Clark Explores Auctions from Sociological Perspective

Professor Jackie ClarkAssociate Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department Jacqueline Clark traces her current interest in auctions as far back as childhood trips with her mother and her mother’s friend to yard sales. She also went on jaunts with her grandfather to flea markets.

In graduate school, she re-sold items on eBay for extra spending money, and that is also when she attended her first live auction. Soon it became a regular feature of her visits home during breaks. Her interest in auctions has grown and transformed into an academic pursuit.

Over the last two and a half years, Clark has spent her winter and summer breaks and a sabbatical collecting data and researching the world of Southern auctions in North Carolina. In April, she will be presenting some of that work at the annual Midwest Sociological Society (MSS) meeting in Omaha, Nebraska in a presentation called “‘Look in on This One, Folks!’: Auctioneers and Front Stage Entertainment in a Southern Auction House.”

When she began her research in North Carolina, she received permission to work alongside the employees, and this allowed her to make connections with buyers and sellers. She helped set up auctions, clerked, and was even allowed to travel with employees from the auction house on their pick-ups.

Over her sabbatical in Spring 2013, Clark traveled to observe a school for people interested in becoming auctioneers. She says, “I decided that if I’m going to sit through the whole class, I might as well take it.” After passing the class, Clark took the licensing exam and is now officially a licensed auctioneer in the state of North Carolina. Over winter break, she even had her first chance to call bids after two auctioneers fell ill. “I don’t have a chant,” she said referring to the fast paced auctioneer cadence, “but I am getting faster.”

Her work on auctions from a sociological perspective is unique, and Clark says it can be difficult to know where it fits in the categories into which her field is traditionally arranged. For instance, when she was applying to present at the MSS she says, “I decided to pitch it for the sociology of jobs and work, and that’s kind of how I’ve been framing it… but it’s really more than work culture, because some of my work focuses on the culture of the auction and the work and why it’s important sociologically. But it’s bigger than that because it’s about collecting and it’s about the buyers and the sellers.”

One aspect of auctions that has drawn Clark’s interest is in exploring the motives of collectors. She says, “I’m interested in what they collect, how they got started, why they collect, what meanings they attach to what they collect.” One example, she notes, is an African-American man she saw repeatedly at auctions who was purchasing a variety of “black memorabilia” or collectibles related to race and depictions of African-Americans over the last few centuries. The collector agreed to show Clark his entire collection and it included artwork, KKK memorabilia, black figurines, lawn jockey statues, postcards, and numerous other objects.

The question that arose upon viewing his collection, Clark says, was, “Why would a black man who grew up in segregated school systems, who went to school through desegregation, why would a man who lived through that part of the history in the South want to surround himself with all of these things that depict black people as inferior?” As she viewed his collection, the collector talked about his own family history, and that his grandfather had been a slave. He told her about his own education, going to college, and about the success of his siblings, what they had done with their lives, all of their college degrees, and that some of them had earned advanced degrees. The collector told Clark that he looked at everything he and his family had accomplished in their lives and compared that to the inferiority portrayed in these objects. His collection was partially about preserving history, but Clark says, “it was important to him to know that he was not what those things said he was… He’s taken ownership of it and reinterpreted the meaning of the items.”

As Clark collects data about many aspects of auctions, she has found numerous interesting facets, almost too many to explore. On one hand, she has talked to many people about the items they purchase, many of whom construct stories around these older objects. But as she delves further, she has studied the auctioneering side of the industry, as well as buyers, and consigners who frequent auctions. Then, she says, “there’s this part of the work that’s about inequality, and who gets to represent certain groups of people in what they collect.”

Interest is growing in auctions, says Clark, thanks to reality shows such as “Storage Wars” and “Antiques Road Show,” but it remains fertile ground for research in a field that has not fully developed its own niche.

In addition to her presentation at MSS, Clark will deliver a sabbatical presentation on the Ripon College campus on February 13th at 4:15 p.m. in East Hall Little Theatre, which she says will be, “a broad overview of the pieces of the project. These are things I’ve done, and analytically, this is where I’m going.”

She also has a book review of Buy It Now: Lessons from eBay by Michele White, appearing in the upcoming March 2014 issue of Contemporary Sociology.

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