Our relationship with objects is multilayered and often very emotional, and this is expressed in the way we shop. Swedish ethnologist Erik Ottoson of Uppsala University has studied the way we look for things in shopping malls, town centres and flea markets, and even in skips.
"Being a consumer sometimes means fantasising and dreaming about objects, and this is boosted when we come face to face with things that arouse various feelings of attraction and resistance," says Ottoson, who has researched the way we look for things we want to acquire.
He has observed how people behave at flea markets, root through skips, make their way along shopping streets and through malls. According to Ottoson, searching in this way teaches us what is available and how we can track down what we are looking for. At the same time it becomes an opportunity to look inside ourselves and explore our feelings when faced with what is actually available.
"This means searching becomes a way for us to interact with the world around us, an experiental horizon where certain aspects loom large in the foreground while others are pushed into the background," he explains.
In particular, his research focuses on what is actually going on when we are "window shopping", i.e. strolling round and "just looking" at things without having a clear idea of what we are looking for. The people he has been studying search patiently for certain things, but more than anything, they are searching for the feeling of having found something that is better and finer that they could have imagined. At this point they have stretched the boundaries of what would be reasonable to expect to find.
The paper also shows that what we call just looking is not just about looking with your eyes, it involves your entire body - walking till your feet ache, picking things up and putting them back and feeling things with your hands.
"Meanwhile, you are waiting for that particular aha feeling you get when you find something you want - a peculiar combination of confirmation and surprise," says Ottoson.
Erik Ottoson is defending his thesis on 3 June. Read more about the thesis at the Uppsala University website: http://publications.