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Check Out Our Coffee House Ethnography Essay

This anthropological ethnography is based on the individuals who tend to hang around the coffee houses in the evening hours. I thought that, for this paper, it would be an interesting to carry out a study on a group of persons that most people have not considered as a subculture. This study was carried out in three coffee houses located in Boston. The main purpose I choose these three coffee houses is that, two of these shops are branches of Starbucks chain coffee shops, and the Morning Brew is a small coffee business located at the central region of Boston.

To approach these coffee subcultures, I simply walked into them and participated in their practices. Considering that these subcultures were not regarded as exclusive, it was quite easy to walk into them freely. To start with, in my study, I first engaged myself in the coffee shop practice. I would take with me a reading material into the ventures during differing periods of the day and sit at a strategic position at the balcony. This would give me an optimal perspective of what is going on in and outside the shop; while I studied I took time to survey the culture around me. At a time, I could take a friend with me to the coffee shop, and scrutinize the subculture from a new perspective. At other times, I could walk into the coffee house with a novel and start reading, while seeping coffee leisurely, this would give me a different perspective of the subculture. I observed that it was easier to approach and talk to people, when I appeared as a student, rather than when I appeared as the one of their subculture, in casual wear and in the company of friends.

In this survey, the coffee shop subculture is made up of different types of individuals at different periods of the day. To maximize my observation during the study, I had divided the study session into two sessions a day: morning session that ran from opening hour until noon and the second session that covered time between noon and 5 pm.  Although these sessions were not strictly defined given that the subculture tended to overlap between the two sessions. The ethnographic methods, applied in this study, were informal interviews and participant observation.

I thought that interviewing customers who frequently attended these places would be of significant help in my study, since they were the most active individuals from the subculture.  My best bet to do this was to interact actively with the people in these subcultures that I noticed to be familiar with the coffee shops and their customers. My respondents were from different categories of people, though most of them were students. In particular, I interviewed group of workers from these coffee houses. During my interview with the workers, I avoided as much as I could to ask them questions related to official establishment of the shop, but directed my interviews towards their views as observers of the business environment, practices, and the customers. Besides, the coffee and snacks expected to be found on the menu of such coffee houses, a variety of other resources entices, individuals to hang around. Probably, the most significant resource for the consumer of any product, today, is the services of computer technology.

At the Morning Brew in Boston, there are three laptop computers that  offered at a fee for use within the premises, in addition to the Wi-Fi internet, signals are available to their customers for two dollars an hour. On the other hand, each of the other two coffee houses has wireless internet hot spot. Another resource that is provided by these establishments, although mostly assumed is the comfortable seating facilities. Apart from having comfortable seats, I observed that each of the coffee houses has enough number of seats available for customers. The way seats are designed and arranged is of particular interest. For example, at Starbucks, though there are numerous seats that are available for customers to use, they are arranged in such a way that the distances from one seat to the other allow customers easy movement and prevent much interaction opportunity between the customers. On the other hand, the seating arrangement in Morning Brew is somehow different: where there are sufficiently enough seats for the customer, though arranged right next to each other allowing easy conversing among customers. Rather than having a bunch of seats, in Morning Brew there are tables and two couches with seats surrounding them.  Although, this seating arrangement seems to be simple, it tends to bring people from different cultures altogether, while motivating conversation. The other seating arrangement that is common among the observed coffee houses is the aspect of outdoor seating. Boston is known for its beautiful landscape and weather, and coffee houses are not ignorant of this aspect. They provide outdoor seating facilities to lure potential customers to enjoy the atmosphere at their premises, while taking this advantageous opportunity for coffee.

Coffee is dominantly regarded as a morning drink; therefore, the morning hours are the busiest sessions of the day for these coffee houses. The morning customers consisted of the individuals who were relaxing or those who were grabbing their coffee, while waiting for the bus. Though there are many businesses for coffee houses open in the morning hours, there are significantly few people who tend to hang around such places in the morning, so they pop in, grab their coffee and leave. Interviewing a certain couple, M and C, they said that they visit Starbucks every morning as a part of their daily exercise as they walk to and from the Coffee House. Their daily visit to the shop allowed them a chance to read a daily newspaper, thus, saving extra dollars a day, while enjoying the beautiful environment. Commenting on the environment, surrounding Starbucks coffee shop, C said, “The coffee house is quiet, calm, and refreshing in the morning.” As time approaches to ten o’clock in the morning, the shop gets busier as more customers come for the tea break from the surrounding office parks. At eleven o’clock in the morning, people coming for lunch start arriving in the coffee houses. All the three coffee houses offer meals apart from teas, coffees, and other drinks. This attracts customers during the lunchtime. However, this group does not hang around for a long, given that most of these individuals are out for the lunch breaks; therefore, there is not much of a normal subculture.

A group of local workers takes advantage of the coffee house subculture over the lunch hour. At one incident, I interviewed a worker who said that he enjoyed having his lunch at the coffee shop establishments for their calmer atmosphere as compared to the food establishment. She added that the experience gave a chance to have a break from her office environment. I observed the midday as the busiest part of the day in the coffee shops. This tread was also observed between two o’clock and five o’clock in the evening when students are out of classes. During this time of the day, one is likely to find many students in the coffee shops. The students are either in groups discussing, studying as individuals, or just hanging out and chatting. It is worth noting that the three coffee houses are located along a busy road and at the central part of Massachusetts area.

A group of high and junior students hangs around the Starbucks in Boston, on one occasion I interviewed a junior student who told me that she liked Starbucks because it is close to the bus stop. Another female student said that the reason she prefer Morning Brew Coffee shop is because, as students, they were allowed to hang around even when they are not buying anything unlike it is the case with other such establishments. Though these students groups form part of this subculture, their reasons for hanging around the coffee shops are distinct to the location of the shop. This does not assist in finding a generalized reason as to why individuals tend to hang around coffee houses in these areas.

During the afternoon part of the day, there are groups of college students and adults, doing their assignment and discussing course work prior to the evening classes. One adult student said that she enjoyed going to the Starbucks to do her homework, since the environment was calmer than at home, where her children would be bothering her. She added that, at Starbucks, the environment was relaxing giving her tranquil time to do her homework. Another female student, I interviewed at the Morning Brew, said that she liked going to the coffee house to catch up with her homework, since it was difficult doing it in her room, where her roommates may be listening loud music and making noise. Together with this student, was her boyfriend who sat across the room facing the widow to ensure they did not distract each other. Commenting on the same issue, a male student said that it was comfortable working there, because he could access the wireless internet service at Morning Brew at affordable cost. During these hours of the day, most of the students are in the coffee houses; in some instances, the same group of students would meet for the end day coffee.

During the late midday, some individuals from the subculture that seemed to be self-employed would be seen hanging out at the coffee shops. A man I observed coming into Morning Brew at four o’clock on few occasions had brought his computer and portfolios to the coffee house to work on it. In observing different caliber of customers at distinct times of the day, I noticed a basic trend in the type of customers that visited different coffee houses.  I observed that the group customers at the Morning Brew tended to comprise of the locals and younger people, while at Starbucks, the customers were a mixture of both locals and tourists, most of whom were older people. The group of customers at Morning Brew seemed to be more laid-back, while those at the Starbucks were seen to be formal. This gave an interesting comparison between the groups of people who form the coffee shop subculture of independent coffee shops as compared to those who enjoyed hanging around chain shops. Some workers from the two coffee houses confirmed my observation on this comparison. The employees at Morning Brew said that they liked serving the laid-back locals and the group of customers who frequently attended the shop. Commenting on the same topic, a worker from Starbucks confirmed their customers are usually formal. He stated that most of these formal customers, hardly talk to the workers; “it is not that they are cold but just distant.”

One of the important aspects of the subculture is the language, and this is not an exceptional for the subculture in the coffee shops. When visiting these coffee houses frequently, there is a certain language one must use, when making an order for a cup for coffee or tea often unconsciously. This may not be possible to note until a stranger walks into the subculture and seems not to understand what is happening. Starbucks are known for their unique menu. At first, when the business opened new branches at different places, people could not easily identify with what they were serving, because of the language used on the menu. The first confusion for the most customers at a Starbucks is the amount of the coffee they want since, in Starbucks, the language is not just “small”, “medium”, and “large”, instead the menu reads, “tall, grande, and vente.” Therefore, unless the customer has knowledge of these sizes, it may not make any sense to them. Regrettably, for most people in this subculture, the knowledge, obtained by visiting one coffee house, may not be applicable to another coffee house. An individual who is used to attend Morning Brew in Boston and is familiar with the language used in the menu, the lingo is totally different from the one who is used to attend Starbucks coffee house. It was quite interesting to me, when I wanted to know about certain dish on the menu, rather than explaining in terms of the ingredients, the server explained everything in Starbucks’ lingo. For example, when a customer asks for the description of “kona mocha granite,” rather than telling him or her it is a mixture of iced Kona coffee and a mocha flavoring that is blended, the server said it is just like mocha Frappacino from Starbucks. This is of interest, that the server used the lingo of the subculture to explain its own lingo, rather than using non-technical language. This language problem is an example of an individual in a subculture who assumes that another person from another subculture understands his subculture.

The other aspect of the coffee house subculture is found in the decorum that is attributed to the subculture of coffee houses. When walking into a coffee shop for the first time, it is usually difficult to know what a person is supposed to do until he/she observes the conduct of the people in that subculture. The decorum I observed in the types of coffee houses differ significantly. At Starbucks, a rope is used to mark the line followed to the counter to make an order, upon reaching the counter and making an order, the coffee is put into a line of orders, then, the customer walks to another counter to make the payment, and you walk to another queue to wait for your order to come. On the other hand, at Morning Brew, though there is no rope marking the line, a general line is followed to make an order in a counter, upon making an order the worker will take the order, go and prepare it, come with it, and then you pay. This is a normal situation, observed several times, and it applies unless the customer’s order needed extra preparation: that is where an order may take few minutes to get ready; the cashier may ask the customer to pay first and find a seat as the order is being prepared.

The coffee house subculture I described in this ethnography is significantly distinct in terms of time of the day, during which the subculture was observed. Different calibers of people come into the subculture at different time of the day and for differing reasons. With or without the reason, each group of individuals, though their reasons for entering the subculture were different, they were all looking for a common idea: calm, quiet, and relaxing atmosphere to spend a moment, while enjoying their coffee (Michelli, 2007).

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