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Darren Dahl (Editor in Chief)Eileen FischerGita JoharVicki Morwitz

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How Marketplace Performances Produce Interdependent Status Games and Contested Forms of Symbolic Capital

Tuba Üstüner, Craig J. Thompson
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/660815 796-814 First published online: 1 February 2012


Consumer researchers have commonly analyzed marketplace performances as liminal events structured by context-specific role playing, norms of reciprocity, and cocreative collaborations. As a consequence, this literature remains theoretically mute on questions related to the sociological disparities that arise when marketplace performances forge relationships between affluent consumers and underclass service workers: a circumstance becoming increasingly commonplace owing to trends in the service-oriented global economy. To redress this gap, we analyze how such sociocultural differences are manifested and mediated in the provisions of skilled marketplace performances. Building upon Bourdieu’s logic of field analysis, our resulting theoretical framework illuminates a network of structural relations that reconfigures the asymmetrical distribution of class-based resources between these class factions. Rather than being cooperative endeavors conducive to the formation of commercial friendships, we show that these class-stratified marketplace performances produce interdependent status games, subtly manifested power struggles, and contested forms of symbolic capital.

All the world may be a stage, but nowhere has the performance trope gained greater theoretical traction than in research addressing the commercial interactions between consumers and service providers (Deighton 1992). Consumer researchers have explicated in considerable detail the manifold ways that marketplace performances are shaped by norms of sharing and reciprocity (Price and Arnould 1999), orchestrated rites that generate shared experiences and meanings (Arnould and Price 1993; Penaloza and Gilly 1999), commercial staging activities (Penaloza 2001), and last but not least, consumers’ practices of meaning cocreation (Borghini et al. 2009; Goulding et al. 2009; Joy and Sherry 2003; Kozinets et al. 2004; Lusch, Vargo, and O’Brien 2007; MacLaren and Brown 2005; Sherry et al. 2004; Thompson and Arsel 2004).

This stream of consumer research has primarily analyzed sociocultural differences between consumers and service workers as factors that either facilitate or impede the interpersonal rapport, emotional commitments, and shared understanding needed to achieve a satisfactory marketplace performance. For example, Price and Arnould (1999, 48) discuss social differences as a form of heterophily that can enhance the depth of commercial friendships between clients and service workers. Penaloza and Gilly (1999) show that recurrent marketplace interactions can bridge gaps in cultural understanding that would otherwise undermine the commercial relationships between non-Mexican storekeepers and their Mexican immigrant clientele. Sherry et al. (2004) report that some women consumers experience a strong sense of being out of place when accompanying their boyfriends to “the male preserve” of the ESPN Zone sports bar, chafing over the cultural models of male-female relationships that are encoded in its performative script.

As suggested by this brief review, consumer researchers have developed a rich theoretical vocabulary for classifying and analyzing the value-added experiences that are cocreated through the cooperative and collaborative aspects of marketplace performances. However, these studies have comparatively little to say about the structural relationships between marketplace performances and the broader socioeconomic structures in which they are embedded. This theoretical state of affairs also leads to a significant disconnect between the consumer research literature and new patterns of socioeconomic stratification that are emerging throughout the global economy. The broad contours of these macro-level shifts are aptly summarized by Saskia Sassen (2006a): In this new history, there are realities that cut across borders and across this old north-south divide. Thus, the elites in Sao Paulo and the elites in Manila both share an emergent geography of centrality that connects them—rather comfortably—with elites in New York, or in Paris. There are parallel geographies of poverty and disadvantage that also cut across old divides: we are becoming a planet of urban glamour zones and urban slums. It’s not enough to talk of rich countries and poor countries. … This is a new kind of elite—not the 1% of the old elites, but about 20% in major cities. It’s a sort of “mass elite.” It’s how they are positioned in power systems, in labor markets, in cultures of leisure and in spaces of luxury. They share these positionings, even though they don’t know each other personally.

One immediate consequence of this new mass elite consumer segment is a burgeoning demand for service workers in the tourism, hospitality, and personal care industries. These occupations are increasingly being filled by workers matriculating from deeply impoverished rural areas and squatter urban peripheries (Sassen 2006b). These socioeconomic shifts also create a structural mismatch between the sociocultural backgrounds of workers hailing from global poverty zones and the aptitudes needed to be effective performers on the marketplace stages of urban glamour zones.

For rural migrants to successfully enact what Deighton (1992) classifies as a skilled performance, they must become competent in cultural capital practices that have currency in the social worlds of their more affluent clientele. From a sociological standpoint, this commercial imperative also implies that marketplace institutions should play a consequential role in reconfiguring service workers’ class-based socialization and, in so doing, potentially alter the asymmetrical distribution of resources that would otherwise structure the status relationships between these dominant and subordinate class factions. By investigating these underlying (and understudied structural dynamics), our analysis sheds new theoretical light on previously overlooked interrelationships between marketplace performances, socioeconomically differentiated status games, and symbolic capital.

Symbolic capital is constituted when specific forms of economic, social, or cultural capital are recognized as legitimate bases for claiming prestige, respect, and/or authority within a given field (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). It is important to note that symbolic capital is a sociological phenomenon rather than a strictly psychological one. That is, the field-specific conditions that legitimate particular forms of capital transcend the idiosyncratic judgments of a given individual. Accordingly, symbolic capital is constituted through collectively understood status games whose legitimating criteria are formally and informally codified.

Owing to its contextually grounded nature, a form of capital that functions as status-conferring symbolic capital in one field may not do so in another. For example, a consumer who has extensive knowledge about abstract impressionist painters would likely gain status among those playing a higher cultural capital game of art appreciation, but this same form of capital would likely have less legitimacy as a basis of status among those playing a conventional sports fan game. While diversified across sociocultural fields, status games (and their respective forms of symbolic capital) are themselves positioned in a broader socioeconomic hierarchy. For example, forms of social and cultural capital that routinely confer legitimacy and status in elite professional occupations (e.g., finance, higher education, medicine, law, corporate management) tend to provide members of that class faction with a greater range of career opportunities and enhanced access to economic resources than forms of symbolic capital that predominate in working class occupational settings (Domhoff 2010; Henry 2005).

From consumers’ experiential standpoint, socioeconomically differentiated status games typically play out in a more or less encapsulated and parallel fashion, as consumers seek out forms of symbolic capital that are valued in their immediate social spheres. When consumers who are playing different factionalized status games do come into proximate geographic contact, social distance is generally maintained (such as when groups from two different class factions dine at the same restaurant and are seated at nearby tables; e.g., Üstüner and Holt 2010). Such incidental encounters tend to be devoid of significant social interaction and much less binding than interpersonal relationships. Under such relatively impersonal conditions, consumers playing one status game can readily impugn the forms of symbolic capital displayed by those engaging in a parallel status game (see, e.g., Arsel and Thompson 2011; Berger and Heath 2007; Holt 1997, 1998; Thompson and Haytko 1997; Üstüner and Holt 2010).

Such transitory, objectifying encounters have become the standard reference point for understanding how social differences are manifested in consumer culture. However, marketplace performances, particularly those that are situated in longer term consumer-service-provider relationships, are multifaceted social interactions through which different forms of capital (economic, social, and cultural) are routinely exchanged and varying degrees of interpersonal familiarity and commitments to the relationship are established. As a consequence, marketplace performances harbor an unexplored potential for creating intersections and interdependencies among socioeconomically distinguished status games that otherwise would be experienced at a social distance. In the following sections, we develop a sociological theorization of these interrelationships in a commercial field catering to new mass elite consumers.

Research Context, Method, and Interpretive Orientation

Our research context is the hairdressing industry in metropolitan regions of Turkey, which caters to a relatively affluent and secular clientele. Much like their North American and European counterparts, Turkish hair salons tend to foster long-term relationships between hairdressers and customers. These relationships also represent an intersection between the rural, socioeconomic periphery of the globalizing economy and its consumer-oriented, socioeconomic center points (Kjeldgaard and Askegaard 2006; Sassen 2002). In the Turkish context, the latter sphere has been sociohistorically shaped by the Kemalist political project, so named after the first Turkish Republic President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (circa 1923–38), who sought to create a modernized nation-state based on the principles of secularism, scientific progress, public education, and greater liberties for women to pursue careers in the professional sphere. In the rural sectors of Turkish society, however, more traditional value systems (and gender orders) have largely held sway over these Kemalist principles. It is important to note that these traditional rural values also tend to move with individuals and/or families who migrate from rural villages to metropolitan areas in search of better economic opportunities (Üstüner and Holt 2007; White 1994).

The marketplace performances under consideration have been shaped by these sociohistoric conditions in a number of ways. First, hairdressing is regarded as a working-class trade, and hence, its labor pool is largely constituted by rural migrants, squatters, and other members of the urban underclass. Owing to the predominance of patriarchal gender norms among this class faction of Turkish society, many trade professions, including hairdressing, are the occupational provinces of men (Üstüner and Holt 2010; White 1994). In a related vein, younger men who enter this profession have also been socialized in these parochial views of women’s appropriate social roles: a gender ideology far removed from the lives of their metropolitan female clientele. These gender-based disparities are further exacerbated by a nexus of class differences, perhaps most notably, having access to educational resources. Whereas middle- and upper-class women are expected to, at minimum, complete high school and often attain college degrees, rural migrant and urban squatter men’s educational opportunities are heavily constrained by conditions of socioeconomic necessity. For example, only one of the 20 men in our study continued his education beyond middle school, and seven never advanced beyond primary school.

We interviewed 11 middle- or upper-middle-class women who patronize such salons, 9 hair salon owners, and 11 staff at varying stages in their hairdresser careers. Profiles of consumers and the workers/owners are respectively summarized in tables 1 and 2. All names are pseudonyms. The first author conducted all the interviews along with in situ observations of the performative interactions that arose in these settings, which helped to inform understanding of the interview narratives. For customer interviews, the first author used personal contacts and referrals to recruit middle- and upper-middle-class women who regularly patronized hair salons. These customer-side interviews were conducted while the women were at home. For the hairdresser interviews, she entered the salons, introduced herself, and explained that her research goal was to better understand the hairdressing industry in Turkey and their views and experiences of the profession. The interviews took place away from the workers’ regular service area, such as at a café or mall. These settings increased the participants’ sense of privacy and enabled them to more freely share their experiences about customers, staff, and their bosses.

The interviews were conducted in Turkish and ranged from 1.5 to 2.5 hours in length. All interviews were audio recorded, transcribed, and translated into English by the first author. Each interview began with general questions about the participants’ background, personal interests, and life goals, and then segued to queries about their specific experiences as salon workers or clients. In keeping with the conventions of depth interviewing (McCracken 1988; Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1989), participants largely set the flow of the interview, with the first author asking follow-up questions and probing for more descriptive details. While the first author did not follow a prepared list of questions, she did have general categories of experiences to discuss during the interview sessions, and in most cases, these topics emerged spontaneously through the course of the conversation.

Interpretive Perspective and Integrative Model

As our analysis developed, Bourdieu’s (2003) conceptualization of the field proved to be particularly well suited for explicating the sociological questions motivating our research. Bourdieu defines a field as a “network or configuration of objective relations between [social] positions” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, 99). In a manner analogous to a game, a given social field is structured by field-specific rules, norms, roles, and scripts that channel and constrain the range of acceptable (or unacceptable) practices and systematically pattern outcomes and resource distributions (i.e., who wins the valued resources that are at stake). These relational structures place social actors into relations of dominance and subordination based in large part on relative distributions of capital that influence how effectively they play the prevailing status games. Last but not least, fields are also dynamic sites of struggle as social actors, who have less favorable distributions of capital, mobilize to reshape or subvert the rules of the game in ways that are more favorable to their relative positions (Bourdieu 1990, 2003).

Bourdieu eschews any a priori definition of a field’s scope and scale. Instead, he argues that “the boundaries of the field can only be determined by empirical investigation” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, 100). Accordingly, the logic of field analysis has been applied to many different levels of social aggregation, ranging from macro-level systems of sociocultural practice (e.g., the economic field, the field of cultural production, the field of consumption); specific organizational domains (e.g., the journalistic field, the academic field, the nursing field, and the field of medical education); and still more contextually circumscribed institutional spaces such as the field of the museum (Prior 2002), the field of middle-class home décor (Halle 1993), and the field of indie music consumption (Arsel and Thompson 2011). This conceptual flexibility reflects that the analysis of a field is less about defining sociocultural boundaries than thinking relationally and structurally: that is, mapping out the network of relations that position social actors in a given, historically shaped field of power and status competitions over valued forms of capital (Swartz 1997).

Through a hermeneutic process of iterating between this relational conceptualization of the field and the sociological patterns revealed by our data (Thompson 1997), we developed a theoretical representation of how class differences are negotiated in this field and how the ensuing conflicts over symbolic capital are undertaken through these class-stratified marketplace performances (see fig. 1). For purposes of communicative efficiency, we present this model up front as an organizing device for highlighting and elaborating upon the key findings that emerged over the course of the study.

Figure 1.

A Sociological Structuring of Class-Stratified Marketplace Performances

A Sociological Structuring of Marketplace Performances

As illustrated in figure 1, these marketplace performances are embedded in the previously discussed socioeconomic differences between service workers hailing from rural (and squatter periphery) poverty zones and affluent middle-class consumers whose social positions correspond to Sassen’s (2006a) characterization of the global economy’s new mass elite. In catering to this clientele, owners of Turkish hair salons draw from an established aesthetic code—or global structures of common difference (Wilk 1995)—shared among upscale hair salons that populate urban glamour zones around the world, such that their salon-specific proprietary differences are variations on these underlying aesthetic motifs. This structural code includes modernist/minimalist spatial layouts conveying an aura of clinical professionalism; highly aestheticized promotional images, indicative of globally diffused standards of fashionable appearances often displayed in a manner recalling a modern art gallery; and status-signifying (and softening) aesthetic flourishes, such as crystal chandeliers, that mark the space as one befitting an affluent, female clientele. With these global structures of common difference setting the performative stage, our model brings into critical relief a system of interrelated practices that facilitate the production and circulation of cultural, social, and economic capital and that systematically mediate sociocultural differences between underclass service workers and their affluent clientele.

Enacting Performative Scripts and Disciplinary Practices

Metropolitan Turkish hair salons operate on an apprenticeship model that has a clearly defined and strictly enforced role hierarchy. At the bottom of this organizational structure, is the çırak role: an entry-level position typically held by 12–15-year-old males who aspire to earn a living as hairdressers. Commonly, these hopefuls have relatives working in a higher role in the targeted salon, and this social capital provides an entrée into the profession. Çıraks are mainly responsible for menial tasks such as cleaning floors, brushes, mirrors, bathrooms, and serving tea or coffee to salon clients. After 3–4 years, those çıraks who have proven their dedication to the craft and demonstrated sufficient customer service acumen graduate to the kalfa role. Kalfas are responsible for washing clients’ hair, doing other preparatory work, and then drying clients’ hair. More experienced kalfas may even cut hair and prepare the mix of coloring agents. The next role in the salon hierarchy is the usta (i.e., hairdresser), which is the highest level a salon worker can attain without becoming an owner. Hairdressers are expected to be highly skilled and knowledgeable about all aspects of hair styling. Owners stand at the top of the salon hierarchy. These men are highly successful hairdressers who have developed a sufficient customer base to launch their own hair salons. Owners tend to be very hands-on in their approach to the business, working side by side with their employees and personally catering to important clients. During the course of their 10–12-hour workdays, owners will continuously move between their customer service responsibilities, managing, training, and disciplining their workers, and other management and administrative tasks.

From the customers’ standpoint, a typical visit to the salon would unfold in this way. These salons generally operate on a first-come, first-served basis. (As we will later show, clients’ ability to command immediate service with minimal waiting time is a key component of the intercustomer status game that plays out in this field.) When a customer enters the salon, she is first greeted by the receptionist. The receptionist asks what the customer’s styling needs are and, depending on the answer, calls up a member of the crew. In the meantime, a çırak will engage in a greeting routine that involves taking her coat and other welcoming gestures. At this point, customers will often assert demands for personalized service. Some may want a valet to park their car; others may ask for items to be placed in the refrigerator or stored in a special way; others may request that the music or music volume be changed; if morning time, some may request a breakfast pastry and/or hot black tea. It is important to note that regular customers of the salon expect that routine forms of these personalizing touches will be provided without their having to ask.

The customer is then taken into the waiting area, where a çırak will offer her a beverage or some other amenity. Owing to the salon’s open and uncluttered floor plan, the customer can easily observe the crew, the owner, and other customers from where she sits. The members of the crew who know the customer will greet her; those who do not will assiduously avoid eye contact. Next, a kalfa will escort the customer either to the washing area or to one of the styling chairs. The process of washing and styling a customer’s hair itself reveals an internal hierarchy among the salon staff based on skill and experience. More experienced çıraks will wash the client’s hair, a kalfa will do the brushing and perhaps some initial styling, then the hairdresser or owner will do the actual cutting and styling. A customer who is receiving an extensive level of service (cutting, coloring, and styling) can spend up to 3 hours being catered to by hairdresser and crew.

The performative scripts are supported by an array of disciplinary practices, conversational norms, behavioral conventions, normative expectations, and conventionalized social roles that coordinate the social interactions among customers, hairdressers, and crew. These scripted encounters are not ideologically neutral but, in myriad ways, encode meanings that reflect the dominant cultural position of the middle-class clientele being catered to. Consumers assert their structurally privileged position through their direct actions toward hairdressers and crew, as well as through institutionally mediated means. As an illustration of this latter case, owners act as the de facto enforcers of customers’ class-based preferences by creating an appropriate salon aesthetic and socially conditioning (through sometimes heavy-handed methods) their employees in the appropriate (middle-class) standards of comportment and speech. Owing to the fact that the salon is, indeed, a path for attaining economic and cultural resources, rural migrant and urban underclass men accept these modes of governance and internalize them as forms of self-improvement and in the process gradually become distanced from their rural or squatter social networks and cultural heritages.

These interpersonal norms are institutionalized and reproduced through training, sharing of formal and informal knowledge, and strict disciplinary practices. More experienced kalfas and hairdressers consistently characterized their training in terms akin to a rite of passage that precipitated a life-changing transformation. It is important to note that they are now repeating this same training regimen in their interactions with younger çıraks and kalfas. These disciplinary practices most directly express forms of power and authority that emanate from the salon’s structural hierarchy, but more broadly, they are articulations of socioeconomic power structures manifest in the overarching societal status system.

Consumers further assert their privileged social status position by setting strict boundaries on the range of normatively acceptable social interactions that can transpire between themselves and hairdressers. They deem it to be unacceptable for their hairdressers to ask personal questions beyond general ones such as “How are you?” or “How was your week?” that could be answered with perfunctory responses. They will not countenance their hairdressers pressing for additional personal details or making comments that might imply any sense of peer-to-peer equality. Consider Petek’s exasperation when asked if she would ever consider having a casual meeting with her hairdresser in a social setting other than the salon:

Petek:It is not a possibility. Even if he wanted it very much he could not ask me such a thing. And if he did, I would not accept it

I:What would you think if he asked to have a cup of coffee?

Petek:I would not like this. I would not go to his salon again, ever. I would take this as a very gutsy behavior and I would not go.

I:Even if this is just for a friendly conversation and nothing more?

Petek:If he wanted to talk to me he could talk to me while coloring my hair. Apart from that, outside of that space [the salon] I would not want to have a special communication with Ayhan [her hairdresser]. We do not have any common denominator.

I:Common denominator?

Petek:I mean we don’t have common backgrounds, [we do not have a] common social context, I don’t mean to put the hairdressers down but these are all related to one’s level of education, one’s worldview, the way they live their life, no not really. I mean I think we are very different.

By portraying their relationships to hairdressers as strictly instrumental affairs, consumers place clear symbolic boundaries on the degree of perceived interpersonal obligation that arises over the course of these performative relationships. They reject any suggestion that they could have social or affective ties to their hairdressers beyond the exchange of money for an appropriately performed service or noblesse oblige displays of cordiality:

Yonca:The relationship between us is a business relationship. It is his job. It is much like, I mean it is like when I go to his office and have my hair done, it is the same as when he goes to the bank and deals with his money related needs. This is the core of our relationship.

Leyla:Everyone should do their job. In terms of humane social relationships, of course, I do [try to adhere to that]. … For example, when I had learned from the crew that the father of my stylist had died, I tried to make eye contact with him the next time I was there, and asked how he was and told him that I was sorry about the death of his father. … Because, Caner and Bulent [the two co-owners of the salon] are two people in my life, as a result I think that I should be able to keep a social, distant, humane relationship with them.

Often working in a tacit alliance with owners, mass elite consumers claim, as an inherent right of their status position, the institutional authority to determine when salon workers commit normative transgressions and when disciplinary actions should be taken:

I:You said they [crew] sometimes are too casual, do not know the level [of engagement]. Do you remember one particular occasion where this happened?

Piraye:Well, one time [a crew member] was making my hair on a regular basis, and he felt closer to me, and dared to address me in “you” [in singular]. Ilhan still addresses me as you [in plural], he is the owner of that salon for 11–12 years now. And I see him twice a week. Do you know what I mean? I did not like that.

I:What did you do?

Piraye:Honestly I cannot remember what I did at that moment, but I did not let that kid do my hair anymore. Once this kid started to hair dry my hair, I told Ilhan [her hairdresser] that I do not want this kid to dry my hair. That kid was never allowed to get close to me ever again. I mean things like that. I never warn the kid in a way that would hurt or offend him, I mean I won’t tell him don’t call me “you” in singular, call me you in plural, or whatever, but the way I act the way I behave in a way, I make him feel it, or I tell it to Ilhan. I tell Ilhan that he [crew member] should be more careful. … I give hints to Ilhan.

Among the Turkish middle class, hanım is a formal way of addressing women, akin to “Mrs.” and the plural sense of “you” (i.e., sınız), rather than the singular “you” (i.e., sın), further expresses respectful adherence to punctilious norms of interaction. Piraye’s reaction to this verbal transgression is indicative of the profound status differences that are built into the performative script. From Piraye’s class-framed standpoint, the crew member’s verbal transgression is more than sufficient (and self-evident) grounds for demanding that he never serve her again. It is important to note that Piraye relies upon the hairdresser/owner to implement her desired reprimands so that she does not have to confront the emotional consequences of a crew member’s hurt feelings or other unpleasant interpersonal outcomes. This institutional buffering is part and parcel of her assumed class privilege. Tellingly, she expresses no reservations that Ilhan might, in a backstage setting, countenance or at least have sympathy toward his crew’s deviant actions.

Leveraging her class-based authority, Piraye further presumes that she is the arbiter of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the salon setting. To exercise this power, Piraye sees herself as only needing to drop hints (rather than having to make strongly worded demands) for Ilhan to undertake the remedial actions she deems necessary. Much like the other mass elite consumers we interviewed, Piraye expects her hairdresser to be so highly responsive to her wishes that she can wield her socioeconomic authority with a light touch that circumvents direct conflicts or overt power struggles.

Practices of Symbolic Domination

Symbolic domination refers to a multifaceted process in which subordinate groups become socialized in ideological meanings and values that legitimate prevailing status hierarchies and naturalize the class privileges of those who occupy dominant positions in the socioeconomic hierarchy (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). It is important to note that these status-legitimating and -naturalizing processes operate in ways that render members of the subordinated group(s) complicit in their own subjugation. As Bourdieu (1990, 51) elucidates, “all symbolic domination presupposes on the part of those who submit to it, a form of complicity which is neither a passive complicity to external constraint nor a free adherence to values.” Thus, those being subjected to symbolic domination are socialized to accept a prevailing set of social conditions, standards, ideals, and constraints as a doxa (i.e., a natural and self-evident system of beliefs) rather than a confluence of historical contingences that have placed a particular social faction—and its collectively shared aesthetic tastes—in a dominant structural position. As a result, members of subordinated groups consensually acquiesce to these power relationships and modes of authority.

Bourdieu (1990) argues that a necessary precondition for symbolic domination is that members of a subordinated group come to believe that their indigenous lifestyle practices and proclivities are inherently inferior to those canonized by the dominant faction, a dynamic evident in the interviews with the underclass men seeking opportunities in the hairdresser field:

Argun:Generally, people, I mean women, who have real good status in life come to us. Doctors, engineers, housewives but all high cultured women come to our salon. If you are working at a good salon, working at a good position, you always serve to very high status women. You could serve to a housewife, to a deputy, to a minister, to a doctor, even to a professor. And how does it affect you? It educates you in a way. At the end of the day you deal with high-cultured people and if you have a little bit of brains, if you have a bit of inclination [to get educated], it educates you. It educates you in a positive way, about your worldview, the way you live, you catch something from them.

Argun’s reflection on the lifestyle differences between the Turkish underclass and their affluent, metropolitan clientele harbors two consequential sociological implications. First, owners and hairdressers themselves hail from conditions of rural or urban squatter poverty and have had to develop—through training at the hands of their mentors and interactions with customers—capabilities to effectively interact with their clientele in a manner that appeals to mass elite consumer sensibilities. As a consequence of their attained positions in the salon field, owners and experienced hairdressers now act, on behalf of their middle-class clientele, as both institutional gatekeepers and agents of class reconfiguration.

This dynamic is perhaps most evident when owners select new çıraks from the available labor pool. Invariably, these young men lack the requisite social skills and cultural knowledge needed to succeed in the hairdressing profession. To pass this initial screening, these aspirants’ appearance and demeanor must be compatible with an owner’s internalized understanding of middle-class standards of attractiveness and norms of self-presentation:

Ferit:How do we select? First, comes the looks. I mean the way he looks and talks are the most crucial things for us at the beginning. I mean sometimes we see a kid, and we say, he could become a great hairdresser. Why? He is handsome, has colorful eyes [meaning, blue or green], his hair is beautiful, he is clean, I mean he is a beautiful kid. The people who serve to women have to be clean and nice looking people. Generally this is how we prefer one kid to another at the very beginning. Later on we look at his hand skills. But if he does not have the looks it is very hard. For example, I used to have a çırak, his father wanted him to become a hairdresser. I said, “Brother, this kid cannot become a hairdresser, give him to another occupation. Because he does not know how to talk [he had an accent].” … They [appearance and speech] are very important in our occupation. You need to be trustworthy. You can gain customers’ trust if you look beautiful, if you know how to talk. [Customers should say] “This kid is handsome, proper, clean, shiny clean,” and if you add your hand skills on top of that, then you can make some money in this industry.

Owners such as Ferit have learned to assess prospective workers through the eyes and ears of their customers. As a consequence, their selection criteria run counter to many of the normative ideals of Turkish masculinity that prevail in rural and underclass cultural spheres. In comparison to these rural/working-class ideals, men who possess the aesthetic characteristics needed to gain entry into the hairdressing craft have a softer, more androgynous appearance; a gentler demeanor; a greater interest in contemporary fashion styles; and are less strongly marked by rural accents and local vernaculars. These personal qualities could be liabilities to these men’s status position in the rural communities of their upbringing. In the context of the metropolitan salon, however, they are distinguishing aesthetic assets that signal an aspirant has a (latent) potential to embody the forms of cultural capital that would eventually enable him to skillfully perform the hairdresser role for a mass elite clientele.

Owners have also embraced the ideological view that their rural migrant apprentices are the recipients, and hence beneficiaries, of personal improvement and cultural refinement:

Berke:They [hairdressers] are all coming from poor families. Some of them still eat on the floor, from the same pot. They don’t know how to talk when they come here. We teach them how to talk. We teach them how to greet a customer, how to start a conversation. We tell them they should take a shower every day, take care of their looks. They should make their hair every morning, dress nicely. Learn table manners. They should read and be interested in the world. They should eat outside [at a restaurant] and watch people [interact in such settings].

Seen in this light, Kaya, Argun, and Berke give expression to the self-complicit logic of symbolic domination by interpreting their rural sociocultural backgrounds as being less modern, less cultured, and less sophisticated than those of their affluent, metropolitan clientele. Indeed, their narratives suggest that they now identify more closely with the sociocultural conventions and ideals of their clientele (though they remain marked as cultural outsiders) than with their own roots in rural culture.

Another aspect of symbolic domination relates to apprentices’ desires to attain a material lifestyle characteristic of middle-class consumers. At first blush, the longing for westernized material affluence may appear to be a self-evident “desire for desire” (Belk, Ger, and Askegaard 2003, 342). However, such consumerist desires carry decided ideological undertones. In Turkey and other marketizing countries, countervailing ideological resources are widely available for rejecting global consumerism and asserting the moral virtue of lifestyles that are deemed to be more traditional and insulated from status games premised on the conspicuous consumption of global brands and fashion styles (see, e.g., Sandıkçı and Ger 2010; Üstüner and Holt 2007).

The owners and hairdressers in our study, however, are fully committed to the ideological ideals and values represented by the rise of global mass elite consumer culture (cf. Sassen 2006b). Their identity projects are directed toward acquiring the economic and cultural resources needed to enact a legitimate middle-class consumer identity and, hence, to proclaim their status as cosmopolitan consumers:

Fevzi:It has been 3 years since I opened up this place [the salon], and I started to accumulate some money. Honestly, I started here when I was 27 and now I am 30, I started to live a little. I think one needs to see [explore]. Without seeing it does not work. Openly, customers here [used to] tell me that they had been to there, they had seen this, they had seen that, this place was very beautiful, they would ask, “Would you like to go there, are you going to see this?”

I:For example, where?

Fevzi:It could be holiday destinations, or historical sites. I had not seen them before. I was working very hard and I had not had the economic means. I had not been to those places before, but now I go, I visit, I see, I explore. I compare [my experiences] to the customers’. For example, I have been to Canakkale, or to Antalya. They have beautiful museums. They are beautiful places. … You know, you go for a vacation. And in the eyes of the customers, you have the aura of someone who is more experienced, more traveled. And if our work continues to be like this, I will travel more. … This is all about how you educate yourself. When we come here we change, we have to. As we make some money our living quality, our living standards improve, we are able to improve ourselves, one step at a time, and hopefully it will be even better.

In a telling symbolic move, workers often pledge their fidelity to this ideological order by interpreting owners’ achievements and concomitant cultural authority in terms akin to the traditional command fathers hold over their sons in the rural villages:

Kaya:At that time [when Kaya was a çırak] we had an unbelievable amount of respect for our mentors [bosses]. I mean, one’s mentor was almost as important as one’s father. You would like and respect your boss unbelievably. Even if you are very tired, even if you work very hard, even if he scolds you, shouts at you, even if he slaps you, no, he is right. My toughness is something like this, to establish some principles, to create a system. I mean you warn a kid or you tell the kid that this and that needs to be done in this salon, it has to be. I also get angry at them, shout at them but I am working hard so that they reach a good position. They are not well educated, they have not done anything, that is why I tell the kids that … it is not enough just to [know how to] blow-dry the hair. Of course the occupation is very important, you should improve your abilities, but at the same time you need to improve yourself. You need to talk well. You need to have ideas. You need to improve your character and sensibilities.

Kaya’s normative language of self-improvement is steeped in the class hierarchy that privileges the lifestyles, tastes, and outlooks of metropolitan middle-class consumers over the rural poor. Apprentices tacitly accept these ideological norms when granting owners their quasi-parental authority. This interdependency is contingent upon owners instilling a belief in their workers, through success stories and their own lifestyle examples, that this system of performative rules, practices, and expectations (and punishments) is an effective means to attain their vision of middle-class lifestyle (and respectability).

Accordingly, owners and experienced hairdressers’ narratives about self-improvement, and the material benefits that accrue from these transformations, loom large in their justifications for the often strict disciplining of their apprentices. Consider the life narrative of Berke, who, at age 14, set off from his rural village to pursue his dream of becoming a famous hairdresser. His career followed the hierarchal progression from lowly çırak to owner. Currently, he owns numerous salons in upper-middle-class neighborhoods and malls and has over 200 employees working for him. He describes his success:

Berke:I have taken 29 world-tour vacations. I managed to attract customers from both the business elite and the political elite. Also at the time all the celebrity artists used to be my customers. In 1965 I brought the “American-bar” [wet bar] to the salons. I brought all the new innovations [fashions] to Turkey. Whatever was happening in the world, I would bring it to Turkey and apply it in my salons. In the 1980s I would go to France and the UK and get the documents from their hairdressing schools. Since 1965 I always traveled to Europe and I always was integrated to the world.

During his interview, Berke proudly recounts a long series of life accomplishments and lifestyle practices that would be unimaginable to most men born into rural poverty. Fashion and trade magazines frequently approach him for interviews about hairstyling trends and business practices, his family lives in an upper-middle-class gated community and travels to Europe on a regular basis, and his two children received their education in Europe. Most of all, Berke enjoys considerable status in the salon industry and serves as a role model for many who are aspiring to success in the hairdressing industry. For example, Demir recalls being profoundly inspired by the uplifting view of the hairdressing profession that Berke espoused in a trade magazine article:

I:What was it that impressed you so much?

Demir:It was the thing that Berke Bey said. He said that “against all hardships, the hairdressing as an occupation is a very respectable one. You always work with people from higher levels [socioeconomic classes].” And he himself has always tried to live a first-class life, just like his customers. He would go to places that his customers go, such as the opera, ballet, theater. He said that he would go and hang out and have fun at places his customers do, that he would shop from Vakko [a very high-end store], that he would shop from Beymen [another very high-end store].

By exemplifying this rural migrant dream of attaining a “first-class life” (an idealization that ideologically naturalizes the prevailing status hierarchy and privileges middle-class forms of cultural capital), Berke has become an iconic figure in the salon field. His life narrative demonstrates that the movement from rural poverty to metropolitan affluence is possible; second, it indoctrinates aspirants in the belief that their opportunities for upward social mobility are contingent upon self-improvement practices, many of which involve emulating and internalizing the tastes of their respectable clientele. For the underclass men working their way up this institutional hierarchy, this narrative ideologically frames their complicit acquiescence to the authority of their bosses (and middle-class clients) as a strategy for attaining the symbolic capital needed to enact middle-class forms of consumer sovereignty (cf. Holt 2002) and to claim a legitimate position in the middle-class status system.

Practices of symbolic domination are further manifested in these men’s shifting relationships with the cultural and familial spheres in which they were raised. They describe feelings of being estranged from their families (most particularly from their fathers, who tended to adhere to traditional models of masculinity) and neighborhood friends as their identities, mannerisms, appearances, and life goals become less and less aligned with the norms and mores of their rural and squatter upbringing:

Inal:We grew up in the squatters. We are culturally weak, we were not able to open up. And our families are the same. They are closed [conservative] families. They are stuck in between four walls. So of course when I first dressed up [differently] there were lots of reactions. It is wonderful if you could convince people by talking, discussing. I talked to them. Of course they said so many things: “What is this, every part of your body is showing, every part is showing.” I mean, I had to deal with such reactions.

Halit:My hair was long and had streaks on them. My father was very angry. He was saying that “you are a man! You are not supposed to have hair like this, men have short hair.” My hair was really long, as long as yours. I used to have my hair in a ponytail. It was like David Beckham’s hair. I saw the same style on a guy at one of the shows on TV. I used to color my hair to blonde. I tried various different styles. My father was telling me that a man cannot walk around in public like this.

While most of our nonowner informants still physically reside in neighborhoods located in poverty zones, their identity reconfigurations have forged stronger identifications with the middle-class worlds of their metropolitan clients, thereby precipitating feelings of cultural displacement and disaffection from the rural and/or squatter neighborhoods in which they were raised. As one illustrative example, these men begin to reinterpret their family backgrounds through their newly acquired system of status categories and normative ideals, which often leads to disparaging evaluations:

Gediz:Our people are lower class. I used not to cover my head in Cayyolu [a middle-class neighborhood] or at Migros [a high-end supermarket chain store] I was very comfortable. Nobody was saying anything to me [about my hair]. They saw my hair as nothing special, just normal. But Sincan [his lower income neighborhood] is not like that. They are lower class. They have not seen anything, they are rural people. Because of that I think they beat him. These people are vagabonds, they are like jackals.

When these underclass men internalize middle-class norms and gradually expand their sociocultural horizons beyond the parochial borders of village or squatter life, they must also confront experiences of social alienation in their local neighborhoods and various forms of institutional subjugation in the field of the metropolitan Turkish hair salon. By bearing the social costs of living between these cultural worlds, however, they hope to attain socioeconomic advancement and the fulfillment of their ideologically mapped consumer desires through the strategic use of positional goods, leisure travel to edifying locales, the appropriate displays of upscale brands, and other consumption-oriented markers of middle-class status.

Practices of Habitus Reconfiguration

The habitus refers to enduring habits, embodied predispositions, and naturalized styles of thought, many of which are established through primary forms of socialization (cf. Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). Through the social conditioning of the habitus, class and gender-based norms and ideologies (and distinguishing consumer tastes and preferences) become naturalized aspects of personal identity (Allen 2002; Holt 1998; Üstüner and Holt 2007). Consequently, institutional efforts to transform these habituated predispositions, particularly in ways that effectively erase or at least obscure class markings, would be expected to be cognitively demanding, physically arduous, and time intensive (Bourdieu 2000).

Hairdressers unequivocally describe their training process as an arduous one. Aside from learning the practical skills of the hairdresser craft, their social conditioning involved an intricate process of losing their rural accents, learning new practices of etiquette and bodily comportment, and cultivating a new sense of personal style and sartorial flair. Once these men become full-fledged hairdressers, they begin to make conscious investments in their cultural capital credentials as cosmopolitan consumers, such as by traveling to various quarters of Europe for personal and professional edification.

As we looked across these interviews, we also found support for the theoretical argument that disciplinary regimes become more effective and binding as they evolve from the application of brute force to normatively governed self-monitoring (Foucault 1979). The men we interviewed told a common story about being subjected to beatings, tongue lashings, and other forms of corporeal disciplining whenever they transgressed certain rules or failed to perform their designated duties to the satisfaction of their bosses. In these early stages of becoming a hairdresser, these men were consciously seeking to follow the performative script out of deference to authority (and fear of punishment) without a deep understanding of its underlying cultural logic and normative code. Over time, they began to internalize this nexus of rules, norms, values, and expectations as a form of embodied cultural capital (Bourdieu 2000) and, thereby, enact their roles in a more improvisational and spontaneous manner.

An illustration of the former orientation is provided by Dalan (a relatively new çırak):

Dalan:It is forbidden to say abla [slang for sister] in our salon. You cannot call abla to a customer.

I:What happens if you do?

Dalan:It is an unacceptable behavior to greet a customer like that. Same is true among ourselves. For example, when we are calling one another we cannot use abi [slang for brother] either. We have to say Hakan Bey [i.e., Mr.], Dalan Bey, Gediz Bey.

I:What does it mean to say Bey?

Dalan:What does it mean? The boss does not want abi. The boss does not want us to use that word.

I:So why can’t you use the word abi in the shop then?

Dalan:I don’t know. The boss says abi and abla is no more. I mean when we are calling one another the boss says don’t use your names. We are the same age. But the boss says don’t call one another, don’t say Dalan for example. Say Dalan Bey. The boss says that it implies quality. He says these kinds of things. He has worked at other places, learnt all these. And he wants to implement them in his own salon.

In the rural areas, abla is the standard mode of address between younger men and older women, whereas abi is the common salutation among male peers. Among the middle classes, however, these phrases are stigmatized linguistic practices that connote a lack of education and sophistication, unless used among old friends. By requiring çıraks to abandon their usual greeting practices in favor of those acceptable to middle-class clients, the owners and hairdressers begin the process of reconfiguring their trainee’s class predispositions. For relatively inexperienced çıraks, these requirements are experienced as discomforting, external impositions that are followed out of fear of punishment.

For novice trainees, such as Dalan, breaches in salon etiquette are understood as a failure to follow the boss’s orders. As hairdressers become more immersed in their roles (and corresponding forms of cultural capital), they also become less rule driven and more improvisational in their interactions and affective responses to clients in ways that reflect a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the subtle class codes in play:

Gediz:You have a customer in front of you and expecting a service from you. And you have to give her the service. You have to do it in a way that fits to the mood she is in. You learn these all with experience. One day [earlier in his career] I was asking a customer some questions about her hair. “Which shampoo do you use, how do you wash,” et cetera. She sighed and said, “You are asking too many questions. I am a banker. I just got out of work and I have a headache. I have to have my hair done. It is a requirement. I have a meeting tomorrow. I am very tired. Can you please keep quiet just a little bit?” I was so embarrassed. But I learned.


Gediz:Yes, because I was trying to help her but I was not doing it right. I did not know how to analyze the customer. I learned that I needed to do some analysis.


Gediz:I mean, from her accessories, the way she talks, the books she reads, the shoes she wears, you can analyze her in many different ways.

I:And then?

Gediz:Then I decide how I should approach her, how I should talk to her, what kind of service quality I should deliver to her, how I should shape her hair. For example, if the customer has many colorful accessories on, is lively, and dressed up in a posh or avant-garde style, then you need to overdo it [your service]. You need to spoil her. You need to make a hair that is shiny and big. She would like that. But if she is unpretentious, dressed simply, [has] a white shirt [on], just back from work, [has] a long skirt or a short skirt [on], it does not matter really, has high-heel shoes, she is going to go to work next day, I would make a hair that is nice and simple, something that would last.

I:How would you talk to the first one and the second one?

Gediz:I would not talk too much with the one in the white shirt. She is coming from work, she is tired. I would talk briefly with a psychologist or a school teacher.


Gediz:These are the people who always have to listen to other people’s troubles. They are already very tired [of talking and listening]. There needs to be a relaxing environment at the salon. She must drink her coffee and smoke her cigarette—if she is a smoker—she must relax and leave [in a relaxed mood]. It should not be a torture for her.

While working as a less experienced hairdresser, Gediz made a gaffe that sparked feelings of embarrassment, rather than, say, anger, indifference, or fear of his boss’s wrath. Gediz’s strategy for avoiding future embarrassment was to engage in more stringent self-governance and to further build his fluency and proficiency in the operative class and gender codes. As Gediz further vested his identity in this network of norms and scripted practices, he became more attuned to customers’ interpersonal gestures and sartorial styles and more astute in making inferences about their likely moods and emotional needs.

Gediz’s story is thematically similar to those told by other hairdressers regarding their experiences of self-improvement (an emic term charged with class significations and ideological beliefs). To become skilled marketplace performers, these men must acquire a natural fluency in entirely new forms of cultural capital. In response, consumers readily commend their hairdressers (and staff) for undergoing a civilizing process (Elias 1939/2000) that has refined their mannerisms and enhanced their level of cultural sophistication (as judged from the standpoint of mass elite, aesthetic sensibilities). However, they also adamantly contend that their hairdressers’ ability to master some conventions of upper-middle-class society does not mitigate, in the least, the class divide between them:

Piraye:Ilhan [and his crew] are very good at developing themselves. He always attends to international fairs [e.g., hairdressing expositions]; he renews his salon’s decor every 2 years, and the salon is always clean and hygienic. Ilhan has great taste, and always improves himself.

I:If Ilhan wanted to socialize with you, would you?

Piraye:I would not want that. I mean … at the end of the day, he is an uneducated guy. He has not gone to school, he has gone through the school of life.

For Piraye, having a formal education, rather than one attained through experiences in a salon (or salon settings), is the requisite form of symbolic capital needed to be a full-fledged middle-class social peer. From her class-framed viewpoint, Ilhan’s international travels may make him a more skilled hairdresser and interesting conversationalist, but they do not grant him the status of being a cosmopolitan consumer who could be her social-class peer. In this respect, Piraye’s narrative is quite similar to the views expressed by our other salon customers. While applauding their hairdressers’ efforts at self-betterment, these mass elite consumers assiduously police the status boundaries that separate those having metropolitan/professional backgrounds and those hailing from the impoverished socioeconomic ranks of rural villages and urban squatters. These class-differentiated perspectives on whether the socioeconomic hierarchy is immutable or malleable lies at the heart of the contestations over symbolic capital that arise in the interdependent status games played by hairdressers and consumers.

Negotiating Interdependent Status Games

In their respective status games, consumers and hairdressers seek to convert their different forms of capital into symbolic capital (i.e., a source of status, authority, respect, and social legitimacy). Owing to its structural characteristics, the salon field also creates interdependencies among the factionalized status games respectively played by consumers and hairdressers. For consumers, these interdependencies, if explicitly acknowledged, would also compromise the established relational norms through which they enact (and enforce) their dominant position in these relationships. Accordingly, these structural interdependencies provide a recurrent impetus for contesting and delegitimating their hairdressers’ symbolic capital assertions.

Consumers’ status games are situated in their professional and social networks. In these middle-class settings, consumers gain symbolic capital in part by appropriating their hairstylists’ skills at creating attractive fashion-forward hairstyles. Through their salon-enhanced appearances, they can display their aesthetic tastes, their acumen as discerning consumers, and last but not least, garner social recognition, which most commonly takes the form of compliments and queries about which salon they frequent. The salon is also a prime context for receiving and displaying highly customized service. Among the Turkish middle and upper middle class, high levels of customer service (particularly in the form of special provisions and accommodations not made available to everyone) are important status markers (Üstüner and Holt 2010).

The hairdressers’ status game is most fundamentally linked to their quest for upward socioeconomic mobility. In their interviews and backstage conversations, experienced hairdressers described themselves as artisans whose rarefied skills are highly coveted by their customers. Furthermore, hairdressers and their staff are often quite critical of their clients’ personal styles and sartorial choices and see themselves as gradually moving their clients toward more aesthetically pleasing and fashionable appearances. They believe that their customers become increasingly dependent on their skills at creating distinctive and attractive hairstyles (and distilling astute fashion advice). More experienced hairdressers interpret the laws of supply and demand as further strengthening their perceived status advantage in these relationships on the grounds that they possess distinctive skills, whereas a surfeit of customers stand willing to pay for their services.

However, consumers remain largely oblivious to the status games played by hairdressers and crew. Consumers expect (and demand) that hairdressers and staff play a deferential role in conversations and praise their hairdressers for never transgressing the social boundaries that demarcate her higher status. For example, Aysun approvingly recounts that her hairdresser never instigates inappropriate conversations or makes improper jokes, and moreover that he is “never too casual.” Expressing a clear sense of class consciousness (and distinction), Aysun explains, in a matter-of-fact way, her hairdresser has learned to mask his background by assiduously following the norms of formality that define middle-class business relationships:

Aysun:Kaya Bey, even though his position is fine right now, has a rural background. … He does not show it though. He is careful about preserving the distance while talking [to the customers]. He looks modern; when I say modern, I mean the way people behave from rural backgrounds are very different. I think also he wants to be an example for his crew, to show them this is the way to behave to customers. These people generally come from rural places, or squatter neighborhoods. The crew, for example, the kids who work at Kaya Bey’s salon come from squatter neighborhoods.

Aysun’s narrative also reveals a tacit claim to class privilege. While commending her stylist for being able to act in a modern way, she further suggests that he is conscientiously conforming to middle-class normative demands, rather than just expressing his natural tendencies. From Aysun’s class-framed perspective, her hairstylist is irrevocably tied to his rural background and, as a consequence, lives in a continual state of subservient self-governance: a stance he must assiduously maintain to set the proper example for his still undisciplined work crew.

In a related strategic move, salon customers routinely belittle their hairdressers’ self-proclaimed status as highly skilled artisans and even artists. From the consumers’ standpoint, their hairdressers are mere technicians who bring few, if any, distinctive skills to the relationship. Through this dismissive framing, customers delegitimate one of their hairdressers’ primary displays of symbolic capital and also claim a particular kind of authority—that of being the orchestrator of the service experience. As detailed by Arnould and Price (1993), this orchestrator role is typically performed by a service provider who possesses knowledge and skills lacking among the clientele.

The salon consumers invert the expected hierarchy of expertise by insisting that they bring the aesthetic vision to the performative encounter and that hairdressers then implement in a presumably uncreative and highly managed manner. With only a few exceptions, our customer informants profess that they know precisely what hairstyle and coloring they want to receive upon entering the salon. Several of them describe becoming quite annoyed when their hairdressers persisted in making alternative suggestions, which, if accepted, would shift the perceived balance of interdependency:

Canan:I determine what suits me, the color of my hair. They [insist], “Come on let us color your hair to this color or that color.” I don’t like such things. Because I see myself as someone who knows what she wants, and I don’t like pressure as such.

I:Do they pressure you?

Canan:Not the ones here [in her existing salon]. But the salon I used to go before this one, used to put pressure on me. “We know this business; this would suit you much better.” And I would say, “Fine but I am happy with my existing color.” I don’t like things like this.

Granting almost no professional autonomy to her stylist, Canan proclaims that he cannot knot her hair appropriately, a perception that often precipitates subtle power struggles over who has the greater degree of relational autonomy:

Canan:He does real tight knots. For example, you ask him to make it looser, have some loose hair around the knot, and then ask him, “Dear Fahri, why didn’t you make it loose?” He says, “The tight knot looks much better on you,” and then I say, “Well I did not want it that way,” and he says “No, no this looks very beautiful,” then I say, “Fine you did not get it, I will do my own hair.” And sometimes I tell the crew, “Come and help me put the hair clips in the right place,” and we do the knot together.

Through the detail of the knot, Canan’s hairdresser is putting into practice his own professional autonomy and judgment. In response, Canan leverages her privileged position by taking charge of his crew and invoking her disciplinary authority in ways that dramatically transform these performative interactions. Her power play forecloses the feelings of dependency that could arise if Canan deemed her hairdresser to be a skilled artist whose styling choices are to be heeded, or at minimum, respectfully considered.

Canan further states that she always gives her hairdresser exacting instructions on how he should cut, color, and even blow-dry her hair and emphasizes that she will not tolerate deviations from her directives. By refusing her hairstylist latitude for improvisation, Canan is strategically placing him within a system of supervisory governance more akin to that characteristic of a McDonaldized workforce (Ritzer 1998), even though hairstyling, by its very nature, does not lend itself to strict procedural rationalization. To sustain her perceptions of this service relationship, Canan selectively ignores that her hairdresser will undertake any number of practical judgments and skillful modifications to transpose an image or abstract description into a customized hairstyle. Through this strategic denial of her hairdressers’ essential role in crafting a pleasing hairstyle, Canan portrays herself as being a fully autonomous party to this relationship, unencumbered by any dependencies despite her 10 years of continued patronage.

While salon consumers adamantly proclaim their autonomy in their hairdresser relationships, their actual practices indicate a much greater degree of interdependency and indeed loyalty. These customers seldom switch their allegiances, and most have been patronizing the same hairdresser for several years (see table 1). They explain this inertia by appeal to the time and effort they must invest to appropriately “train” a new stylist to perform up to their standards. For example, Defne moved to a new neighborhood after she married. Rather than switching to one of the many salons in close proximity, she has continued to patronize her regular hairdresser on the grounds that she was just “used to the people.” Similarly, Emel lives in an area that is a veritable hotbed of new salon openings. Although intrigued by some of these posh and exciting establishments, she has not tried any of them.

According to these consumers, their relational inertia (and de facto loyalty) is due to the significant personal investments of time and effort they have made in training their hairdressers (and crew) to meet their standards of conduct, to understand their aesthetic preferences, and to adhere to their conversational norms. Consumers’ switching cost rationales, however, also serve to delegitimate their hairdressers’ professional standing (and corresponding symbolic capital claims) of being highly skilled marketplace performers whose stock of professional experience and know-how enables them to expertly adapt to the whims and idiosyncrasies of different consumers.

Aysun also dismisses her hairdresser’s claims to be an artist as a mere affectation of his underclass upbringing, invoking notions of a childlike need to impress by embellishing on his actual social circumstances:

Aysun:Erdal Bey is a person who is trying to show himself more [higher] than who he really is. … I don’t know how to describe this. He is just making stuff up. He is that kind of a person. But he does not mean any harm.

I:What does he say, for example?

Aysun:He just talks a lot. A couple of times he told me about his early years in the business. He likes to talk. He described that he had worked under a famous stylist in Istanbul. He says that his mentor really liked him. He tells me things like this. And sometimes while describing all that he adds on, I mean he adds on things that have not happened. At least this is what I feel. [I think] he is claiming things to sell himself.

Other customers expressed variations upon this delegitimating narrative. In particular, they were quick to interpret their hairdressers’ personal efforts to achieve a fashion-forward, contemporary look as betraying a lack of cultural sophistication and good taste:

Defne:They wear outfits that look unbelievably artificial on them. For example, the crew at the hairdresser I go to, they have a number of earrings on their ears, [they wear] weird t-shirts and jeans that hang to the floor [very large]. They are trying to look like something that they are not, and these things don’t look natural on them.

Zeyno characterizes her hairdresser and crew members as diligently striving to “camouflage” their underclass backgrounds, but she concludes that their efforts inevitably seem unnatural, fake, and gauche. Defne believes that most hairdressers become alcoholics because they cannot otherwise cope with the stress of “trying to become something they are not.” Other consumers disparage their hairdressers’ ensemble of outfits through the epithet kuaför kılıklı (the hairdresser look), which refers to someone wearing counterfeit high-fashion brands and being garish, rather than tastefully understated, in their sartorial displays:

Canan:[Salon owner’s name] has many hairdresser friends. They come and sit [at the salon]. 5–6 guys and if [owner] is available they start chatting. They all look the same. And they were all, I mean, I think the reason was that as I told you before, the class that they are coming from is very different from the social context that they are in currently. Does it make sense? They are coming from different families. I am talking about the hairdressers in Çankaya. This one man [hairdresser] had never seen Çankaya before in his life and after becoming a hairdresser he starts to engage with that kind of woman [upper-middle-class women who live in Çankaya]. And then I think he starts to think, “I should have the most fashionable look, I should be modern.” But of course, they look very funny while trying to be that.

Customers’ denigrating and delegitimating portrayals of their hairdressers’ displays of symbolic capital rhetorically reinforce the class boundaries that hairdressers are seeking to dissolve. In this way, consumers use this narrative of intractable class differences (and superiority) to ideologically claim a collective monopoly on these rarefied middle-class resources and thereby affirm that they maintain an imperdible authority, status advantage, and relational autonomy in the interdependent status games that are constituted by these marketplace performances.

Consumers’ status-enforcing invocations of their dominant socioeconomic position also occur in situations where they do grant a fair degree of artisan authority to their hairdressers. We note that only two of our participants were willing to explicitly relinquish (in an emically acknowledged fashion) aesthetic control to their hairdressers, and, in one case, the relationship lasted only a month. To begin with this latter case, Merve began to frequent a hairdresser who catered to a celebrity clientele and who came highly recommended by a friend:

Merve:A friend insisted so I went there. She said, “He cuts hair amazingly, amazingly,” so I went. And there, [hairdresser’s name], he is the one who cuts the hair. And if you were to see that guy, he thinks that he is a genius artist. He might be so, and it is an art at the end of the day, and you schedule an appointment with the guy, and all the crew prepare everything for him, and the guy does not even ask you how would you like it cut. I happened to have gone there believing that he cuts hair really well. And he cut my hair very short. And he explained it as follows, “I am going to cut a hair that fits your face, don’t interrupt.” The first time in my life I found myself in a passive [defensive] mood, I said “okay.” Then he said, “the hair needs to be colored as well, I will change its color too.” And he colored my hair. And when I left the salon I was a totally different woman. I mean the person who entered and the person who exited, if it was someone who did not know me, they would think that those two women were different.

Even though Merve received compliments on her hairstyle, she soon decided that it was wrong for her and further noted that her weekly visits to maintain the cut and coloring were “too torturous” to continue. However, such weekly salon visits had been and continued to be part of her lifestyle once she ended this particular service relationship. In the case of these problematic performative encounters, the hairdresser’s stellar reputation as a stylist (as buttressed by his authoritative style) did function as a form of symbolic capital that he leveraged to claim interpersonal power and control. In turn, Merve found herself playing a discomfortingly passive and compliant role in this relationship. Yet Merve’s reflections reveal subtle linguistic diminishments of the hairdresser’s symbolic capital such as “he thinks he is a genius artist” and the depersonalizing and deskilling references to the hairdresser as “the guy,” as in “you schedule an appointment with the guy and the guy does not even ask how you would like it cut.”

From Merve’s perspective, the hairdresser’s assertion of his symbolic capital manifested an equally, if not more troubling, status transgression: he did not place Merve on a performative pedestal where she would be the absolute center of attention. Rather, Merve felt that she was too often cast in a secondary customer role to the hairdresser’s celebrity clients:

Merve:It was a place where celebrities went, so when a celebrity came they were putting all their attention to them. If I wanted something, they would charge me for it. … For example, they offer you a drink, for example a sparkling water, and then you think that it’s part of their service, and you say “oh how nice” but then they charge you for it at the end.

Merve’s displeasure with this hairdresser’s marketplace performances emanates from complex intersections among different status games. Indirectly, the hairdresser’s apparent success at catering to celebrity clients (who are influential trendsetters among the Turkish elite; see Üstüner and Holt 2010) reduced his interdependency on noncelebrity clients, which, in turn, empowered his more authoritative performative stance. Conversely, Merve is also overmatched by celebrities in her in-group customer status game, and she ultimately returns to a salon where she is treated like a de facto celebrity client.

Whereas Merve recognizes her hairdresser’s symbolic capital in a begrudging manner, Piraye comfortably acknowledges and even extols her hairdresser’s artisan skills. Furthermore, she is quite content with this marketplace relationship, in part, because her hairdresser deploys his authority with a deft touch that does not overtly usurp her authority or perceived control over the performative dynamics:

I:You say that Ilhan is almost your image maker?

Piraye:Yes, for hairstyle yes. For example, if I want to change my [hair’s] color I describe him the tone of my coloring, for example, I tell him that I would like to change it from red to blonde, and Ilhan decides the tone of blonde. Or maybe he can say, “No, blonde would not work for you.” Or, for example, I was wearing an outfit for a wedding, so I described a hairstyle [for him to make]; he said, “That style would not work with this dress.” He considers your preferences, and tries to meet with you in the middle. I mean, he does neither what you want, nor what he wants. But at the end if there is something really not right in what you wanted, he eventually convinces you [not to] by describing it. Likewise in haircuts, if you want a particular cut, he would say, “Well you are a very busy woman, that cut requires frequent styling, you cannot invest that much time to it.” He would not cut that style. Even though I do not really enjoy other people directing me in any way, [I can tell you with my] 10-year experience that Ilhan has always been right.

In contrast to Merve’s aggravation at being treated as a less important customer, Piraye praises the salon staff for promptly catering to her needs in an anticipatory manner and displaying a demeanor appropriate to her higher status position:

Piraye:I very much enjoy going to a hairdresser. I very much like how people treat me there, and also the time that I spend in a hairdresser is almost the only time that I have for myself [she is a working mother of three]. I like to spend a half-day in the hair salon, knowing that I am taking care of myself, and also receiving a really wonderful treatment there, not having to wait at all, these kinds of things are very enjoyable for me.

I:What specifically is it that you enjoy?

Piraye:First of all, you receive a huge amount of respect. In Turkey, one of the biggest issues is that you are very likely to wait [for the service], especially on Saturdays [Note: Turkish hairdressers generally do not work on an appointment system]. For example, you go to a hairdresser and the service that you want should not take you more than half an hour but you end up spending 3 hours at the hairdresser—most of it waiting for the service. Most people would not like that. I don’t like waiting at all. At Ilhan’s I never had to wait. I mean, I have not been made to wait under any circumstances, ever. Not only me, but even my daughter [age 14] has her hair done there too and has never waited either. I am very happy with the service that they are providing for me. And of course I know all the crew really well. They thoroughly understand what I want and expect. Without asking me what I would like to drink they bring my sugarless Turkish coffee as soon as I sit down. I mean they would not even need to ask what I would like to drink. … They all know me really well there. It is actually one of the most important things I look for at a salon. I want to be welcomed at the door, if I have a bag or a sweater or anything else on my hand they need to be taken off of my hands, I need to be greeted with a welcome. All of these things are always done. I had something in my bag, something that needed to be put in the refrigerator, they took it off of my hands and put it in the refrigerator. They make me happy in every dimension.

As evinced by these quotes, consumers’ peer group status game hinges, in large part, on perceptions of who receives the most prompt, customized, and hyperattentive service. To illustrate the centrality of this pampering motif to our participants’ in-group status game, consider Emel’s description of a typical visit to her salon:

Emel:I give my car to a valet. Yes, the valet takes care of our car. I go inside. I am greeted in a very warm way, I could never go to [a salon] that I don’t feel comfortable in. I must feel like I am at my own house. When I go there, all the staff would come around, they would ask what I would like, they would already know it, they would bring my coffee, and so on and so forth.

I:They know your name.

Emel:Of course, of course. They know my taste, they know what I drink. I feel like I am a very special [customer] for them.

I:In what ways?

Emel:They make me feel very special. They greet me at the door. … After the greeting is over, the staff who styles my hair is always the same person, I ask him whether he is available. If not, they generally come over immediately, they do not like to keep me waiting. In any case, not just any staff can dare to start working on my hair, they would be reluctant to do that.

I:They are reluctant?

Emel:Yes, they know that I know what I want, and they very well know that I am a perfectionist. The truth is they give special diligent care to me. … They tell me that they really like me, and they tell me that when I enter the salon, I change the whole atmosphere in the salon. They tell me how they admire me, and how they appreciate me [as their customer]—of course only if I want them to tell me all that.

I:How do you change the atmosphere of the salon, I mean, according to them?

Emel:Well, according to them, it is the way in which I walk, my looks, outfits, how I am different from other customers. They tell that as soon as I enter the salon, other customers ask questions about me to them, who is this woman, what does she do. And they tell me that they would proudly tell other customers that I have two grown-up daughters [implying that she is even more special to have maintained her great shape and style while being a mother]. … I really feel like they value me a lot, and they give special care to me. I know, for example, that they would not want me to wait, and if they ever make me wait, I know that it is due to reasons that they cannot control.

Owners, hairdressers, and crew seek to preclude situations where less promptly served customers feel ignored or disrespected by bringing amenities to them and engaging in other performative practices that express contriteness for such delays. Nonetheless, salon customers are aware that some of their mass elite peers are seated more expediently and receive more specialized service than others. A consequent goal of their in-group status is to move up the service hierarchy (which is set by the owners’ preferences) to become a high-priority client. This aspect of the clients’ status game contributes in part to the longevity of these relationships, which they understand as a way to curry favor from the owner. Thus, the customers’ desire to gain advantages in their peer-to-peer status game also creates an interdependency that affords owners/hairdressers a subtle basis of power in the relationship. However, this interdependency, and the field-specific authority it imbues to owners/hairdressers, is acceptable to clients only so long as it remains a tacit aspect of the relationship and, hence, does not call into question their presumed institutional power and relational control over their hairdressers.

Consumers’ in-group status games are also shaped by a key limitation of their socioeconomic position: mass elite consumption does not lend itself to the kind of exclusivity enjoyed by VIP elites and the fabulously wealthy. In developing economies such as Turkey, forces of global economic development have been steadily expanding the ranks of the mass elite consumers and, as a consequence, gradually reducing the social distinctiveness offered by the consumption of positional goods and services. As their consumption-based status games become more nuanced in response to this shifting socioeconomic field, an ironic consequence emerges: new mass elite consumers covet, as a highly valued form of symbolic capital, the adulation of hairdressers and owners whom they otherwise regard as social inferiors.


We have developed a theoretical account of how marketplace performances become intertwined with broader social status hierarchy systems and socioeconomically based power structures. Prior consumer research has conceptualized marketplace performances as predominately cooperative affairs in which consumers and service workers pursue a shared objective of cocreating value-added experiences (Arnould 2005; Deighton 1992; Kozinets et al. 2004; Lusch et al. 2007) that unfold according to their own contextually bound pattern of rituals, roles, and normative rules. In effect, consumer researchers have conceptualized marketplace performances as liminal events (Turner 1974). Accordingly, they have provided detailed explications of the interaction rituals that create emotional immediacy and social connections, often with a particularly keen theoretical focus on the transfixing and even transformative meanings that emerge through a given marketplace performance (Arnould and Price 1993; Borghini et al. 2009; Deighton 1992; Hollenbeck, Peters, and Zinkhan 2008; Joy and Sherry 2003; Kozinets et al. 2004; Price and Arnould 1999).

Our analysis complements and extends this body of research by theoretically explicating the sociological complexities that arise when socioeconomic differences are encoded in the marketplace performance, rather than being attenuated by liminal identities and role playing. The marketplace performances that unfold in the field of the Turkish metropolitan salon are shaped by the structural relationships between the dominant college-educated, professional class faction who hold positions of cultural authority (and have a significant voice in political negotiations over the socioeconomic rules) and the dominated rural poor/squatter factions who must find opportunities at the margins of the socioeconomic system. For these mass elite consumers and rural migrant service workers, the structural realities of class stratification are inflected through their marketplace performances and concomitant struggles over relative status position.

In the field of the metropolitan Turkish hair salon, these market-mediated class conflicts are manifested through three intersecting status games. Hairdressers use their acquired forms of symbolic capital in a quest to distinguish themselves from their rural and squatter cohorts and to proclaim their standing as legitimate middle-class consumers. Mass elite consumers recruit salon services into an intricate peer-group status game in which symbolic capital takes the form of being treated like celebrity clients (which implies a degree of dependency on the solicitous actions of their hairdressers). Third, consumer and hairdresser interactions manifest an interclass status game in which both parties vie for relative authority and control, with the legitimacy of the hairdressers’ symbolic capital often emerging as the critical point of contention.

The interdependent status games that play out in this consumption field also have implications for a multidisciplinary body of research concerning the gendered aspects of marketplace performances. Historians and gender studies scholars have documented myriad ways that retail service provisions have been shaped by gender ideologies and patriarchal power structures (Bowlby 2000; Hochschild 1983, 2003; Illouz 2007; Leach 1993). In a conceptually parallel fashion, consumer researchers have investigated the ways in which feminine and masculine (heterosexist) gender norms and ideals are symbolically and materially encoded in the design of “servicescapes” and the patterns of social interaction they promote (Borghini et al. 2009; Fischer, Gainer, and Bristor 1998; Sherry et al. 2004; Walters and Moore 2002).

In comparison to these prior studies, we bring into sharper relief how confluences of class and gender positions are manifested and negotiated in the institutional positions, interaction norms, and shifting power relations of a servicescape. Women clients wield considerable class-based authority over their hairdressers (and other male salon workers) that belies their subordinated position in the broader patriarchal scheme of Turkish society. As a dominated faction of a dominant class (cf. Bourdieu 1990), these women’s social standing is, in many cases, contingent upon the career success of their husbands, who reign as the authority figures in the households. For those women who have established their own careers, their professional lives are marked by subtle social imperatives to show deference to patriarchal authority when in the company of class-peer men. However, in the field of the metropolitan Turkish hair salon, these women can experience their class advantages, relatively free from the patriarchal norms that ideologically frame their everyday social roles.

On the hairdressers’ side, their identity positions demonstrate that patriarchal advantages take different forms across sociocultural fields and, furthermore, are not equally distributed across class strata (or across rural and metropolitan settings). As these underclass men seek to gain higher class standing by entering the metropolitan hairdressing profession, they also abdicate some traditional forms of patriarchal authority that accrues to men who remain sequestered in the rural and squatter social milieu. In effect, these men are trading a subcultural species of gender capital, having currency in a socioeconomically marginalized social sphere, for forms of capital (e.g., economic, social, and cultural) that provide more utility in metropolitan and middle-class status systems. Nonetheless, the hairdressing profession is itself a stridently patriarchal system that, for all practical purposes, precludes rural or working-class women from being practitioners. Even though hairdressers occupy an institutionally subordinated position to their female clientele, they enjoy one of the most coveted hallmarks of a patriarchal social order—a gender-based monopoly on occupational opportunities and resources.

Our study further brings to theoretical light structural and experiential aspects of status-seeking practices that have been elided by prior consumer research. These studies have focused on conditions where consumers share a common understanding about the forms of capital that are legitimated as status-conferring symbolic capital. For example, high cultural capital consumers automatically recognize the status value offered by understated displays of good tastes (Berger and Ward 2010; Bourdieu 1990; Holt 1998), and consumers embedded in specific subcultures or consumption communities share collective knowledge about the social practices and achievements that will engender in-group status, respect, and authority (Arsel and Thompson 2011; Kozinets 2001; Schouten and McAlexander 1995; Schau, Muñiz, and Arnould 2009). When a field of consumption is marked by interdependent status games, however, the aesthetic and normative standards used to determine the legitimacy of particular forms of cultural, economic, or social capital can become factionalized and fragmented by positional struggles over the legitimacy of particular forms of cultural, economic, or social capital.

These status-game disjunctures also provide opportunities for consumers and hairdressers to enact divergent beliefs about their relative positions of influence and power in the field. The mass elite consumers in our study portray their hairdressers as beneficiaries of their benevolent tutelage and who will forever lack the social backgrounds, family histories (and formal educational credentials), and occupational status needed to be legitimate members of the middle class. In diametric contrast, more experienced hairdressers see themselves as possessing superior fashion knowledge and more cultured tastes than many if not most of their clients. They also believe that they can exert subtle forms of influence and control over their middle-class clientele.

If our analysis were to remain at this emic level, we would likely fall back to a social-psychological view of social status as being a largely symbolic affair that entails signaling a desired identity to others (Berger and Heath 2007) and carefully selecting status symbols whose positional meanings are likely to be interpreted in the intended fashion (Berger and Ward 2010). When these emic perspectives are analyzed in relation to their contextualizing sociological conditions, however, what initially appears to be a straightforward signal of social status can reveal underlying power relationships between socioeconomic factions.

Hairdressers’ ostensibly empowering identity practices are undertaken within socioeconomic games whose rules have been set by the cultural norms of the dominant class. As a consequence, they must perpetually negotiate structural disadvantages, vis-à-vis those born and raised in professional class households, that mark them as interlopers in middle-class cultural fields and that constrain their collective project of upward mobility. Nonetheless, rural migrant and squatter men are drawn to the salon profession because it offers vital resources for remapping their identity positions in the status quo socioeconomic hierarchy, which are generally not available to those hailing from such impoverished backgrounds (for a more extended discussion of these imposing structural constraints, see Üstüner and Holt 2007).

More successful hairdressers and owners have carved out a new, albeit still subordinated, status position that their customers must recognize and that confounds the cultural categories these mass elite consumers would typically use to classify underclass men. They consistently interpret their hairdressers (and owners) as being more refined, cultured, and educated than other underclass men who remain more closely tied to squatter and rural migrant immigrant backgrounds. While rebuking their hairdressers’ efforts to be accepted as legitimate middle-class consumers, salon customers have had to constitute a new set of cultural categories and relational class practices owing to their experiences and interactions in the salon field.

Through displays of their acquired cultural capital (and the social contestations they spark), these underclass men are also making a socially visible territorial claim upon the social spaces in which middle-class consumers construct and enact their identities. As Sassen (2006b) discusses, the socioeconomic marginalization of the rural and urban poor is structurally perpetuated by their social invisibility. For Sassen (2006b), invisibility does not imply that members of the underclass are hidden from middle-class purviews, but rather, that their identities are fully subsumed within marginalizing cultural categories that allow status quo power relationships and corresponding distributions of resources to remain unquestioned. Such invisible social groups have little chance of crystallizing and voicing their collective socioeconomic and political interests in ways that place consequential demands upon those who hold more institutional power and influence in the broader society.

In this regard, an informative comparison can be drawn between the socioeconomic circumstances of underclass men pursuing careers as hairdressers versus young adult squatter women seeking to emulate the identities and lifestyles of the modern, urban, middle class (see Üstüner and Holt 2007). While squatter women invested their dreams, energy, and quite limited economic capital in gaining hands-on knowledge about the lifestyles of new mass elite consumers, their upwardly aspiring identity projects were continuously undercut by financial limitations and a paucity of cultural capital they could not accumulate, nor routinely practice, from their marginalized and largely invisible social position. Most critically, these squatter women lacked any formal institutional support for pursuing their identity projects.

In contrast, the metropolitan Turkish hair salon is a field in which entrepreneurial profit motives; mass elite consumer desires for highly personalized, celebrity-level service; and the upwardly mobile identity goals of underclass intersect in a synergistic and fortuitous manner. Through these institutionally mediated forms of symbolic domination and habitus reconfiguration, underclass Turkish men gain valued forms of cultural, social, and economic capital that they in turn leverage to establish a visible cultural foothold in the worlds of their middle-class clientele (such as by donning brands and fashion goods undeniably recognizable to their middle-class clientele). In so doing, these men are proactively destabilizing the conventional cultural categories through which mass elite consumers understand their status position vis-à-vis the rural/squatter underclass. These dominant-class consumers are then impelled to generate new social classifications and to negotiate status-game interdependencies with members hailing from a socioeconomic faction that is normally invisible within their everyday social worlds. These sociological outcomes are neither reproductive nor revolutionary but reconstructive and redistributive.


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