Identity construction and social consumption in urban spaces

By HUANG YANHUA / 05-23-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A surveyed bar in a coastal city in southeast China Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST

In the process of urbanization, built environments and the institutional segregation of space redefine the nature of space, changing the way people live in cities. The construction of socially oriented public spaces has become an important means for the expansion of capital in China’s new era of consumption. As an emerging urban consumption space, bars symbolize a new lifestyle and can serve as a starting point where the interplay between urban social dynamics, the power of capital, spatial organization, and individual lives can be observed.

Using a neo-Marxist spatial theory, this article proposes an analytical framework where institutional space, everyday life practices, and social space are observed to study how urban production and life revolve around “spatial practices.” This study will untangle the correlations between social development, spatial organization, daily life, and individual practices, thus opening up a new perspective for decoding contemporary capitalism and everyday urban life. 

Since March 2019, field investigations have been conducted in a coastal city in Southeast China. We  mapped the spatial layout, distribution, and operations of bars, and the experiences of bar patrons were collected through on-site observations and personal interviews.

Each space has its own inherent rules for interaction. Differentiated spaces regulate individual actions and roles through complex social structures. The built environment of bars extends from specific social contexts, and their forms and atmospheres influence their spatial operations and the life practices of consumers. Bar locations and designs, planning of themed parties, marketing strategies, and on-site event coordination lay the foundation for the effective operation of bar spaces. 

Based on common goals and expectations of patrons—to build social connections and pursue self-expression—bar owners use the social setting to create collective leisure narratives and construct differential value orders, guiding patrons towards predetermined consumption patterns by meeting social needs, thus forming a profit mechanism. Patrons, with their own resources and needs, understand the “appropriate” way to utilize bar spaces, and create their own enjoyable leisure time.

In summary, the public space and consumption pattern arise from both the creation and placement of people, events, and objects in space by bar owners, but this creation is also a part of the everyday social lives of urban consumers. Based on an understanding of individual social needs, collective action rules, and traditional gender norms, bars form orderly and relational collective consumption scenes through a series of daily life practices.

Collective leisure narratives

Quiet bars and lively bars respond differently to China’s massive bar leisure market. The former mainly responds to the diverse needs of consumer groups by segmenting the market, while the latter tends to further construct orderly participation through planned events and built environments. To highlight the constructed nature of social space and its operational process, our research mainly focuses on lively bars.

By moving through shared urban spaces such as workplaces, residential homes, and consumer spaces, people are able to engage in their own work and life. Social leisure, emotional networking, stimulation, and identity construction are the core drivers for bar patrons. Dynamic music, dazzling lights, fashionable vitality, high heterogeneity, mingling among colleagues, and the relaxing effect of alcohol makes bars an ideal social space, reshaping the background of daily life in the city.

According to interviews, bars disrupt the boredom and rigid repetition of daily life for young urban men and women, allowing them to escape the narrow social circles of family and workmates and enter open public spaces. Bars have become a key public space where youth can express emotions and socialize. Based on common goals and the shared expectation that social needs will be met, consumers’ “wandering” trajectories intersect in urban bars.  

The dim narrow passage leading to a bar is akin to a tunnel in time and space, connecting urban dwellers to a whole new world. Bar patrons are transformed and adjust their personal identities, behavioral norms, and psychological states. Upon entering, a vast expanse quickly envelops people, with beams of light changing colors and directions, dancing confetti, resonating music, and explosive stage performances stimulating the senses.  

Through spatial transformation and audio-visual arrangements, the entertainment space created by the bar awakens patrons’ bodies and emotions. Patrons not only dance in the dazzling dynamic audio-visual environment, but also adopt new dress codes according to the bar’s style or party theme. The combination of human behavior and carefully designed space stimulates various exciting and rapidly expanding imitative behaviors, forming relatively orderly common practices, creating a collective leisure narrative from scratch, where people form a collective of actively communicated emotions and focused attention. This phenomenon can be understood as “collective effervescence,” as described by French sociologist émile Durkheim. The coexistence of bodies, shared emotions, and concentrated attention in collective actions allows bars to create specific leisure entertainment narratives and build consumer interaction patterns. 

Differential value orders

At a micro-level, bars need to construct value orders through seating arrangements and events planning, so as to draft collective leisure narratives to make spaces more productive. Deep individual involvement is also required to obtain personalized leisure experiences and satisfy deep-seated social needs. 

In the real world, interpersonal relationships are subtle and complex. Urban bars add to this complexity by constructing their own clear and manipulable rules for self-presentation, patterns for emotional interaction, and scenes for public consumption. Through the coordination of seating arrangements, marketing efforts, and organized services, bar owners are able to transform this scene of collective leisure consumption into a social ecosystem with its own value order based on gendered self-presentation, behavioral norms, and the entertainment nature of gender interactions. In the process of blending in, patrons re-examine their relationships with themselves and others, reflect on gender norms, social positions, urban spaces, and everyday life, and satisfy their social needs. Thus, through the practicality of real physical space, bars activate the productivity of abstract social space, ultimately generating large profits.

By integrating various material products and heterogeneous factors such as patron gender, relationships, behaviors, and psychology, bars construct differential value orders, thus forming different consumption mobilization mechanisms. Patrons become addicted to entertaining gender interactions and ostentatious consumption patterns, assuming alienated gender roles and distant social relationships. The hyper-sociality of bar space heightens the value of this urban space, but also endows time with different values by changing patrons’ subjective experience of time. Bars usually have different prices on weekdays, holidays, and even at different times of the same day. Therefore, space becomes the basis for maximizing profits during non-working hours. However, people are not fixed components on an assembly line, their social needs cannot be satisfied solely by being “involved” in the bar’s spatial setting. Patrons need to transform and utilize consumption patterns and interaction patterns based on individual resources, needs, and understanding and reflection on bars.

Logic of individual actions

In the process of urbanization, space is institutionally divided based on urban planning and functionality. People must “wander in” and “blend in” to cityscapes to create their everyday lives. Compared to industrial capitalism’s exploitation of laborers through time control, the commodification of space in consumer capitalism often leads to alienation. 

In the mutual construction of people and space, the differentiation of space, its functions, and its norms will continuously advance people’s understanding of space. Based on their own resources, needs, and preferences, individuals will “appropriate” space. This “appropriation” includes the utilization of internal rules in bars and the reversal of gender roles, and even extends to reflections on the role of bars in overall daily life. Only through this can one correct or legitimize the alienated identities, relationships, and experiences which occur in bar spaces. These unique spatial practices form their own narrative of daily life in the city.

Bars are socially constructed public spaces which operate for profit, where highly gendered interaction practices, entertaining emotional experiences, and ostentatious consumption patterns provoke different interaction modes and relationship experiences, distinct from those in daily life. Patrons are aware of this, and, based on essentialist reductive gender discourses and economic rationality, perceive it as the interaction between bars, men, and women.


In this case, the core concern of female patrons is how to cater to and act within the gendered expectations and interaction norms of bars, to both enjoy themselves and avoid potential risks. In contrast, male patrons’ entry into bars is built on economic conditions. Young men and women reach a consensus on further developing relationships in bars, using eye contact, smiles, controlling the “degree” of drinking, and even strategically adjusting their gender temperament to encourage or reject interaction, satisfying their needs for interaction, leisure, and safety.

The “appropriation” of bar space also extends to reflections on leisure in bars and overall daily life, emphasizing entertainment and the impermanence of identities and relationships in bars. Patrons consider the setting and expectations of bars, their own needs and resources, and allow themselves to “blend in” and satisfy their social needs for human connection and self-expression. They also reflect on practices and relationships in this space while considering larger social structures, placing the experiences in bar space in a hidden corner of daily life. In this sense, bars cannot respond to people’s needs for new social interactions in the city. They represent a temporary rupture from everyday life, and people can only experience the social realities of the bar in the moment. Consumers are experiencing fragmented and discontinuous daily lives as they struggle to form a unified continuum between their past, present, and future, as well as their lives inside and outside the bar.

Huang Yanhua is from the Institute of Sociology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Edited by YANG XUE