Power dynamics within the retail sector

As most students learn during the course of high school and college there are a very limited number of jobs available, and most of them encompass the world of retail and the service industry. Unfortunately I have been in the retail/customer service field for the past 7 years between high school and college and I have noticed a distinct rift between management and the entry level employees in regards to maintaining the power relationships inherent in these institutions.

Often the management at these types of jobs consist of individuals who are either freshly out of college with little management experience or have little formal higher level education and have been in a management position for a number of years and were not able to advance any higher within the company whether it was due to a lack of education or a lack of performance. The entry level employees can range anywhere from 15/16 year olds with little life experience to graduate level students who likely are more educated than their supervisors. Both ends of this spectrum can produce instability within the distribution of power due to a clash between the entry level employees and their bosses.

For the younger, inexperienced employees they are used to the power relationships with their parents and teachers and expect that everything should be on the level and mostly fair. However it is in my experience that, particularly in retail settings, members of management tend to enjoy being in a position of power and tend to enjoy flexing their managerial power. By this display of institutional power over lower level employees they can ensure a constant level of obedience and often squanders potential defiance to their authority.

However in my most recent experiences it is the attitude of some retail management towards more educated non-management employees that can be far more malicious in its intent. This is particularly evident  in the instances in which older aged management who have been stuck in the same position for a long period of time are in charge of employees with higher levels of education. I have witnessed numerous incidents of management taking unfair action against college student employees because of conflicts with school requirements when there are possible solutions that do not require unnecessary disciplinary action. I have seen that much of this comes from jealousy towards the employee, feeling that their job security may be threatened because of a lower level employee is more qualified, or a feeling of inadequacy in a leadership role that leads to vengeful action towards the lower level employee.

Interestingly enough all of this, which is similar to the ethnographic accounts of  Bourgois, also has ties to Mary Douglas’s theory of boundary maintenance. It is through the use of this managerial power against lower level employees, warranted or not, that allows the management to maintain the boundaries between themselves and the “regular” employees.

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3 thoughts on “Power dynamics within the retail sector

  1. I think you are spot on for the most part with this analysis. However, from my own experiences, there is also another explanation for the power flexing between managers and entry-level college students. Since most college students tend to hold the same job throughout college, usually because that particular employer agreed to remain somewhat flexible with his/her school schedule, these educated employees are seen as investments. It takes a lot of time and effort to train new employees, especially in order to get them up to par with someone who has years of experience doing that particular job, Many employers can only envision the day when that student graduates and quits their job to move on to bigger and better things. This also relates to Mary Douglas’s boundary maintenance because they flex, not to make the employee quit, but to assert their authority in an attempt to maintain that authority. Foucault would absolutely love this power relationship. The employer is simply giving the employee the choice between school and their job, in all hopes that they will inevitably choose the steady job, thus re-establishing their position of dominance.

  2. You’re completely correct in that as well. That is indeed a common reason for the unnecessary displays of power, it is actually why I had to quit my own job a few weeks ago. But at the same time the investment that they make in training an individual who has already been there for a decent amount was, as you said fairly significant, why force someone to quit when it is not known how long it will take them to find another job? It would be significantly more advantageous to begin searching for a replacement while the employee is still present and has a working knowledge of the position and its intricacies that may not be known or appreciated by management, so that he may lend additional insight on ways to be successful at the job.

  3. I entirely agree with this point you do often see managers who are power hungry and do not care how they treat people and it is a great example to compare to the bourgeoisie. There is some managers who do just have a hard time because they have so many students working for them. There is also the frustration on going through allot of employes, but there are definitely plenty of managers who just do not have good intentions.

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