Assessing Divergent Disciplinary Views of the Globalization of Consumption: an Exploratory, Cross-Sectoral, and Ethnographic Examination of Consumer-Choice Dynamism Resulting From the Influx of New Forms of Retailing

ABSTRACT - Highly divergent views of globalization and its consumption-related consequences have been forwarded by marketing and consumer researchers. This exploratory inquiry partially bridges the growing gap separating globalization’s disciplinary proponents and critics by ethnographically and comparatively examining the consumption-related nature and consequences of the phenomenon as manifest in two geographically, culturally, and developmentally dissimilar research settings. Particular attention is paid to the consumer choice-related consequences of globalization as manifest in the diffusion of new forms of retailing into each research locale. Findings are supportive of what is here termed the emergent critical perspective of globalization.


Terrance G. Gabel and Gregory W. Boller (2000) ,"Assessing Divergent Disciplinary Views of the Globalization of Consumption: an Exploratory, Cross-Sectoral, and Ethnographic Examination of Consumer-Choice Dynamism Resulting From the Influx of New Forms of Retailing", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 166-172.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 166-172


Terrance G. Gabel, California State University, Northridge

Gregory W. Boller, University of Memphis


Highly divergent views of globalization and its consumption-related consequences have been forwarded by marketing and consumer researchers. This exploratory inquiry partially bridges the growing gap separating globalization’s disciplinary proponents and critics by ethnographically and comparatively examining the consumption-related nature and consequences of the phenomenon as manifest in two geographically, culturally, and developmentally dissimilar research settings. Particular attention is paid to the consumer choice-related consequences of globalization as manifest in the diffusion of new forms of retailing into each research locale. Findings are supportive of what is here termed the emergent critical perspective of globalization.

When people talk about globalization it is very often a blend between facts as observed and an ideological preoccupation. People find it difficult to observe the facts. They tend quickly to be in favor or against it; as if a choice can be made in terms of globalization yes or globalization no.

-Ruud F.M. Lubbers, former Prime Minister of The Netherlands and Professor of Globalization at Tilburg University and Harvard University (Lubbers 1998, paragraph 2)

Globalization is arguably the most important social phenomenon of the last half of the 20th century. Although the vast majority of these disciplinary scholars at least assume globalization to be a highly positive force several consumer researchers have recently joined the ranks of the phenomenon's harshest critics. This exploratory inquiry empirically bridges the growing conceptual gap separating globalization's disciplinary proponents and critics by ethnographically and comparatively examining the globalization of consumption (i.e., the consumption-related nature and consequences of globalization) as manifest in two geographically, culturally, and developmentally dissimilar research settings. Particular attention is paid to the consumer choice-related consequences of globalization as manifest in the ongoing diffusion of new forms of retailing into each research locale. We begin by both defining globalization and addressing the increasingly oppositional/apparently extreme manner in which marketing and consumer research scholars view it.


McKinsey & Company defines globalization as "the spread of economic innovations around the world and the political and cultural adjustments that accompany this diffusion" (Lewis and Harris 1992, paragraph 6). This definition is adopted in the present research for four primary reasons. First, this definition succinctly addresses both the driving force behind globalization as well as the basic consequences of the process. In this regard, the McKinsey definition holds that it is economic innovations (i.e., new products, technologies, and systems of exchange) such as, for example, the Big Mac, the Internet, and Wal-Mart's brand of large-scale discount retailing which most significantly set the powerful wheels of globalization hurtling into motion. The main consequences of the diffusion of these innovations are political and cultural adjustments. In the case of the ongoing global spread of the economic innovation that is Wal-Mart, political adjustments which might transpire include governmental sanctioning of the company's style of import-oriented retailing or zoning ordinances allowing the firm to buy large amounts of land for commercial purposes. Cultural adjustments to the coming of Wal-Mart might include consumer trial of and/or adaptation to a shopping experience based on volume purchasing, low prices, and larger product or brand selection.

A second reason why the McKinsey & Company definition of globalization of globalization is adopted in the present inquiry is that it is theoretically consist with both seminal discussions of globalization in marketing and consumer research as well as the basic principles of marketing (e.g., the centrality of the customer and the proactive meeting of customer needs via the introduction of new products and technologies). Thirdly, this conceptualization does not erroneously limit study of globalization to lesser affluent-nation [The terms less affluent and affluent (nations) are borrowed from Ger (1997) to replace developing/Third World and developed/First World respectively. The latter-commonly employed-terms are rejected, as Ger states, "because every society is always developing and the Second World has disappeared" (p. 110). The disappearance of the Second World is synonymous with the fall of communism in the late 1980s (Lubbers 1996). After this time, "Every country seemed to want to belong to the first world, a decision in favour of the market economy and democracy..." (Lubbers 1996, paragraph 3).] settings. Globalization is seen as transpiring in any (lesser affluent or affluent) locale where: 1) new economic innovations are in the process of diffusing and 2) resultant political and cultural adjustments are taking place. [Under this definition globalization transpires in cities in or regions of the United States, for example, when Wal-Mart expands its operations into areas not previously accustomed to its brand of large-scale discount retailing (in much the same manner as globalization transpires when Wal-Mart expands its operations into lesser affluent nations where large-scale discount retailing is not commonplace).] Finally, the McKinsey & Company definition of globalization is herein employed due to the fact that the McKinsey & Company is a highly respected organization populated by top graduates of the world’s top business schools whose career paths often include ascension into the upper ranks of the world’s most respected and profitable transnational corporations (TNCs).




The received view of globalization in marketing and consumer research, summarized in the left-hand column of Table 1, is rooted in modernization theory. The central assumption of this theory is the pro-consumer notion that higher levels of international trade in lesser affluent nations (and the resultant incorporation of these nations into the global economic system) leads necessarily to higher standards of living for local consumers (see Joy and Wallendorf 1996). Modernization theory is the basis, for example, of Theodore Levitt’s (1983) "The Globalization of Markets"Barguably the most influential globalization-related marketing and consumption article ever written. As a result of this theoretical basis, the vast majority of disciplinary researchers studying globalization-related phenomena view as self evident the fact that globalization is a decidedly pro-consumer process. This dominant view is seen most recently in the award-winning work of Michael Mullen (i.e., Mullen 1993; Mullen, Doney, and Becker 1996). [Mullen's (1993) "The Effects of Exporting and Importing on Two Dimensions of Economic Development: An Empirical Analysis" was the 1994 recipient of the Charles C. Slater Memorial Award for making the most significant contribution to macromarketing (as published in the Journal of Macromarketing). Mullen, Doney, and Becker (1996) is a follow-up to and extension of Mullen's (1993) work.] According to Mullen, Doney, and Becker (1996), in the context of their discussion of the consequences of globalization as manifest in the notion of (increasingly pervasive/global) free trade:

... since a large portion of labor, raw materials, supplies, and services are purchased domestically [i.e., locally in host nations], it is logical to assume that substantial benefits of economic growth accrue to a broad spectrum of society (p. 30)... the benefits of economic growth do trickle down to the population as a whole (p. 34)... free trade not only will raise the aggregate economic activity of nations, but also will help satisfy basic human needs (p. 38). [bracketed text added for clarity]

As indicated in the right-hand column of Table 1, not all marketing and consumer researchers see globalization in a positive light. In fact, several consumer researchers (e.g., Belk 1996; Ger 1997; Jones and Venkatesh 1996; Joy and Wallendorf 1996) have in recent years joined the ranks of the phenomenon’s harshest critics. Belk (1996), for example, in arguably the most damning of these criticisms, contends that the consumption-related consequences of globalization include: 1) the banalization of life (i.e., a yearning for idealized images of the past or future while the present is rendered sterile and sanitary), 2) the obliteration of cultural differences, and 3) the commodified rationalization of life (in which products or consumption patterns popular to the masses are automatically and without question seen as good and desirable). Further, Belk (1996), like several other disciplinary critics, asserts that: 1) the consumers of the world are becoming more like one another on the basis (perhaps only) of an increasingly common desire for an idealized version of life defined by corporate images and lived via the consumption of products symbolizing Western freedom, individuality, and vitality and 2) that the consumption-based spectacle created by marketers renders submission to the dominant TNC will palatable, often in the face of widespread misery and destitution.

This exploratory inquiry, heeding calls for more qualitatively informed globalization research, seeks to empirically bridge the growing conceptual gap between globalization’s disciplinary proponents and critics. Our methodological approach is described below.


Scholars in both marketing/consumer research and sociology have been critical of methodological approaches used to examine globalization-related phenomena. Seen as particularly problematic is research which runs the risk of veraging away important place-specific detail in the course of seeking to explain globalization as lived by supposed average persons within and across geopolitical regions. These scholars have, in turn, forwarded two primary methodological directives to guide future research. Ger (1997), Jones and Venkatesh (1996), Joy and Wallendorf (1996), and Dixon and Boswell (1996a, 1996b), for instance, all call for the conduct of ethnographic, historical, and other forms of qualitative inquiry wherein globalization is to be understood at the level of the lived human experience of persons being directly impacted by the forces of the process. In addition, Evans and Stephens (1988) recommend that researchers engage in cross-sectoral inquiryBthe comparative analysis of the nature and consequences of globalization as manifest in both affluent-nation and less affluent-nation research settings. These interdisciplinary calls for methodological redirection have, with but limited exception, [See, for example, the ethnographic work of Arnould (1989), Joy and Wallendorf (1996), and Shultz (1997). None of this inquiry is, however, conducted in cross-sectoral fashion focusing instead on the development effects of globalization in only lesser affluent nations.] gone unheeded in marketing and consumer research.

The present inquiry ethnographically and comparatively assesses the consumption-related nature and consequences of globalization as manifest in two geographically, culturally, and developmentally dissimilar research settings in the middle and late 1990s. Our discussion begins with a brief description of our two research settings and proceeds to address both the ethnographic research method and the manner in which it is here employed.

Research Settings

Data was collected in and around: 1) a small, agricultural-based industrial community in the Midwestern United States and 2) a large metropolitan area in southwestern Mexico. Our affluent-nation setting is Keokuk, Iowa, a quintessential factory town of about 12,000 persons located in the extreme southeastern corner of the state and surrounded on all sides by small farming communities in Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. Keokuk has historically been and remains a regional center for employment in the grain processing, automobile parts, meat processing, and metals industries. The principle reason for selecting Keokuk as our U.S. setting involves its being a stereotypical small Midwestern town in the process of being integrated into the global economic system (i.e., being globalized). Keokuk is, for example, located just 65 miles up the Mississippi River from Hannibal, Missouri, the setting for Mark Twain’s classic novels about life in smalltown USA. Further, Keokuk has, over the course of the last two decades, been the site of extraordinarily high levels of direct investment wherein U.S.-owned and, in some cases, locally owned companies and productive assets have been taken over by either foreign or U.S.-based TNCs. However, given the focus of the present inquiry, the globalization of Keokuk is arguably best evidenced by the diffusion into the area of the retail-based economic innovation that is Wal-Mart (beginning roughly ten years ago).

Our second research setting is centered about Guadalajara, Jalisco, one of the Mexican Republic’s three major regional centers of business, governmental, industrial, religious, and agricultural activity. The hub of Western Mexico, as Guadalajara is often called, is the nation’s second largest metropolitan area with a population of between 6 and 8 million persons. Culturally, it has been described as "the most Mexican of all cities in the republic" due to its being the home of such distinctive cultural phenomena as tequila, mariachi music, and the jarabe tapatio (i.e., the Mexican hat dance) (Logan 1984, p. 16). Guadalajara was selected as a research setting on the basis of it being located within a lesser affluent nation which has, over the course of the last 15 years, opened itself up to the forces of globalization to an extent that few other countries have. More specifically, Guadalajara was chosen (as our Mexican research setting) on the basis of researcher opportunity arising from the fact that one member of the research met his (then future) wife, a Guadalajra resident, while visiting the area just prior to the onset of primary data collection activities.

The Ethnographic Method

The essence of the ethnographic method is that the researcher immerses him/herself "in the midst of whatever it is they study" (Hill and Stamey 1990, p. 305 [see also: Atkinson and Hammersley 1994; Lincoln and Guba 1985]). Ideally, this immersion results in the elucidation of experience as lived in the inquiry’s particular physical and historical context. Also central to ethnographic inquiry is the notion that research activities are guided by an emergent design wherein the researcher’s specific focus is determined by a real-time understanding of the focal phenomenon as it exists and/or occurs in its natural environment.

Ethnography in the Present Research

Roughly three and 12 months were spent ethnographically immersed in Keokuk and Guadalajara, respectively, by one member of the research team. Ten of the 12 months immersed in Guadalajara were spent working and living in (as opposed to merely visiting) the area. The vast majority of this period of total immersion was spent living with a lifelong Guadalajara residentBAlejandra (hf, early 30s) [Parenthetical statements following informant name indicate informant ethnicity, gender, and age-in that order. Alejandra is thus a Hispanic female in her early 30s. All informant names are pseudonyms.]Bas a member of a local (extended) family. Primary means of data collection in both settings include: 1) interviewing and/or talking informally with 66 consumers and/or small business owners being impacted by the forces of globalization, 2) participant and non-participant observation of globalization-related phenomena (e.g., the ongoing transformations of local retail landscapes [Our ability to observe the transformation of the local retail landscape in Keokuk was greatly facilitated by our extensive a priori knowledge of the area. This intimate knowledge is based on one member of the research team: 1) having lived in and around Keokuk for 25 years and 2) visiting the area once or more a year, for periods of up to one month, since moving from there in the late 1980s.]), 3) extensive daily reading and analysis of local, regional, and/or national newspaper articles, and 4) photography of globalization-related phenomena. Data collection efforts resulted in the accumulation of over 1400 pages of fieldnotes, diary text, and translated interview and speech text, as well as 250 local newspapers, more than 400 photographs, and several dozen material artifacts.

Data: Globalization, Retail Dynamism, and the Restriction of Consumer Choice

One of several consumption-related themes which emerge from our cross-setting/sectoral data is the globalization-driven restructuring of retailing environments and the subsequent limitation of both macro- and micro-level consumer choice [By macro-level choice, we mean the number and, more importantly, the type of retail stores available for local consumers to shop in. By micro-level choice, we mean consumer choice at the product or brand level.] (to those alternatives which best allow TNC executives and major stockholders to maximize their wealth). As discussed below, our data suggest that it is mainly macro-level choice that is being restricted in Keokuk; in Guadalajara it is both macro- and micro-level choice that is being limited.

Keokuk: Globalization and the Coming of Wal-Mart

As a result of our a priori familiarity with the Keokuk area, we knew going into the setting that the local retail shopping landscape had undergone dramatic change in the past 15 years. We knew, for example, that Keokuk’s downtown shopping mall (the Keosippi Mall), once the center of not only local shopping but social activity as well, had declined to the point where it had for years been in danger of having to close its doors. We also knew that the diffusion of TNC Wal-Mart’s brand of large-scale discount retailing into the area beginning around 1990 had coincided with the shifting of the heart of shopping activity away from the downtown area. We knew, moreover, that: 1) numerous small, locally owned businesses had closed their doors over the course of the last ten years and 2) that several persons who had previously owned and operated these closed businesses were now employed by Wal-Mart. As discussed below, our data suggest that these events are: 1) driven by the powerful forces of globalization and 2) closely interrelated.

During an early visit to Kekuk informant Walt (wm, mid 70s), a retired factory worker and local historian, stated that Wal-Mart "pretty much shut down the downtown" and does little for the community as a whole because "two-thirds of the people (working) there are just part-time workers." The day after talking with Walt the researcher then immersed in Keokuk went to the Keosippi Mall to see with his own eyes what had become of what he and thousands of other local residents had once known as the center of local shopping and social activity. Quoting from fieldnotes of that day:

Went shopping in the sparsely populated mall. Very few storesBno anchorsBand just as few patrons. Half of stores are vacant. A few people walking around for exercise. A marked contrast to 10-20 years ago.

The primary activity observed in the mall that day centered not shopping in retail stores, as it once had, but rather the three-screen movie theater and the offices and operational unit (i.e., boilerroom call center) of a telemarketing firm. The researcher returned to the mall again several days later and made the following entry in fieldnotes.

At the mall I was struck with the change that has taken place over the years. It used to be the center of community activity on weekends (full of people buying things and socializing). Now, it is empty for the most part, with but few patrons and visible activity except for the cinema. I wonder where the center of activity now is (Wal-Mart? the estate auction?) and if the old type of social behavior has simply vanished and been replaced with one far less social?? It would appear that interactive patterns of shopping and socialization have been changed (with little regard for the wants of but a few local citizens) by the Wal-Martization of the town. (original parenthetical statements)

It was, as suggested most vividly by the use of the term Wal-Martization [This conceptualization was developed in an effort to give name to the retail-based manifestation of globalization then being observed and discussed by and with informants. Wal-Martization is thus to be viewed as a specific form of globalization which emerges from our data.] above, on the day of this second visit to the formerly vibrant Keosippi Plaza that we began to see clearly the consumption-related impact of retail-based globalization in Keokuk. This impact was soon better understood via additional discussions with and interviews of local informants. Both Mildred (wf, 78) and Walt, for example, strongly lamented the fact that it is increasingly hard to patronize stores and purchase goods from people whom they either personally know or are known to have ties to the community. [The views of the senior citizen informants such as Walt and Mildred should not be discounted on the basis of their being the lamentations of persons, as one reviewer asserted, "likely to be more resistant to change, regardless of what that change might be." The opinions of these persons are far better viewed, in our minds, as the highly informed and privileged opinions of persons knowledgeable of the way things were before the powerful forces of globalization had taken root in the Keokuk area. It should also be noted, in this regard, that Keokuk is heavily populated by senior citizens-people like Walt and Mildred who have personally seen and lived through the change locally wrought by globalization.] Related to this, our data indicate that the Wal-Martization of Keokuk also entails diminished opportunity for area shoppers to meet their socialization needs while shopping. Whereas once they could easily buy from and shop with people they know (e.g., their neighbors), the opportunity to do so is now at best limited. The Wal-Martization of the Keokuk retail shopping environment is in this way characterized by a focus on higher brand/micro-level choice low product priceBor at least perceptions thereofBas the all-important criteria for goods purchase. Simply put, our data indicate that globalization as manifest in the diffusion of Wal-Mart’s economic innovation into Keokuk has had profound consumption-related social consequencesBthe at least partial restriction of macro-level consumer choice to a sterile and, in the eyes of multiple informants knowledgeable of the way things were before the powerful forces of globalization had taken root, deplored alternative. On top of this, as we were told by Walt, it appears that Keokuk residents were forced to pay a high priceBin the form of taxpayer-funded investment incentivesBto have Wal-Mart locate a store in the city. Quoting from interview text:

If I can remember right I think the cityBthe taxpayersBmaybe furnished part of the ground for Wal-Mart... They run the sewer, gas lines, everything to Wal-Mart and I think they got a ten-year tax abaement. They don’t have to pay any property tax for a certain number of years anyway.

[Our data suggest that the provision of investment incentives to bring (or keep) TNCs in the Keokuk area is relatively common, with several cases (involving foreign heavy industrial TNCs) involving extraordinarily high levels of taxpayer-based funding. This activity is exemplary of a form of globalization-driven place marketing, referred to by Greider (1997) as the global jobs auction, in which desperate communities, in both the U.S. and abroad, for TNC investment dollars and all-important jobs-irrespetive of job quality-in an effort to avoid both serious economic crisis and (at least the possibility of) resultant social upheaval.]

Guadalajara, Inferior Tortillas, and the Vanishing Tortilleria

Our data suggest that in Guadalajara (and Mexico as a whole) the economic innovation of large-scale discount retailing has, as in Keokuk, arrived and diffused with significant effect. In Guadalajara, however, Wal-Mart is but one of several TNCs whose massive retail/consumption palaces increasingly both dot the local shopping landscape and gain market share from small, neighborhood owned and operated retailers. Further, it is not only the influx of discount-retailing TNCs which drives retail dynamism as locally manifest. Nevertheless, our data suggest that: 1) retail dynamism in Guadalajara/Mexico is, as in Keokuk, driven by the forces of globalization and 2) that the primary consumption-related consequence of this dynamism is decreased (macro- and micro-level) consumer choice. Our data indicate, however, that macro/store-level choice restriction is not as pronounced in Guadalajara as in KeokukBtraditional, neighborhood-based forms of retailing and consumption continue to thrive. There is, however, one crucial exception to this ruleBthe ongoing displacement of tortillerias (i.e., tortilla bakeries and retail stores) from the retail landscape. We begin by considering the profound importance of the tortilla to the Mexican people.

The Tortilla in Mexico. In Guadalajara, as in Mexico as a whole, the tortilla is a product laden heavily with both practical and symbolic importance. From a practical perspective, Mexico’s 93 million people eat an estimated US$ 3 billion worth of tortillas each year, a figure which translates to approximately 1 billion tortillasB11 per personBper day. [These consumption figures come from a variety of undocumented sources-mainly radio and television news stories-encountered by one member of the research team while living in Guadalajara. Observation-based data suggest both that these figures are highly credible and that the 80/20 rule likely holds true-the researcher lived with one informant who ate roughly a dozen tortillas per meal.] The tortilla is, moreover, of particular practical importance to tens of millions impoverishedBthe vast majority ofCMexicans [Official-likely conservative-Mexican government figures indicate that 70 percent of all Mexican workers earn the minimum wage of approximately US$3.15 per day (which translates to US$750 per year)(see: Mena 1997; Salaman 1996; Stack 1996). This is roughly the same proportion of the Mexican population that is typically considered to be living in poverty.] who can often afford to eat little else besides tortillas, beans, rice, and other basic foods. From a symbolic perspective, tortillas, especially white corn tortillas, are as Mexican as any product made and consumed in the nation. Further, tortillas and the corn they are made of are sacred to indigenous Mexicans (Wall 1996).

The most preferred and best tasting type of tortilla, as we can attest to from observation, interactions with informants, and extensive personal experience, are those made from raw white corn. [This type of tortilla not only tastes better than those made from processed yellow and/or white corn or wheat (flour) but also holds up far better in a wide variety of traditional Mexican dishes (e.g., enchiladas and tacos) which requre that the tortilla be eigher bent, cooked, or served in a moist environment.] These tortillas are best when eaten as soon as possible after their productionBideally as bought by the steaming, fresh kilo at the neighborhood tortilleria. However, as discussed below, our data suggest that it is becoming increasingly difficult for Mexicans to consume this type of tortilla.

Inferior Tortillas and the Vanishing Tortilleria. As informant (and longtime tortilleria [and former grain mill] owner) Nancy (hf, fifties) told us, thousands of small tortillerias like the one she lovingly runsBshe used to own threeBhave been forced to shut their doors in recent years. More and more tortillasBpre-packaged, mass-produced, flour tortillasBare being purchased in large discount retail outlets. Our data suggest that the underlying reason for this shift in patronage behavior has little if anything to do with consumer preference. The primary reason for this shift, and the accompanying restriction of both micro- and macro-level consumer choice with regard to tortilla acquisition and consumption, is, according to Nancy, governmental policy enacted in large part to serve the interests of massive agri-business TNCs (e.g., Maseca and Archer Daniels Midland [Mexico's Maseca is the largest corn flour and tortilla manufacturer and marketer in the world. Much of its success can be attributed to the leveraging of close personal friendships between its top executives and top Mexican political officials (see DePalma 1996). Archer Daniels Midland, the U.S. agri-business giant whose success can, ironically, likewise be attributed in significant part to close personal relationships with key (U.S.) politicians, came into the picture in August of 1996 when it purchased more than 20 percent of Maseca's parent company-Grupo Gruma-for US$258 million.]) over the course of the last 25 years. Nancy informed us, for example, that, beginning in the 1970s, grain mills such as the one she then ran were required to buy all their corn from a governmental agency. In the beginning, this agencyBConasupoBsold the mills a relatively inconsistent, unreliable mixture of white and yellow corn of both Mexican and U.S. origin. Mill owners who refusd to buy (and sell to tortillerias) the inferior raw material were shut down and/or had their supplies of white corn confiscated. Further, tortilleria owners, due to government-imposed retail price ceilings on finished tortillas, had no choice but to use the lower-priced, inferior mixture of white and yellow corn flour that the mills were forced to produce. The Mexican consumer, as a result, was stuck with an inferior product. Moreover, macro-level consumer choice was simultaneously restricted when tortilleria owners, faced with mounting costs but restricted by law from raising their prices, began to disappear in mass.

The situation as it now stands is that essentially the only tortillas which tortillerias can produce at a profit, given the government’s retail price ceiling and the very real threat of closure if they are to be found in violation of the law, are those made from corn or wheat flour produced by Maseca (and, to a much lesser extent, several other companies). In addition, Nancy explained that Maseca has taken advantage of this dependent situation by manipulating the quality of the flour it sells to tortillerias so that the latter must buy a more costly grade of flour in order to produce tortillas of even acceptable quality. As Nancy puts it:

I began to work with Maseca 4 years ago. They had 3 classes of flour, the extra fine, the normal, and another of lesser quality, the regular. The normal was acceptable, it was very good, white and everything. They didn’t make the price higher... So then the... flour begins to be of a lower quality. So we were obligated to buy a better quality at a higher price. But we didn’t make the price higher for the tortillas. They... made the quality of the corn less so we had to buy a higher quality (flour) at a higher price for the same flour that we were buying like normal. Now they say this is better, but the price is higher. We were forced to change from one flour to another because the flour that they were selling us at one price doesn’t have the same quality. We must buy another quality in order to produce the tortilla... The price [I sell at] cannot be raised... But Maseca can make changes in the production of the flour, understand?... They put yellow corn, more yellow corn and the flour is not good for working and making the tortillas. (original parenthetical statements [bracketed text added]).

Further, as tortillerias have, according to Nancy, been forced to shut their doors by the thousands, more and more tortillas are being manufactured by Maseca and several other agribusiness TNCs. These inferior tortillas are sold in all types of retail outlets but in the largest volume in TNC food retailers such as Wal-Mart, Gigante, Aurerra, and Mega Mercado. Informants who remember the day when raw white corn tortillas were readily available at tortillerias are not pleased with the tortillas they are now increasingly forced to consume. Lourdes (hf, early 50s), for example, states that

... in recent years we have tortillas sold in an envelope [plastic bag]... [they] last days [and] are cold and old... They are not good quality... [They are] sold in plastic bags, [are] days old and taste like the plastic bag they are in. These tortillas are getting a lot of advertisement, particularly on TV. It takes only a couple of times to realize how bad they are... (bracketed text added for clarity)

[Similarly, a Mexico City tortilleria owner was quoted as saying that his customers tell him that the Maseca corn flour which he is forced to make his tortillas from "tastes like dirt" (DePalma 1996).]

Moreover, on top of bad taste and texture, the flour-based tortillas sold in TNC retail outlets are typically up to three times more expensive than their better-quality counterparts made and sold in tortilleriasBthe Mexican government, as Nancy told us, appears to enforce its price ceiling only with respect to the operations of the tortillerias.


This exploratory research was undertaken with the objective of empirically bridging the growing conceptual gap separating globalization’s disciplinary proponents and critics by ethnographically and comparatively examining the globalization of consumption as manifest in two geographically, culturally, and developmentally dissimilar research settingsBKeokuk, Iowa (USA) and Guadalajara, Jalisco (Mexico). Our goal, in other words, was to assess the extent to which each of two highly divergent, apparently extremist views of globalization held by marketing and consumer researchers help explain the consumption-related nature and consequences of globalization as manifest in these two locales. The context chosen in which to assess these divergent views was the consumer choice-related consequences of globalization as manifest in the ongoing diffusion of new retailing forms into each setting.

Our data suggest that the modernization theory-based received view of globalization does little if anything to explain the consumption-related nature and consequences of the phenomenon as manifest in our two research settings. [It would appear, in this regard, that empirical research supportive of the recieved view which examines gloablization-related pheonomena as manifest across many-up to close to 200-nations in highly quantified and highly aggregated, average-based fashion (e.g., Mullen 1993; Mullen, Doney, and Becker 1996) is averaging away the critical place-specific detail on which our analysis is based.] On the other hand, our data is more often than not highly supportive of what is here termed the emergent critical perspective. Specifically, our dataBdata collected at the level of the lived human experience of persons being impacted by the powerful forces of globalizationBindicate that: 1) globalization does not invariably benefit consumers, 2) globalization is often not driven by consumer needs and preferences, and, 3) that success in the global marketplace is at times predicated not on the meeting of consumer needs (via the production of high-quality, low-priced products) but rather the leveraging of personal relationships with political officials, government intervention, the taking advantage of dependent and/or desperate situations, and the restriction of consumer choice to a set of alternatives which best allows TNC executives and major stockholders to maximize their wealth.

Our data also has several important implications not directly related to the stated objectives of this inquiry. Our data demonstrate, for example, that globalization does indeed manifest itself in affluent-nation settings. Similarly, our data suggest that globalization may at times manifest itself in strikingly similar fashion in affluent and lesser affluent locales. Further, in this regard, our exploratory data suggest that the negative consequences of globalization (e.g., the restriction of macro-level consumer choice) may at times be relatively more pronounced in affluent nations. Finally, our research effort as a whole demonstrates the fact that much can be learned about globalization via the conduct of cross-sectoral, ethnographic inquiry focused at the level of lived human experience. We strongly encourage other researchers to adopt a similar approach to further advance knowledge of the consumption-related nature and consequences of globalization as manifest in a broad range of geographically, culturally, and developmentally diverse research locales.


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Terrance G. Gabel, California State University, Northridge
Gregory W. Boller, University of Memphis


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27 | 2000

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