The World of Wal-Mart: Discounting the American Dream, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

The World of Wal-Mart

Discounting the American Dream, 1st Edition

By Nick Copeland, Christine Labuski


152 pages

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This book demonstrates the usefulness of anthropological concepts by taking a critical look at Wal-Mart and the American Dream. Rather than singling Wal-Mart out for criticism, the authors treat it as a product of a socio-political order that it also helps to shape. The book attributes Wal-Mart’s success to the failure of American (and global) society to make the Dream available to everyone. It shows how decades of neoliberal economic policies have exposed contradictions at the heart of the Dream, creating an opening for Wal-Mart. The company’s success has generated a host of negative externalities, however, fueling popular ambivalence and organized opposition.

The book also describes the strategies that Wal-Mart uses to maintain legitimacy, fend off unions, enter new markets, and cultivate an aura of benevolence and ordinariness, despite these externalities. It focuses on Wal-Mart’s efforts to forge symbolic and affective inclusion, and their self-promotion as a free market solution to social problems of poverty, inequality, and environmental destruction. Finally, the book contrasts the conceptions of freedom and human rights that underlie Wal-Mart’s business model to the alternative visions of freedom forwarded by their critics.


This marvelous book analyzes how Wal-Mart assembles a seductive, imagined world of material abundance and folksy inclusion—even as its own corporate practices undermine the American Dream and intensify economic polarization. Through their compelling story of Wal-Mart, Copeland and Labuski offer readers a clear window into central economic policies and trends of the early 21stcentury—neoliberalism, globalization, the increased contingency of labor, and the erosion of local economies and places—as well as an array of counter-movements to such trends. This illuminating book is terrific for undergraduate courses in social inequality, rural sociology, globalization, American studies, labor, economic geography, environmental sustainability, and business ethics.

--Barbara Ellen Smith, Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies, Virginia Polytechnic Institute

The World of Wal-Mart teaches us how to read a force of neoliberal commerce so powerful it feels like a force of nature, so big it overwhelms the American Dream itself. The Wal-Mart of this book is a supercharged mega-magnet pulling into its wake big box sprawl, shopping addictions, boarded up Main Streets, patriotism, a loyal workforce, an astounding array of cheap products, the promise of thrift, reduced legal protections for organized labor, and ordinary anxieties set adrift as consumers push their baskets along its aisles. It’s a centrifuge spinning off elements: an aura of normalcy, Christian family values, smiley faces, low prices and low wages, guilt, derision, deregulation, law suits, the hidden costs of its business model. This Wal-Mart is a public secret that has turned the consolidation of power and the concentration of wealth in America into an ordinary ditty orchestrating what everyone knows but we can’t quite recognize. This remarkable book expertly puts it together for us.

--Kathleen C. Stewart, Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin

Incisive, vividly analyzed, and utterly teachable, this book examines Wal-Mart as a product and producer of contemporary American society. Probing how Wal-Mart works from production to consumption to public relations, this outstanding book offers far-reaching arguments about the power and influence of corporations and the politics of freedom, labor, and value in the United States today.

Peter Benson, Anthropology, Washington University in Saint Louis

Told with verve and momentum, this gem of a book is ideal for the classroom. It does an exceptional job of showing how America made Wal-Mart, and how Wal-Mart made America. Along the way, The World of Wal-Mart demonstrates why anthropology in particular is well-suited for making sense of the world we live in.

--Steve Striffler, Latin American Studies, University of New Orleans

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 1. Wal-Mart’s Cultural Politics 2. From the Ozarks to the Globe 3. Wal-Mart Nation 4. The People of Wal-Mart 5. Wal-Mart’s Anti-Union Strategies 6. The Space of Wal-Mart 7. Wal-Mart at Large 8. Wal-Mart and Freedom

About the Authors

Nicholas Copeland is a social anthropologist at Virginia Polytechnic University. His research about state power and Maya politics in Guatemala appears in the Journal of Latin American Studies and Development and Change. Nick taught at the University of Arkansas, and has conducted extensive market research inside Wal-Mart.

Christine Labuski is an anthropologist and assistant professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Virginia Polytechnic University. Her work can be found in Feminist Studies, Archives of Sexual Behavior,and several edited volumes about the gendered body. She has also spent countless hours inside of Wal-Mart stores as a market researcher.

About the Series

Routledge Series for Creative Teaching and Learning in Anthropology

Editors: Richard H. Robbins, SUNY at Plattsburgh and Luis A. Vivanco, University of Vermont 

This series is dedicated to innovative, unconventional ways to connect undergraduate students and their lived concerns about our social world to the power of social science ideas and evidence. We seek to publish titles that use anthropology to help students understand how they benefit from exposing their own lives and activities to the power of anthropological thought and analysis. Our goal is to help spark social science imaginations and, in doing so, open new avenues for meaningful thought and action.

Books proposed for this series should pose questions and problems that speak to the complexities and dynamism of modern life, connecting cutting edge research in exciting and relevant topical areas with creative pedagogy. We seek writing that is clear and accessible, yet not simplistic. The series has three primary projects:

The Anthropology of Stuff

This project invites proposals for 100 to 120 page books devoted to tracing the biographies and social lives of commodities that illuminate for students the network of people, institutions, and activities that create their material world. The series already has successful titles on milk, coffee, lycra, counterfeit goods, bicycles, Wal-Mart, and alcohol, as well as a forthcoming title on seafood. We seek books that:

  • Focus on specific problems or issues (e.g. social inequality, violence, gender discrimination, consumption, environmental degradation, urban mobility, etc.).
  • Use close description and analysis of everyday objects to stimulate students to think about their own culture and their place in it.
  • Make complex concepts (e.g. capitalism, the nature of hegemony, commodification, etc.) accessible to undergraduate readers.
  • Integrate a set of learning and teaching tools that could include the use of field research projects, group projects, media analysis, films, web-based research, and other relevant activities.

Anthropology and Civic Engagement

This project invites proposals for 100 to 120 page books that examine anthropology’s historical, contemporary, or potential involvement in civic affairs, contributions to key public debates, and/or engagement with diverse notions of citizenship and civic participation. Its goal is to illuminate for students how anthropological concepts, methods, and approaches can create powerful insights about critical social issues, while at the same time providing useful models for civic engagement for the construction of a more equitable society. We seek books that:

  • Focus on specific problems or issues (e.g., the health care debate, school violence, environmental activism, historic preservation, gender inequality, intellectual property, equity and social justice movements, food justice, rights of marginalized groups, etc.).
  • Help students understand how concepts such as citizenship, engagement, public participation, collaboration, activism, etc. are constructed and mobilized in specific political and social contexts.
  • Examine how anthropology’s concepts, methodological tools, and ethical principles relate to strategic and effective engagement with public concerns and dilemmas.
  • Integrate a set of learning and teaching tools that could include the use of field research projects, group projects, media analysis, films, web-based research, and other relevant activities.

High-Impact Anthropology

This project invites proposals for 150-350 page introductory texts that integrate high impact teaching and learning practices with treatment of specific topical areas that are the focus on undergraduate courses in anthropology. These specific topical areas could include Anthropology of Religion, Economic Anthropology, Political Anthropology, Anthropology of Food, Environmental Anthropology, Medical Anthropology, Anthropology of Gender and Sexuality, etc. The texts should examine the development of the field and provide coverage of key concepts and theories. At the same time, they should integrate high-impact educational practices into the structure of the text and its features. These practices could include:

  • Problem-centered learning
  • Question-based learning
  • Collaborative learning
  • Community-based learning
  • Writing-intensive approaches
  • Experiential learning
  • Co-curricular learning
  • Field-based learning


If you have a proposal that you believe would fit into the series in one of its three project areas, or if you have any questions about the series, please contact Richard Robbins at, or Luis Vivanco at

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Anthropology / Cultural
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Sociology / General