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Multi-Sited Ethnography Project

Performative Mercantilism:  A multi-sited ethnography
of ulterior personality constructs within the marketplace

Jessica Von Wendel


            During my voyage on Semester at Sea I sailed around the world stopping at ten ports for an average of five days each.  During those five days I struggled to understand the complex culture in which I found myself.  While I found many of these cultures to be distinct and unlike any society I have seen, I became intrigued with the universals I noticed between them.  Anthropologist George E. Marcus describes in his article “Ethnography In/Of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography” that the key question is perhaps: What among local subjects is iconic with or parallel to a ‘worlds apart’ site?   In every port, in every country that I visited there was a marketplace.  However, while their existence in each country was universal, not all of them were the same.  There were those created by and for locals where food stuffs and necessities were sold, and then there were markets designed for visitors, collectively known as the “other.”

            What I focused on in my research across these nations were primarily the markets designed for this “other.”  I investigated how the local people presented themselves and their country to travelers.  What I discovered was the formation of an ulterior personality construct by the merchant in accordance with the perceived wants of the buyer.  I have included case studies from China where I discuss the female merchant’s performative marketing strategies that target the feminine shopper.  Items like imitation designer hand bags and manicures were frequently advertised.  Secondly, I included a piece from Turkey where, alternatively, men dominated the merchant class.  A notable difference in the strategies between these two genders is revealed but the performative aspect of their marketing strategies remained.  Lastly, I included what I observed in a brothel in Burma.  While this may seem unrelated, a brothel is essentially another form of market within the service industry.  In this ethnography I do not discuss the merchant.  Instead, I focus on the product: the women who are selling themselves.  I comment on their removal of personality as opposed to the addition of an ulterior personality construct.  I focus on the facelessness of these women.

            Underneath the discussion of performative mercantilism I hope to explore gender relations between the merchant and the customer as well as compare merchant to merchant strategies across transnational boundaries.  I had not expected these gender distinctions, but they are inevitably intertwined with ideas of identity and have come to play a large role in the marketing strategies of the marketplace. 

China: Missy
Turkey: Performing for the West
Burma: One Night in Yangon


             Burma, Turkey and China are very distinct.  They have different political organizations, religions, languages, and cultures.   I found comparing these marketplaces that are situated on different sides of the world a daunting task, and I often felt like Eric J. Haanstad who traveled to Bangkok and wrote in his article, "The Other City of Angels: Ethnogrpahy with the Bangkok Police", about his own doubts in his abilities as an anthropologist.  Just as he thought he was prepared to enter a foreign country since he had read so much about culture shock but then found himself in a total breakdown, I too found myself standing in the middle of a marketplace at a loss about where I should even begin.   While I stood surrounded by people, I tried to compose myself and stay focused on a topic.  Everything was chaos as people swarmed about me.  Locals would systematically approach me while I tried to write and kept insisting I needed to buy another evil eye bracelet for 2 lira. 

As I looked back and began making comparisons between the markets that I had visited, I not only found similarities between the merchants of different countries but between the sellers and myself.  I had to change my personality in order to adapt to my surroundings while doing fieldwork.  I tried to disappear into the streets of Cairo or Istanbul by wearing a headscarf to hide my blonde hair, or I would attempt to use only the local language even though English was widely understood.  The women I saw in the Burmese sex club were participants in a market that removed their identies.  They became faceless.  While in the shopping centers of Turkey and China merchants adopted a new facade, one aimed at the customer's perceived wants, and I was simply trying to fit in with the hopes of eventually understanding their societies.

Just as anthropologist Elizabeth Vann discusses the selling of mimic goods in her article “The Limits of Authenticity in Vietnamese Consumer Markets,” the merchants in Turkey and China present a mimicked character to the customer.  A street merchant would often attempt to talk to me about American topics like Hollywood stars or American singers.  They would mimic a Westerner as a strategy to make the customer feel more relaxed in an otherwise alien environment.  Often merchants would tell me about their distant relative that lives in New York as if that somehow established a bond between the two of us that would make me liable to reciprocate our instantaneous friendship by purchasing a souvenir coffee mug. 


            What started as an observational based account of performative sales tactics by merchants in multisited marketplaces has turned into a complex discussion of identity, gender, and how we present ourselves to the “other.”  The adaptation of personalities or even the removal of one, as seen in Burma, is a universal in how we as humans interact with each other.  I had chosen this topic because I saw it as exotic.  Back home in the United States I was never approached by a seller, never engaged in a bargain exchange that lasted almost half an hour, and I certainly was never flirted with as a sales tactic.  I thought that all of these encounters in the marketplace were somehow unique to foreign countries, but I disproved myself when I began adopting my own ulterior personality while visiting the markets.  I changed the way in which I presented myself to fit the preconceived notion of what I thought the society that I was visiting would respond the best to.  I am left wondering if in our attempts to become the “other” the merchant and the buyer cross and meet in the middle where transnationalism is born.       

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