Gender and Shopping: The Hunter-Gatherer Myth

Hunter-gatherer societies are always a go-to topic of discussion when talking about gender and shopping. And there is some value in addressing it, considering for all our technology and complexity, we still have thousands of years of process in place that dictate, to some degree, how we navigate the world. In “simple societies” gathering edible plants, fungi, small game, etc. is traditionally done by women. In foraging societies, women return to the same patches that yield previous successful harvests, and usually stay close to home and use landmarks as guides. The process involves a great deal of evaluation of the locations used and the items gathered. Furthermore, foraging is a daily activity, often social and can include both young children and older members of the society, if necessary. Successful gathering requires that the person or people undertaking the process be very adept at choosing the right color, texture, and smell to ensure food safety and quality. They also must time harvests, and know when a certain depleted patch will regenerate and yield good harvest again. In other words, gathering requires a great deal of thought and the ability to evaluate the context in which the gathering takes place.

In modern terms, so the logic goes, women are much more engaged with the totality of the shopping process than are men. For example, they are more likely to know when a specific type of item will go on sale. Women will spend more time choosing the perfect gift, seeking out good deals and using shopping as a type of exploration in every sense of the word.

Men on the other hand, often have a specific item in mind when shopping and want to get in, get it, and get out. It is about targeted expediency. With men, so the logic goes, it was critical to make a kill, get meat home as quickly as possible, and limit the number of hunters injured in the process.  And taking young children isn’t safe in a hunt and would likely hinder progress.

To be sure, there is some sound reasoning in all of this and in some ways there are no doubt elements of truth to it.  However, in a postmodern age where gender roles are far more fluid and shopping has become an ever-increasing mode of establishing identity, it’s not so simple.

First of all, these behaviors aren’t genetically determined and don’t apply to everyone.  Yes, there are consistent broad themes that can help to illuminate how behaviors evolve, but the key word here is “evolve” which means change. And gender determinism is, unfortunately, where the hunter-gather model sometimes leads when discussing shopping.

Second, in hunter-gatherer societies, gender roles as applied to labor and acquisition of goods is much more of a life and death issue. It consumes what people do. But in a post-modern world, shopping is rarely about survival and indeed the survival aspects (e.g. buying food) take up a very small portion of our lives. Shopping is as much entertainment or social activity as it is procurement of goods. That means that regardless of gender, shopping is fulfilling social and cultural needs unrelated to actually finding a thing.

Third, there is a flaw in the reasoning of how hunting and gathering unfold because it assumes that the actual tasks take up the bulk of the time of the parties involved. More specifically, hunting is seen as a quiet, straightforward activity where men track beasts in a quiet, manly way, kill them and bring them home. The problem is that it just ain’t so. The fact is that hunting, particularly for large game is a slow process that sees little action. Like foraging, it requires extensive knowledge of the terrain, migration patterns, an ability to judge the health and activity of game, etc. Furthermore, while very young children are not able to join in the hunt, young men are expected to be a part of the process because it teaches them hunting skills and, just as importantly, serves as a way of teaching cultural norms of a society. And all of this assumes an activity involving a small band of men. In large scale hunting that involves large kills, such as running bison off a cliff, the entire society is involved in a coordinated effort. Gender roles still factor in, to be sure, but the difference between men and women as laid out in the traditional hunter-gather reasoning simply don’t hold up.

What all of this means to someone interested in gender differences in shopping is that applying a hunter-gatherer model is just too simple and leads to fallacies of logic that in turn lead to lost revenue (or at least untapped opportunities). The better question might be, how do women and men use space differently to achieve a sense of meaning and how does that influence shopping patterns? Or how does the product category type shape gender roles and shopping? Or how does shopping reflect and co-create notions of self-worth?  The point is that while the hunter-gather model is a neat, clean way of thinking about the role of gender in shopping, shopping simply isn’t neat and clean. It is complex and reflective of the changing dynamics of our culture. That isn’t necessarily the answer marketers want to hear, but it’s the truth. And if your goal is to sell more products, grow brand equity and increase market share, going down the simple but inaccurate path simply won’t get you there.

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3 thoughts on “Gender and Shopping: The Hunter-Gatherer Myth

  1. I hate how the hunter gather model somehow ends up being the be all end all of everything when its actually the be all end all of nothing.
    Gender roles….let’s talk then about gender roles in the shopping 100-200 years ago. It wasn’t women doing the shopping and spending then, was it?

    This post intrigues me. I haven’t read anything else yet, but I plan too. I graduated from college with a degree in Anthro and from the name of your blog it sounds like you’ve at the least, done the same.

  2. I absolutely agree–sex and gender don’t determine any particular aspect of shopping behavior, and prehistoric hunting was probably very different from the “manly man the hunter” image many people have. That said, there is research suggesting that our hunter-gatherer ancestry has left traces in differences in how males and females perceive the world. For example, there’s research suggesting that females hear better than males (If I remember correctly–it may have been smell, not hearing). I’ve been thinking that it would be really interesting to look at research on cross-cultural patterning in differences in how males and females interact with the world and see what relevance that patterning might have for modern consumer behavior. I’d also love to see if there are differences in how males and females interact with computer interfaces. I know as well that there’s lots of research showing that males and females convey very different types of information to the world through their purchasing decisions, although it’s difficult to know to what extent those differences are conscious and to what extent they’re culturally mediated. My point is not that we’re determined by our evolutionary history, but rather that our evolutionary history is a good starting point for developing testable hypotheses about modern consumer behavior.

    For what it’s worth, I can say from personal experience that men and women can have very different observations about the same product. When shopping for cars a couple years ago, my wife rejected one model because of the sound of the turn signal, something I hadn’t noticed at all.

  3. Some other dimension/ implications of the hunter gatherer discussion

    To add to our complexity – if we think of e commerce/ virtual spaces it is a completely different game all together. Our e identities further layers our transforming real identities.

    Am also wondering in cultures where there is more permission marketing led retail strategies – how does this issue pan out. Who likes to be hunted out more for shopping deals?

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