Ethnographic Research Project

Ethnographic Research Project

Ethnographic Research Project /
Human Behaviors As Observed in a Shopping Mall /
Christopher Janney /
1/23/2011 /

ANTH 105

Student: Christopher Janney

Ethnographic Research Project: Human Behaviors As Observed in a Shopping Mall


In this project I was directed to conduct a participant observation of a population within a location of my choosing. The time frame recommended to obtain an accurate data set was a minimum of three hours. I chose to conduct two sessions which totaled close to 2.5 hours. Initially a third observation period was scheduled, but I found that the patterns that presented themselves were so exact from one period to the next that I felt it unnecessary. My original location of choice posed a problem due to time and distance, so as a fan of movies such as Mall Rats and Bad Santa I decided to follow my second choice of shopping malls. As a teen I personally spent an inordinate amount of time at malls in my area as a way to engage socially with peers, and now as an adult I always find myself “people watching” while at malls and curious to know more about the people I see. The mall I selected for this project was The Mall in Columbia in part due to the proximity to my home, but further due to the stereotypical format of the mall itself. While Arundel Mills Mall is slightly closer in physical distance I found that it represents more of the outlet mall style versus the typical suburban mall. One of the main factors I used to differentiate between an outlet mall and a typical suburban mall is the lack or inclusion of department stores, which The Mall in Columbia has and Arundel Mills does not.

The time of day chosen for my observations was similar, around 12:50 PM. My first observation took place on Saturday, January 15th, 2011 and the second took place on Friday, January 21st, 2011. Something I felt was important in conducting this project was to compare observations collected on a weekend and on a weekday. My assumption was there would be glaring differences in behavior between the two, although I had no expectations of what those differences would be.

The location within the mall that I chose to observe from was the same both times and is indicated in Figure 1.0(General Growth Properties, 2011). Further detail of the area where I was observing from is provided in Figure 1.1 as I recorded it in my notes. From the vantage point chosen I was afforded a clear view of the immediate upper level, further into the upper level, as well as the lower level. It was also a fortunate position due to being positioned between multiple department stores and exits, as well as central to the flow of traffic.

styleFigure 1.0

Figure 1.1


As I stated previously I came into this project with no specific expectations for the outcome. I was not surprised to see a larger ratio of females to males (approximately 3 to 1) however there were other trends and patterns that were certainly surprising and interesting. In total I had eight major patterns that became apparent and that I was able to quantify (Figure 2.0), which I have grouped in to 4 major themes and an “Other” category. Along with the measured data that I collected were certain trends that I was unable to quantify, but took notes on nonetheless which make up the “Other” category. One thing I found interesting was that most behaviors were readily apparent and could be easily observed during each observation period with a few noted exceptions.

Theme 1

The first major theme that became apparent was the use, or rather lack thereof cell phones. I first took notice of this after a woman sat down next to me on the bench while on her cell phone discussing personal and family matters, including financial issues that some other family members were dealing with and her own decision to go back to work after being without a job for a period of time. Prior to her sitting next to me talking on her phone I had not even thought about looking at phone use. Once I began to actively look for this behavior, I found the number of mall patrons walking around compared to the number using their phones was surprisingly low. On Saturday it was approximately 5% (1 in 20) of people, while on the following Friday it was only approximately 1.43% (1 in 70) of people. It was also observed that in general those on cell phones were walking alone rather than with others.

Theme 2

The second theme observed involved people carrying things. As observed, relatively few people actually traveled around the mall with food and/or drinks. On Saturday it was only approximately 1.5% (1 in 65) and on Friday not much higher with approximately 2% (1 in 50). This measurement was based strictly on those who were visibly carrying a cup, bag, or food item in their hands. The comparison of men to women with food is not represented, however it was observed as being essentially even.

Since the location chosen involved shopping the presence of shopping bags was expected and I decided to track the number of people carrying shopping bags. On Saturday the number of people was almost 63% (5 in 8). Interestingly on Friday that number dropped to just over 37% (3 in 8). This measurement does not differentiate between male and female, nor does it define a difference between carrying one bag, multiple bags, or the number from any one brand. In general there were more women than men with bags.

Theme 3

Theme 3 began looking at the largest population seen at the mall in more detail: women. As they were the greatest number of mall patrons it was easiest to collect detailed information relating to them. The two specific areas observed were women carrying purses and women wearing jewelry. On Saturday almost all women were carrying purses (95% or 19 in 20). This number was reduced by almost 25% on Friday to 75% (3 in 4). Of those women carrying purses the majority of women carried them on their shoulder, specifically represented by 83.33% (5 in 6) on Saturday and 66.67% (2 in 3) on Friday.

The second trend observed was the wearing of jewelry by women. For my intents and purposes jewelry included earrings, rings, bracelets, necklaces, and watches. No differentiation was made between obvious costume jewelry versus high-end jewelry. On both days that observation took place the number of women wearing some type of jewelry was the same with approximately 88.89% (8 in 9).

Theme 4

The final theme observed involved families. For this study a family was defined as a nuclear family of a mother, father, and at least one child. It was decided to use this definition as it was difficult to determine whether two women or two men together were in a relationship or simply friends. It was observed that many families used strollers to transport their children in the mall. Of those families using strollers on Saturday 87.5% (7 in 8) of the men were the ones pushing the strollers. I was unable to measure this on Friday due to a lack of nuclear families walking around.

The second observation was made due to a question received by a family member while discussing the project and results from the Saturday observation. The question posed was, “How many people with strollers are carrying their children or letting them walk?” As I had already completed the initial observation, I have no data for that day in regards to this question. I decided to track this during my Friday observation and found that about 37.5% (3 in 8) people with children and a stroller were either carrying the child or allowing them to walk.


Amongst the quantifiable data there were other notable observations that were not calculated in terms of percentages, but that I still feel were of note. One of these includes the observation that the most common color of clothing seen on both days of observation was some form of black, which includes gray and charcoal.

I also found it interesting that although the temperature in the mall was a comfortable temperature of approximately 70-75 degrees, the majority of people continued to wear their coats and scarves while walking around. The major exception to this was children.

Another notable observation involved the movement of people in to stores. I observed many people walking by stores, and while they would look at them at times, they would generally continue walking by without entering them. It appeared as though most people entering a store were going to that store on purpose and not simply enticed to enter as they passed.

The final “other” observation was probably the most interesting to me. It was observed that traffic in the mall travels in nearly regular waves, and that these waves were made up of strangers traveling in a pack without conscious decision to do so. An even more fascinatingpoint is that certain characteristics of these waves were apparent such as some waves would be predominantly male, some would be predominantly female, some would be primarily of one ethnicity, and some would be constructed of primarily families.




Theme 1

It is a fact that almost 70% of the world’s population owns a cell phone of some type(International Telecommunication Union, 2010). For most, including myself, there is a general feeling that people spend quite a bit of time on their cell phones. While this may be true in many cases it appears that while at the mall that behavior, while not completely removed, is to some degree reduced. Observing such a low use of cell phones was quite a shock to me. My hypothesis upon observing this pattern of behavior was that people generally become socially removed or closed off when on the phone and therefore by not using the phone they are behaving in a more social manner. I conducted some further research to determine if there were any studies related to cell phone use in public places and/or the relation to social interaction in relation to cell phone usage. The best example I came upon was an article in The Open Communication Journal from 2008 (O. Banjo, 2008). In the study cell phone usage is “defined as any application of the cell phone as a tool, including talking, text messaging, game playing, or the sheer accessibility of the instrument.” (O. Banjo, 2008, p. 127) For my purposes I did not include the accessibility of the device.

In support of my hypothesis relating to the use of cell phones reducing social connection and interaction, and thus the reduced use in the mall being affected by this I found that Banjo, Hu, and Shyam Sundar cited two different works in stating that “Although observational research shows that most cell phone users retreat from social settings when they are using the cell phone in a public place (Ling, 1999b), findings also suggest that cell phone users use the cell phone in public spaces as a form of exclusion (Bugeja, 2005; Ling, 2002). According to observational studies, cell phone users have been seen to acknowledge the presence of strangers, by glancing or gazing, but, by their body language, appear closed to the idea of pursuing any interaction (Ling, 1999b).” Based on this information it would seem plausible that people consider the mall to represent a social setting and therefore would prefer to reduce the amount of cell phone usage as appropriate.

Theme 2

I was unable to find any documented research on people eating in the mall including eating in the food court versus carrying around their food. In my own experience I know that I tend to eat in the food court if choose to eat mall food, and in general I will discard the cup or bottle of drink. In large part throwing away the cup or bottle is to reduce the amount of stuff that I am carrying so that my hands are free to look at merchandise in stores, and so that I don’t have to worry about entering stores that frown upon shopping in them with drinks and food. I believe if I were to conduct interviews with patrons in the mall the responses would support the reasoning of not carrying food and drink.

My observation of the volume of people carrying shopping bags was surprising to say the least. In large part my surprise comes from the economic downturn that we have experienced over the last 2 to 3 years. My expectation was that there would be a minimum of patrons that were actually purchasing merchandise. I believe that this is an expectation that many people would have as is shown by Randy White in his paper The Grounded Consumer: Changing the Paradigm of Shopping Center Entertainment (Randy White, 2009). While we would like to believe that the overwhelming majority of the population has been affected by the recession and changed their behaviors(Randy White, 2009), the concept of “conspicuous consumption” is very much alive and well. Also of note is that even though the outlook on shopping malls as a whole has been bleak for a few years now (Dokoupil, 2008)it would appear that they are still thriving.

A final note on the observation relating to people carrying shopping bags that I think is important is the difference between results on Saturday and Friday. It appeared as though more of the people visiting the mall on Friday were there for food, socializing, or some other reason than shopping. I believe this hypothesis is clearly evident in the difference of almost half as many people with bags on Friday as on Saturday.

Theme 3

The finding that most women carry purses was not all-together surprising. In a report from and Fortune Magazine it was found that “Ninety-five percent of women aged 18 to 64 carry a purse every day.” (Boyle, 2007) The second observation concerning women carrying their purse on their shoulder didn’t seem baffling either. Initially my assumption was that it simply keeps it out of the way and is more convenient. As a male who does not carry a purse I knew that my experience in this area would be limited. After digging further for information I found that women tend to carry large quantities of stuff in their purses, which has steadily increased over the years causing the need for larger bags as well. (Shrager, 2010) The extra weight associated with these larger, more full purses creates a need to find an easier way to carry them, leading to putting them over the shoulder to bear the extra weight comfortably.

With regard to women wearing jewelry I was unable to find any sustainable references or studies. It would appear, based on my observations, that many women use jewelry as simply an extension of their outfit. In many cases it was apparent that there was a mix of costume and high-end jewelry being worn. My assumption would be that for many there are items of value that have meaning behind them on a personal level and are worn for that reason, while the fashion or costume jewelry is often worn as a way to add detail to the outfit. I believe in order to test this hypothesis it would require a study all by itself.

Theme 4

As a parent, and even more so as a father, I was not completely surprised by the finding that in general men were seen pushing the stroller. Based on my research it appears that this is a trend that has been changing since the 80’s as evidenced by two articles in the journal Sex Roles. The first article was written in 1989 and presents information relating to female and male attention to toddlers while at the zoo. (A. L. Burns, 1989) In this article it was shown that women were more likely to be the caretakers and to push the stroller. (A. L. Burns, 1989) In the second article, only three years later in 1992, it was shown that women would be “more likely to push empty strollers” (G. Mitchell, 1992), while men would be “more likely to carry toddlers.”(G. Mitchell, 1992) It is my belief that since then the trend has continued to evolve and change to present day when it is considered normal for a father to have a larger role in the life of his children. The observations made during this project support this theory strongly in my opinion.

With regard for the observation of people with strollers having their children walk or carrying them I was unable to find any related research or statistics. I can speak from personal experience however in stating that as my son gets older, the more he wants to get out of the stroller and move on his own. I would tend to believe that this is the case for many other parents as well.


As stated before, these observations were things that I felt were important enough to be included but that did not have quantifiable data to be placed in their own themes. Even though I did not have a tremendous amount of data to go on I still conducted research to support the findings that I presented in this section. The color of clothing was something that interested me because I truly didn’t expect to see such a lack of color among clothing. After further research I found an article that describes black in this way: “Black is the color of authority and power. It is popular in fashion because it makes people appear thinner. It is also stylish and timeless.” (Johnson, 2007) Statements such as this could potentially give some reason for such a large population wearing so much black.