The Sociology of Shopping Malls: Analysis and Summary

Abstract- Shopping malls are a very important type of public space, especially in urban cities, for various reasons. They serve a variety of social effects and involve a range of sociological concepts. This article expands on how they aid cultural imperialism and globalization as well as provide a source of recreation and pleasure for their customers. It explores the components of globalization and the concepts of “nothing” and something”, as proposed by Ritzer and then connects them to the workings and layouts of shopping malls.


Public places play a critical role in our society, and they act as one of the predominant areas where sociologically takes place. They fuel diversity between people gatherings and consequently benefit social cohesion. (Knox and Worpole, 2007) list a few more functions, out of which the important ones are as follows-

  • They allow people from different cultures and backgrounds to interact with each other.
  • They have exchange-based relationships that dwell beyond consumerism
  • They promote social norms, folkways and mores

A shopping mall is one example of a public space that displays the following functions in urban areas. Analysing its qualities broadly, it can be concluded that they promote globalisation by processes based on cultural imperialism via Americanization, Westernization and McDonaldisation.


Globalisation can be roughly defined as the world becoming more and more interconnected through five dimensions-

  • Finance- An example- The current trends of cryptocurrency and NFTs
  • Technology- Examples- Sources like OTT platforms that originated in the west like Netflix or Amazon Prime, Hollywood movies and shows having fan followings across the globe
  • Ideas- An example- Ideologies spread by international political figures, like some Indians being supporters of Trump.
  • Mobility of people- People migrate from one continent to another for occupational opportunities or casually travel.

This process can lead to two outcomes-

  • Homogeneity/Cultural imperialism- The world blending into one being with universal codes and trends.
  • Heterogeneity- The world’s cultures are merging and creating hybrids all across the globe. This procedure of combinations being created is known as “glocalisation” (Robertson, 1980).

The Role of Shopping Malls

These above-discussed concepts can be commented to shopping malls by examining how they promote trending musicians, songs and bands (by blasting them in the main mall areas and in the bathrooms and each shop playing different music), hosting brands that provide clothing and cosmetic items that hold a monopoly on their respective industries (like Nike or H&M) and lastly, hosting generic items for the consumers to use quickly and then dispose of (like water bottles, sanitisers and credit card machines).

An additional concept that shopping malls give rise to is the globalization of “nothing”. Nothing doesn’t mean literally anything, it means forms devoid of any unique content that are easily replicated and replaced. Ironically, an example of nothing is a shopping mall; It’s an empty structure that is duplicated around the world with an endless array of products which can also be categorised as “nothings”.

Evidently, this globalisation of nothing induces cultural imperialism.

Nothing and Something

Elaborating on the concept of “nothing”, there are four types of nothing-

  • Nonplaces- settings empty of content (malls, schools)
  • Nonthings- items that barely have any differentiating factors from one another and work almost identically across the globe (shoes, plastic water bottles, deodorants, pens)
  • Nonplaces- employees who function with a script (cashiers, helpdesk officials, door attendants)
  • Nonservices- Machine-based services across the globe when operated directly by the consumer (vending machines, ATMs, self-check-out computers in grocery stores)

Contrary to the concept of nothing, Ritzer came up with the alternative idea of “something”. Some things are unique forms with local ties and take time and patience to create, most commonly by hand. An example is the work of a stained-glass artist or painter. Although somethings are more intricate and elegant than nothing, they don’t attract the public eye as much as nothing which is why shopping malls do not host them. If we analyse a mall’s goal from an economic point of view, they aim to get the most number of people to make the greatest number of profits. The more the amount of people who visit and spend their time and money, the better the business gets. Therefore, malls have grocery stores and clothes shops and not art exhibitions.

Somethings have a very specific target demographic that enjoys their products and content. Only a few people enjoy art museums and crafts exhibitions in contrast to the vast majority that would rather go clothes shopping or eat out at a fast-food restaurant. If the mall were to be filled with art pieces and craft products exclusively, there would be much fewer people visiting the mall every day. Consumerism is a crucial concept to them.

This provides a segue into the next component of globalization- McDonaldisation.


Inspired by the fast-food chain, the notion discusses the restaurant’s efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control model.

  • Efficiency– Getting tasks done in the smoothest and swiftest fashion with the most accuracy.
  • Calculability– The focus is on quantity over quality by serving nonthings and nonservices.
  • Predictability– The sense of familiarity and comfort for the consumer. For example, if you go to a taco bell or McDonald’s in Bangladesh, the layout and format of the restaurant will be the exact same as the one you usually visit in your hometown. You will know where and how to order, pay, collect your food, eat and leave. This concept is also incorporated into airlines. Any airline around the globe has a similar plane layout, similar-looking crew members, similar safety drills, similar food, etc. to provide passengers with the maximum amount of comfort and familiarity.
  • Control– Prompt control over damage and discrepancies that show up along with control over humans (workers and consumers) by the use of technology. This is done through strict training, narrow tasks, close supervision for the employees and limited menu items and controlled environments for the consumers. They also use non-human technology to completely remove or detach humans from the process.

How malls incorporate these concepts

The question arises, how do shopping malls incorporate this concept into their own structure. They do so in the following ways-

  • Having staff members and parking attendants and guards who follow a script and know the mall inside out to assist customers.
  • Having an abundance of shops and restaurants that serve mediocre food but at a fast pace.
  • Having the same structure and layout across the globe increases customer comfort and familiarity.
  • Efficiency is taken into account by having brochures and maps of the mall near every entry, so consumers understand the mall in the swiftest fashion.
  • Having AIs to help customers/have machines that provide services when operated by the consumer, like vending machines.

Americanisation and Westernisation

Placing the last aspects of globalization in the context of shopping malls is relatively easy. Malls aim to recreate the hustle and bustle of international cities in their controlled environment, consequently fueling the processes of Americanisation and westernization.

Americanisation is the process by which American cultures and businesses influence international countries. “Americanization provides a tool for talking about the power relationships that conditioned cultural transfers and borrowings, economic interactions and political change.” (Nolan, 1999)

Westernisation follows the same concept as Americanisation but with European countries as the influencers.

Shopping malls, cut off from the chaos and hectic nature of daily life, become a source of recreation and an “escapist cocoon” for their customers (Crawford, 1992) They serve as a centre of suburban public life and a primary point of contact for the amorphous suburbs’ customers.

New urban malls have brought back suburban values to the city. The fortress-like building of suburban malls literalizes their significance in urban environments, privatizing and restricting services and activities formally excluded in public places.


The malls imply that replicating the city within its walls, it is a safer and cleaner way to experience the city within its climate-controlled and protected atmosphere. The spread of shopping malls around the world has conditioned a vast number of individuals to embrace shopping habitats that are strongly tied to recreation and pleasure.

The mall has grown beyond its origins as a shopping centre; the layouts and formats of retail malls are now virtually replicated in hotels, office buildings, schools and college campuses, museums, etc. To summarise, shopping malls have a variety of social effects and involve a range of sociological concepts.


Crawford, Margaret. “The World in a Shopping Mall” u M. Sorkin (Ed.), Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space(3-30). New York: Hill and Wang, 1992.

Appelrouth, Scott and Edles, Laura Desfor. 2008/2016. pp. 537- 47.

Ritzer, George. 2016. Modern Sociological Theory. McGraw Hill. New Delhi. pp. 456-62.

Aysha. 2004. Limits and Contradictions of Americanisation

Tonnelat, S. (2009). The sociology of urban public spaces. Urban Planning Overseas4, 1–8.

Rosen, Nicole, and Kay Synder. 2013. “Dissecting Shopping Malls to Understand Gender Socialization”.

The Sociology Book. McDonaldization. pp120-23

Nolan, M. (1999). The American Impact on Western Europe: Americanization and Westernization in Transatlantic Perspective. German Historical Institute, Washington DC.

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Hello! I’m Ragini, a psychology major and sociology minor at FLAME University, Pune. I’m a video game and comic book enthusiast and I love to write articles in my free time. If I could have one super power, it would definitely be super strength; it would get me the most amount of social validation. Feel free to follow me on Instagram @raginidhar and don’t hesitate to say hi!