Service as Performance: The “Symbolic Capital” of Turkish Hairdressers

Photo: Jaako

An upcoming article in the Journal of Consumer Research examines class, status, and power in a rather quirky environment: the metropolitan hair salons of Turkey. According to a new paper by Tuba Üstüner and Craig Thompson, getting a haircut might as well mean playing a master chess game – with more style, and a lot more status and class tension. Here’s the abstract:

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 reconfigure 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.

Becoming a hairdresser in Turkey is no easy feat.  First and foremost, it is a male only profession, with a harsh apprentice system that starts at the beginning of adolescence.  Hairdressers are recruited from poor rural families, but are expected to reinvent themselves into chic urban taste makers with an appropriate accent and appearance – they “acquiesce to the authority” of the middle class.  This comes at a cost:

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…

A hairdresser is expected to culturally transform himself, but his clients will never recognize him as a true equal – and herein lies the power struggle.  After a years-long process of acculturation, hairdressers lay claim to a heightened understanding of “symbolic capital,” or mores of the elite.  Clients reject this claim, while at the same time counting on the salon and hairdresser for their beauty status symbols. Clients point to how they expect to be treated with respect and formality – hairdressers describe their roles as high quality artisans and style deciders.  Neither group would like to dwell on the interdependency of their relationship, and yet Turkish women are intensely loyal to their hairdressers. Üstüner and Thompson come to three main conclusions:

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.

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  1. Dan says:

    This paper is a perfect example of why many of us dislike the field of academics: incomprehensible vocabulary used to mask simple ideas, observing groups of people as if they were martians and the researchers pretending to have an authoritative/superior perspective on their lives and cultures, and a generally meaningless subject matter. But we like this blog because you guys usually filter this garbage out so we have something interesting and readable (though it’s still usually meaningless subject matter but that’s ok sometimes). Fail on this entry but kudos on most others.

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  2. NJ citizen says:

    Similar to Dan, I find myself simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the exhaustive degree of investigation into, and contemplation of, such a trivial matter.

    The first paragraph excerpted is particularly egregious; and while I assure you I was quite capable of parsing the authors’ meaning, I found myself sarcastically thinking “and you thought someone was just getting a hair cut”.

    I mean, “marketplace performances”? Are the writers elevating commercial transactions to theater, or watching too much reality TV? Have they taken Shakespeare’s famous claim, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players ” to heart?

    Then there’s “interdependent status games” and “subtly manifested power struggles” — how catty. Could this be as much a function of the feminine nature of beauty salons as class disparity? And wouldn’t it be possible that the owner of a high-end salon is generally as well-off as his clients, for that matter?

    Then again, aren’t the authors potentially describing *any* negotiation — whether it occurs in the marketplace or any other context? Couldn’t this be two men passing a slip of paper back and forth to one another across a desk at an Audi dealership? Police negotiating with hostage-takers? A couple considering whether to get back together?

    And “symbolic capital”? In other words, reputation?

    All I can say when it comes to these two, who apparently are

    a) paid to examine the most mundane human interactions, and
    b) describe them in excruciating detail
    c) using the most obtuse language possible

    the cliché “nice work if you can get it” comes to mind.

    But the *most important thing* to take away from such a study is the underlying thrust and purpose. Because despite any protestations of objectivity and professional disinterest, *any* person in any field who dwells on class — especially in 21st century America — has an ideological axe to grind, and that blade is solely sharpened from the left.

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  3. FrontierStrategyGroup says:

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  4. EleonoreShear says:

    As a hairdresser to a “wealthy” clientele, I can relate to the article. I talk about designer clothing, lavish trips to summer homes, vacations and nannies while I drive my old rusty car to my modest house. The relationship between the client and myself is co-dependent- they rely on my skill to make them look/feel beautiful (because money won’t buy happiness) and I rely on them to come often and refer clients to me.

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