The fact that retail behemoth Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) rakes in more than a quarter of a trillion dollars per year in revenues should be enough to clue us in to just how big it is. But in case anyone needed another clue, here's one: Last week, the University of California hosted an academic conference on the company. You're not likely to find economists and sociologists discussing the influence of undeniably successful firms such as Paychex (NASDAQ:PAYX) or Walgreen (NYSE:WAG), but Wal-Mart has apparently become a worthy phenomenon.

An article in The New York Times pointed out some interesting things about the company:

  • "If it were an independent nation, it would be China's eighth-largest trading partner."

  • Due to its focus on low prices, "some economists say it has single-handedly cut inflation by 1% in recent years, saving consumers billions of dollars annually."

  • "It charges its workers so much for health insurance that about one-third of them do not have it."

These factoids suggest how many things there are to examine regarding Wal-Mart. They also explain why some 250-plus anthropologists, historians, sociologists, economists, and others would gather to discuss the company's role in society and American capitalism.

University of California history professor Nelson Lichtenstein noted that "In the 19th century... the standard-setting company was the Pennsylvania Railroad; in the mid-20th century, it was General Motors (NYSE:GM); and in the late 20th century, it was Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT)." Today, Wal-Mart is the standard-setter, with Lichtenstein noting that the firm "rezones American cities, sets wage standards, and even conducts diplomacy with other nations."

What did Wal-Mart's representatives have to say at the conference? Not much, as they didn't attend, sensing that the tone would be anti-Wal-Mart. Criticisms were indeed leveled, such as a suggestion that while General Motors helped advance the middle class by offering generous wages and health insurance benefits, Wal-Mart's hard-nosed style has more in common with "a very authoritarian and ruthless managerial culture" that was pervasive 100 years ago.

Still, attendees were largely impressed by Wal-Mart's cutting-edge use of technology to pinpoint and react to consumer spending patterns.

So what do you like or not like about Wal-Mart? Let us and fellow Fools know on our Wal-Mart discussion board. You might also enjoy these Fool articles on the company: The Republic of Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart: Big... and Bad?, andFools Debate Wal-Mart.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Microsoft.