent and actively interpreted (Heritage 1984). Norms are not binding, but only represent a tendency to bind. The absent need to account her gregariousness to other members show that disruptions are integrated into the everyday experience of the supermarket.

Returning to the opening vignette, the aversion to ‘Self-Checkout’ counters may indicate both an aversion to further work and a desire for human contact. Having cashiers do the work of accounting provides relief from the practical exertions of grocery shopping, and also opens possibilities for forming temporal relationships as my mother has done. These subvert the rationalist logic of self-checkouts, suggesting a human need for sociality over efficiency, despite the prevailing reticence. The supermarket is thus an ambivalent domain, where work and reticence is expected to be infused with a sampling of play and sociability, where a sense of the everyday—as shown particularly through responses to breaches—is sustained despite its inherent flux.


Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, pp 1-65.

Grahame, Peter. 1998. “Ethnography, Institutions, and the Problematic of the Everyday World.” Human Studies 21, no. 4: 347-60.

Heritage, John. 1984. Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell. Chapters 1, 5 and 9.

Hitzler, Ronald and Reine Keller. 1989. “On Sociological and Common Sense Verstehen.” Current Sociology 37: 91-101.

Hochshild, Arlie. 1989. The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home. New York: Viking.

Illich, Ivan. 1981. Shadow Work. London: Marion Boyars.