According to David Fetterman, ethnography is about telling a credible, authentic story told through the eyes of the local people as they pursue their daily lives in their own communities (Fetterman, 2019). In its most characteristic form, an ethnographic study involves a researcher participating in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time. Participation can be done in an overt or covert manner (Struthers, 2017). Primarily through the method of direct observation the researcher gathers data on the activities occurring in that space or community, actions and interactions among people and other events that help in answering questions that are the focus of his/her research. A well-conducted ethnographic research provides an in-depth understanding of the context being analysed. When coupled with participant interviews it gives such richness of data and account that is impossible to acquire through quantitative methods like questionnaire-based surveys (Struthers, 2017). Primarily for this particular factor, ethnography as a data collection technique is more suitable than quantitative methods for sociological studies that require an understanding of participant behaviour, features of an ongoing trend or consumer culture or any social phenomenon to which people attach their subjective meanings.
This paper presents an ethnographic research study of a public space, the chosen space being that of a coffee shop. The study focuses on human interactions on a micro-level, seeking to analyse to what extent are moral and ethical codes adhered to during interactions within this public space i.e., in other words, if principles of mutual respect, care and attention, recognition of the provided services are followed by the customers and the coffee shop staff members (Low, 2016). The purpose and aim of this research is to ascertain if the established codes of human rights are being followed or violated/ignored within the studied public space. In addition, it tries to assess the space with respect to the following questions:
- Does the business abide by the anti-discrimination law of the country?
- What is the general attitude of the customers towards the immediate service providers?
- Are the human rights of both the customers and the shop’s staff members upheld by the organization?
Method of Data Collection
The answers to the above-mentioned questions will be sought through the use of qualitative research tools, namely direct observation and interviews. The coffee shop will be visited everyday for a week from 12 P.M. to 7 P.M. Study will incorporate observing the diversity in the customers visiting the coffee shop, what are the peak hours and most crowded days and how does that affect service provided by the shop. It will also include the interviews of some customers and staff members regarding their experiences visiting or working in the coffee shop, etc.
Observations of Physical Space of the Coffee Shop
The coffee shop chosen for this study was located in one of the most popular areas of the city. It was situated close to the campus of two of the city’s most prominent colleges. The shop was also close to a vast area consisting of high-rising buildings which were majorly composed of corporate offices (Low, 2016). There was a four-star hotel behind the shop. In all, the area was filled with cafes, antique shops, boutiques, restaurants and bars. Naturally then, that the coffee shop was most frequented by students, corporate employees, shoppers looking for a drink and a place to sit (Low, 2016). It was also a popular place among tourists as the coffee shop had its own small collection of books that the people could purchase or simply read in the shop.
The coffee shop in terms of area was not very big but not congested either. It had a reasonably sized comfortable seating area, a menu section to place the order and a separate section, basically just bean bags along an aisle, for those who wished to not order but spend time reading the books placed on display at the shop (Low, 2016). Daily observations were conducted for a week and in two rounds, that is, from 12 P.M. to 2 P.M. and from 5 P.M. to 7 P.M.
First I looked around the coffee shop in general to get a feel of the environment. I realized the shop does not require to turn all of its lights on in the morning, for it receives ample sunlight. The front of the shop, facing the main street has huge glass walls lined by wide wooden, polished benches which an easily accommodate four people. One of the walls was lined by raised seats along a single table, meant to be shared. The wall at the end was used for storing books and selling hand-made stationery items with the brand logo.
12 P.M. - 2 P.M.
The noon/afternoon crowd was mostly made up of students and corporate employees looking for a quick lunch and coffee. Usually the employees sat down to eat while the students would grab their lunch and leave (Blackledge and Creese, 2019). I also observed that the working persons would visit in pairs or on their own while the students mostly came in groups of three or more (Demirci, 2018). There were exceptions, of course, when I would observe a student sitting by himself/herself working on the laptop and sipping his/her coffee. On speaking with one such student I found that the coffee shop is popular among those who wish to spend time studying, or working on a project, undisturbed. Moreover, as the staff was aware that majority of the customers were students they were lenient and did not force them to place an order every hour . Further, it was observed that tourists would most often stay for a coffee and a sandwich till they discussed their day’s plans (Blackledge and Creese, 2019).
In terms of interaction, the space seemed to be busy but not very interactive. There were orders being accepted by the staff as though on clockwork but not without a smile or some polite gesture on part of the staff members (Blackledge and Creese, 2019). On asking a few students why they never checked the menu before ordering, I was told that they mostly knew what to order and chose pretty much the same thing every day. Plus, the price of the item played a vital role in their decision (Demirci, 2018). As soon as persons would place their order they would automatically step aside for the next and wait till their coffee or meal arrived. As it was a self-service coffee shop the persons were expected to find seats for themselves, which often meant sharing the benches at peak times such as lunch hours (Demirci, 2018). Most students would, therefore, leave with their coffee. Groups mostly interacted within themselves even though many seemed to know each other despite being from different colleges in the same area. However, there was a clear presence of mobile phones with people either texting, answering calls, clicking photos, or scrolling through Instagram in general (Knox, 2016). The corporate employees mostly had their meals in silence, with minimal conversation with their colleagues or busy on their phones/tablets.
My data also included interviews with the staff members and brief observation of the kitchen space. The workspace consisted of roughly 35 members (25 in the kitchen, 5 behind the order counter and 5 in the seating area cleaning tables, the floor, etc). I was told during weekdays the most hectic hour was this i.e. the lunch hour (12 P.M. – 2 P.M.) during which staff members were not allowed to take a break. They were given time to have their lunch after the rush hour ended.
5 P.M. – 7 P. M.
The nature and behaviour of the crowd observed in the evening slightly differed. There were hardly any corporate employees. Instead, most students arrived in groups of three or more. They mostly ordered a cookie or a brownie with their coffee. Also, group interactions were observed to be richer and lasted longer. On the weekend a professor, probably from one of the colleges in the area, was seen conducting a small class of six students. She even treated them to coffee and sandwiches and received a complimentary brownie from the coffee shop staff.
Common Observations for All Days
- The coffee shop was also a place where people waited for their friends or colleagues. It was often used as a meeting point before a pair or a group proceeded for their main activity.
- Most people in the queue did not have interaction with others. If in a group, they would place the order on behalf of the entire group and return to the seat in case of a longer waiting period (Knox, 2016).
- Most people paid by cash. But there were a good number of card-payers too. Payment process was mostly smooth.
- There were two people observed, on two separate days, who brought their own coffee mug and a metal straw (Knox, 2016).
- Most people did not bother to clean the table after finishing the meal, although waste-bins were provided (and the fact that it was a self service area). There were few exceptions, however.
Through my observation of the place and the people and the interviews of the customers as well as some staff members I was able to enrich my research study and draw an in-depth analysis of the public space. An important observation of the space was of how every interaction, though separate is interconnected in subtle ways (Steigemann, 2017). Firstly, people communicate in soft voices, as a form of respect and/or basic civility. They appear relaxed but are extremely aware of their space. They are also careful of not intruding into the space of the customer near them. This mutual care or sense of respect gets somewhat challenged during peak hours. For example, customers did not seem to mind if the staff did not greet them with a smile but they frowned in case of a technical glitch during card payment. Also, students who took too long to decide their menu were asked to step aside. People are also sensitive towards others who are disabled, sick or appear genuinely exhausted after a rough day’s work/class (Tholen, 2018).
As a business, the coffee shop strongly abided by the anti-discrimination law of the country (Australian Government, 2019). No staff member was seen discouraging or hindering a customer’s right to access to the shop’s services. However, on one occasion when a big group of eight were creating a noise they were politely asked to talk softly. Secondly, there general attitude of the customers towards the staff members differed based on the roles they played. Those at the check-out counter were dealt with politeness, often a smile. However, despite it being a self-service area they seem to simply assume they could eat and leave i.e. self service was restricted to receiving their meal only (Lownes et.al, 2018). They left their trays, unfinished food, and napkins on the table for the ground staff to clean. Apart from a difference in treatment towards differential social roles this observation also points to the state of cleanliness of public (Steigemann, 2017). Lastly, as for the rights of the staff members data from the interviews point to the fact that they were paid well, in time and in accordance to the law of the land. Each member received a paid holiday once a week, which was however curtailed during festival season.
As a research method ethnography has its limitations. Apart other things, it can be time-consuming and data analysis is almost entirely depended upon the interpretative skills of the researcher. However, through “thick description” and other data collection techniques it allows for a complex understanding of social relations as embedded in a given context. In case of this paper, the research study allowed me reflexivity in producing knowledge about how social interactions in a coffee shop adhere to general human rights norms.
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