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Amy Hanser Award Statement

This year’s ASA Dissertation Awards Committee selected two nominees deserving of the honor. Amy Elizabeth Hanser, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of British Columbia, is one of the awardees for her Counter Strategies: Service Work and the Production of Distinction in Urban China. Hanser took her degree at the University of California, Berkeley, where she did her dissertation research and writing under the direction of Professor Thomas B. Gold. The committee members are pleased that both Hanser’s ethnographic study and Jason Beckfield’s analysis of primary and secondary data were in the same pool. We could not and did not wish to choose between two meritorious works that testify to the breadth and catholicity of sociological scholarship and the vitality of the discipline. They demonstrate the value of all styles of inquiry when used appropriately by skilled scholars.

Participant observation has long been central to the research arsenal of sociologists, and Hanser’s study is an exemplary illustration of what it can accomplish. Her ability to acquire and understand data by both insinuating herself into and standing apart from the reality that concerns her is in the grand tradition of such classics as Whyte’s Street Corner Society. She has employed excellent writing skills to produce a text that, like Street Corner Society, can attract students to sociology. Her text brings her colleagues and informants to life. With very little editing, Hanser’s dissertation can become a book that would be required reading for beginning and advanced students alike.

The dissertation is an original and pathbreaking ethnographic study of the emergence of new social inequalities in urban China attendant upon major changes in national social and economic policies. Hanser examines this process from the vantage point of three staff positions she held from 2001 to 2002 as a retail clerk in Harbin, a large provincial city in northeast China. Her research is situated at the intersection of issues in stratification, culture, consumption, and gender. To organize the analysis, Hanser draws on the work of Bourdieu, Burawoy, Powell and DiMaggio, Fligstein, Lee, Swidler, Dorothy Smith, and others. The choice of retailing is particularly apt because, changing as rapidly as the economy and society, retail service reveals the dynamics of the emerging inequalities. It continues a line of sociological inquiry that goes back at least to Frances Donovan’s 1930 monograph, The Saleslady.

Hanser first demonstrates that rapid political, social, and economic change in contemporary China is reflected in retail sector service and, thus, justifies her decision to situate her study there. She shows that economic reforms in response to consumer demands have transformed the selling staffs of state-owned department stores from state functionaries to clerks. Consequently, staff members have had to adjust to a new customer base and redefine their relations to it. This, in turn, has impacted other retail forms and their clienteles and staff behavior. The resulting ferment provides a fertile setting for Hanser’s study.

Hanser observed staff behavior and customer relations as a uniformed salesclerk in two very different urban department stores -- one a large state-owned enterprise and the other a privately-owned exclusive purveyor of expensive cosmopolitan merchandise -- and, then, as a jack-of-all-trades, participating in and observing transactions in a privately-owned clothing stall located in a large underground bazaar specializing in lower quality merchandise for poorer shoppers. Her reports of the everyday activities of clerks, supervisors, and customers capture vividly the way in which systemic processes play out and are experienced at the individual level. From her vantage points, Hanser witnessed and documented a process that is contributing to new social inequalities emerging in urban China -- service work organized around the construction and communication of cultural boundaries legitimates and reproduces these inequalities. The distinctions among retailers are produced by the way in which their staffs solve everyday problems and routinize their activities, while providing a newly selective clientele with the means to create and maintain distinctions among consumers. These distinctions may not take the stereotypical form of class-based hierarchies; rather, they are inequalities expressed as exclusive claims to entitlements. The exercise of such claims is a familiar phenomenon to students of stratification and inequality.

Hanser’s shrewd perceptiveness is apparent throughout the dissertation. Early on, for example, she notes that relational labor processes and the distinctions they entail are as much the product of relations among organizations as of individuals acting out unconscious class distinctions. She later demonstrates the power of this conceptualization by showing how a change from maintaining local inventories to direct provision of merchandise by distant providers reshaped workers’ activities and customer relations. As another example, in an appendix on method in which she discusses non-neutrality issues for participant observers, Hanser notes that the observer’s dependency on her subjects’ acceptance makes her the observed at least as much as the observer. She then discusses some of the many consequences this has for collecting valid and reliable data. A dissertation replete with such nuggets can be mined indefinitely. We hope that the award will gain it the attention it merits.