Itinerant markets under the eye of anthropologists

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 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)
The sociological study Moving Market Places focuses on the daily life of those who run stalls in mobile markets in four countries (Spain, United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Switzerland). Two anthropologists from the University of Neuchâtel (UniNE) took part in the study. Based on numerous interviews with vendors in Neuchâtel and Zurich, their contribution notes the diversity of skills required for this profession, as well as the importance of the ’local’ label to attract customers.

Marketplaces are important places of exchange, allowing people from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds to meet spontaneously. This research project is the first to focus on the practices and daily life of itinerant marketplaces," says Janine Dahinden, professor of transnational studies at the University of Geneva. Since 2019, she has directed the Swiss component of the European Moving Market Places project with the contribution of social anthropologist Joanna Menet, then a post-doctoral fellow at UniNE.

There are two striking elements in our results," continues Janine Dahinden. Firstly, the diversity of skills required by the job of a travelling salesperson. You have to be able not only to manage stocks of goods and build up customer loyalty, but also to know how to plan journeys, locations, and the setting up and dismantling of stands. In addition to this, the use of the Internet to place orders for products is nowadays a must. And all this on a family scale where a whole network of people works behind the scenes behind the operator of a stand.

The importance of the ’local’ label is another striking aspect of the mobile markets. If you mention on the stall that a product is Swiss, produced in Switzerland, it is synonymous with quality," says the researcher. And if you also put the name of the producer on the stall, you increase the chance of selling it.’ This search for proximity to the product goes hand in hand with the search for a relational proximity between the vendors and the customers. Sellers apply different strategies to create not casual encounters, but lasting relationships. The local emerges through these tactics, which aim to link customers to particular vendors’, write Joanna Menet and Janine Dahinden in a scientific article reporting on their work.

But this notion of ’local proximity’ can also be transformed into ’local from elsewhere’. It is in particular the case of merchants coming from other countries, synonymous for the customers of exoticism and disorientation without leaving home. And this links the term ’local’ with the mobility of the migrant population who come to trade in products from their region of origin. Their knowledge of the history of the place of origin gives a product of foreign origin an authenticity comparable to that of a product made in Switzerland.

Finally, Swiss markets differ from those in other European cities. First of all, there is the question of price: in Switzerland, it is often more expensive to shop in markets than in supermarkets, whereas in the UK this is less the case. So why do people in Switzerland still go to markets? It’s linked to the gentrification of city centers, where a whole generation sensitive to ecological values and the proximity of products frequents the markets that meet their consumption needs. Another point of difference is the diversity of supply in the stalls. In other countries, you can often find everything from food to clothing to household items at street markets. In Switzerland, we prefer to separate the types of markets. The first one is reserved for food and fresh products, the second one for clothes and other non-food products.

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