Bethany DeBree

Experimental Practice Ethnography

I chose to do my ethnographic exercise at a food court in a mall because I initially wanted to better understand human interactions with nourishment and food. However, in the course of my observation, I noticed that people eating in the food court, were less focused on food than on technology, including phones, laptops, tablets etc. I subsequently became interested in the role of this technology in this setting and the way it was  affecting social interaction. After observing for two hours, it became very clear to me that there was a distinct difference between how people interacted with other customers at the food court, and how they interacted with the staff who cleaned and cleared away dishes. Thanks to my observations, I came to see the food court as its own micro society. The food court is a stage where larger social dynamics play out, but it also has it’s own, more specific social rules and norms. It is these rules and interactions of the micro-society that I want to focus on in my analysis. 

    The first ethnography I have written is a descriptive piece focused on human-technology interaction. It is an “ethnographic vignette” that describes a very specific scene that took place during the time I was conducting observation. The second ethnography is an analytical piece that focuses on human-to-human interaction. It is formatted as an analytical report that draws upon my observations and seeks to better understand them. I focus on why the staff who work at the food court, especially in the maintenance and cleaning department, were often viewed as invisible by the consumers. In contrast to the first ethnography, the second one focuses on broader dynamics of the food court. Together, these two pieces offer two different representations of the food court as an element of our society.
A Lunch for Three:

A Mother and young daughter sit down to eat their lunch. The mother has been stalking a table in the busy lunch crowd and has finally claimed it as her own. They have packed their lunch, and the young girl looks especially proud of her Disney lunch box. The mother helps her child open her lunch box and they begin to eat. There is a third presence at their lunch. It hasn’t appeared yet, but it will shortly. Just a few years ago, it would not have been invited to lunch with them, but times change, and now it is a prime member of their social circle.

    The mother takes out their third companion, her iPhone. The daughter’s face falls as her mother begins to read through her phone. She could be checking her emails, her Facebook, her twitter. She may be doing something for work. It doesn’t matter, as long as the iPhone is there and has made its presence known. The daughter looks down at her lap and continues to eat in silence. A few minutes pass and the daughter looks up again. She says something to her mother, who briefly looks up, nods, and looks back down at her phone. They lapse back into silence as the daughter accepts her position. Her mother is conversing silently with the iPhone and the daughter must respect their relationship. Just as it used to be considered rude for a child to interrupt an adult conversation, the girl is learning that she must not interrupt the conversation between her mother and their third guest. 

    Five silent minutes pass. The daughter finds a new tactic for getting attention. She rises out of her seat and stands before her mother: something their third companion cannot do. Her mother does not look up. The daughter says something to her mother, and yawns to show she is tired. She then raises her arms upward, asking her mother to pick her up. Her mother obliges, rolling her eyes as she lifts her child against her body. She rests her chin on the child’s head and the girl looks content. 

    Once the child is positioned comfortably on her mother’s lap, the iPhone comes back out. It will not be ejected from the conversation simply because the child wants her mother’s attention. The mother holds the child on her lap with one hand and the iPhone sits against the child’s back while the mother holds it in the other hand. The child is getting sleepy and the mother continues to scroll through her phone.

    The mother’s lunch sits in her lunch box, mostly untouched, as she shares communion with their third guest. The daughter’s lunch sits picked at on the table, long forgotten in her ploy to vie for her mother’s attention. 

    The three of them stay in this position for a long time. They become almost a still picture, frozen in place, while the rest of the food court booms with the life around them. There is indeterminable chatter surrounding them in every direction harmonizing with the crashing and clattering of dishes. Despite all this chaotic noise, the three of them exude a kind of calm silence. Each one of them is unaware of the world around them for a different reason.

    The child rests; content to have attention from her mother. The mother is lost in the endless stream of information her iPhone is giving her. Throughout it all, it is only the iPhone that remains connected to the rest of the world. Although silent, the guest connects to the rest of the world at remarkably fast speeds, updating itself with current events and the happenings of society. 

    In this chaotic micro-society that is the food court, the iPhone brings a sense of calm and tranquility to its companions. Even while it synthesizes an absurd amount of information per second, it makes sense of it and gives it to its companions in a calming fashion. It allows the mother to become lost in a world of information about society, without having to interact with society itself. 

    The iPhone tells them that time is up. Their lunch date has come to an end. The mother puts her daughter down and begins to pack up her uneaten lunch. The daughter also puts her lunch back into her prized Disney lunch box. The mother holds her phone in one hand and her daughter’s hand in the other and the three of them walk out of the food court together, hand in hand after a special lunch date. 

The Invisible Social Group

    There are many different kinds of people one sees in a food court in the early afternoon. There are families enjoying a day out, old friends meeting up for lunch, there are the business people quickly eating alone, and the people who work at the mall who are grabbing a quick lunch. There are also the people who work at the fast food restaurants. Those people are constantly interacting with the public in a fast-paced and demanding environment. 

But there is also another group. Situated behind these other groups, the maintenance and cleaning staff work silently, almost unseen by the public. In the generally loud food court teaming with life, there appears to be a social expectation for these workers to remain unseen, while the public does not acknowledge them. 

    It is very rare that anyone acknowledges these workers, even after they have interacted with them directly. Instead, the workers stay behind the food collection stand, as the mall’s visitors put their empty trays of food onto the stand—most of the time as far away from the workers as possible, after which they walk away. It is common not make eye contact or even nod,  but to simply pretend that these people do not exist. 

    At home, most people usually wash their own dishes or have an intimate relationship with the person cleaning them; therefore, they must acknowledge those people on a personal level. Yet, outside of the home, it is rare to interact with strangers who clean plates and dishes. In most restaurants, it is the waiter who takes them away and leaves them with the unseen person in the back of the restaurant who has to clear and wash them. 

    The food court puts us in an odd situation because the unseen worker in the back of the restaurant all of a sudden becomes visible, much like the “dishwasher” at home. Yet,  we still do not have a personal relationship with them. In this way, the worker becomes visible and invisible at the same time. We know that these workers are there, because we know to put our dishes in a specific spot, but we don’t have a personal relationship with them, so in many cases we pretend they do not exist. In my two hours of observation, out of the dozens of people I observed using the services of the workers, only five smiled or nodded at them and I heard only two thank the workers aloud. I found these instances surprising because they did not fit the overall mold. 

    Dishwashers are like people next to whom one walks on the street: we acknowledge them only in so far to not run into them. The difference is that they are tasked with something that could be seen as very intimate: cleaning the bowls and utensils that make contact with our bodies, that we have used, and will probably use again during our next visit.

     We also charge these workers with the task of clearing away our wasted food. This draws another parallel between the seen and unseen. In our society, there is a big emphasis on reducing waste, especially when it comes to food. Most restaurants will offer a “to-go” box for customers who do not finish their food. In our homes,  we loathe to waste leftovers. By contrast, in the food court setting, I noticed that many people left a large amount of food on their trays when they discarded them. Out of all the people I observed in the two hours, I saw only one man physically leave his table and come back with a “to-go” box for his food. 

    Because the food court is it’s own micro society, the idea of waste seems to be twisted. It is not the customers themselves who throw the food out, but rather the workers. The customers therefore may not feel responsible for food waste because they are removed from the physical act of discarding it and therefore wasting it. They also do not feel the judgment of the restaurant waiter for not taking leftovers home. In this sense, food waste also becomes invisible. On one level, food court patrons know that it is happening, but they erase it from sight by leaving the leftover food with the worker, who is also unseen but must then deal with it, while the guests can absolve themselves of all responsibility. 

    While the food court is generally a place where people stop in to socialize and eat in a rushed manner, there is a group of people who are there, unseen, day after day. This is the group of invisible workers who we know are there, but do not acknowledge. They live in the intermediate space between invisible and visible as they perform their jobs and take the responsibly of the waste of the food court. They go unacknowledged, but the food court society would fall apart without them. Therefore, the unseen becomes vital to the flow and structure of this micro-society.  


    After attempting to write two ethnographies myself, I’ve come to the most obvious conclusion that writing ethnography is incredibly hard. What I found most challenging was making sure my point was visible enough, while still keeping the style of each ethnography sufficiently different. In the first few weeks of class, we read many different styles of short ethnographies, which I found useful to reference for this project. I was especially inspired by them in my attempt to write an anthropological vignette. In writing my second ethnography, I tried to make it similar in analytical style to some of the longer ethnographies we have read in class. Instead of just describing what was happening to make a point as I did in the first essay, in the second essay, I attempted to analyze and explain what I saw happening. 

    It was also hard to remain as judgment free as possible while observing. Because I choose a familiar spot for my observations, I found it difficult to step away from how I would normally view others and to instead try and pay attention to others for the sake of learning something new. 

    Overall, I learned that the process of ethnography is not a linear one. I went into the observation site with a few ideas about what I wanted to write, shaped by what I had learned in class. By the time I was done with observations, my ideas about what I wanted to write had completely changed, and I had to go back and reformulate my thinking. The most important takeaway point was that one should not try to manipulate the research process, but let the material guide the writing process itself.