- El Mall: The Spatial and Class Politics of Shopping Malls in Latin America by Arlene Dávila
Anyone who has lived or spent significant time in Latin America since the turn of the twenty-first century has surely noticed the proliferation of shopping malls and their expansion into working and middle-class neighborhoods and smaller cities and urbanized areas. Rapid mall development has been driven, in large part, by the broader processes of retail globalization, increasingly pervasive consumerism, and the entrenchment [End Page 350] of consumer culture throughout the region. For many latinoamericanos, the mall has come to represent a new space of consumption, a veritable wonderland offering access to previously unavailable international brands and consumer goods, the latest global fashion trends, middle-class lifestyles, and the pretenses of social mobility. From a more critical perspective, however, the immateriality of the mall and its corresponding mall culture may be conceptualized as yet another manifestation of the nihilism and nothingness of a moribund neoliberal regime.
In light of the spread of malls and consumer culture to the most remote recovecos of Latin America in recent decades, the publication of Arlene Dávila's El Mall: The Spatial and Class Politics of Shopping Malls in Latin America is both timely and propitious. El Mall consists of six largely independent case studies sandwiched between introductory and concluding chapters, which attempt to contextualize, synthesize, and bring coherence to Dávila's research endeavor. In addition to identifying the key participants involved in this Latin American mass retail and consumer revolution (real estate developers, retailers, planners, and consumers), the introduction explains the impetus for studying the shopping mall phenomenon, including the consolidation of the neoliberal dogma and its concomitant culture of consumption; growing poder acquisitivo (fueled by debt, no doubt, in many cases) among young, upwardly-mobile segments of the population (particularly young women); and increasingly pervasive middle-class (consumer) identities.
Drawing mostly on Dávila's ethnographic research and extensive field work in Bogotá, Colombia, the core of the book (Chapters 1-6) consists of stand-alone chapters focusing on the material and immaterial processes (for example, financialization and the role of real estate investment trusts) promoting shopping mall development (Chapter 1); the emergence of a professionalized shopping mall industry in Latin America (Chapter 2); the contradictory relationship between the development of malls, work, informality and local production and consumption activities (Chapter 3); middle-class consumption, shopping habits and social inequality (Chapters 4 and 5); and the effects of fast-fashion on popular culture and the role of consumption and dress on the way women learn and communicate class identities and values (Chapter 6). The final chapter explores the intersection of security interests and the politics of space, access/exclusion, equity, and citizenship, highlighting the potential ramifications of the "mallification" of cities in Latin America and the prevailing logics of surveillance, commodification, and precarity.
El Mall is an ambitious, well-researched, book dealing with an extremely timely and salient topic. Dávila astutely recognizes the complexity of the social, political, and economic forces driving the rapid diffusion of malls and consumer culture. She also displays perspicacity and scholarly agallas in adopting an interdisciplinary perspective and integrating a diverse and extensive body of literature. Dávila incorporates more than 300 sources, in Spanish and English, from anthropology, cultural studies, geography, gender studies, planning, and allied disciplines in an effort to explicate the relationships among key actors and the broader implications of mallification. [End Page 351] Befitting Dávila's training as an anthropologist, the most insightful and engaging sections of the book (chapters 4-6) are those which focus on Bogotá specifically and which rely most heavily on ethnographic field work, consisting mainly of informal conversations and interviews with "new" middle-class consumers, especially young women.
Of particular note from a geographic perspective, El Mall vividly captures the...