The Setting of Observation
For my “ethnographic experiments” assignment, I chose to conduct my observation exercise at a local coffee shop. I selected this site because I wished to observe a diverse group of people in a confined, vibrant space that offers a unique and appealing sensory experience.
I felt that selecting an environment that is entirely new, and relatively unfamiliar would allow me to construct an ethnographic description that did not rely on past experiences and assumptions. My only previous notions about this cafe were based on friends’ rarely shared anecdotes; I do not know anyone who is a regular customer of this company. While I do frequently visit coffee shops, as well as work as a barista, this café attracted me because it is a part of a chain that focuses heavily on environmental issues and seeks to support local, small-scale farmers. I assume that this brand also therefore attracts customers who appreciate these specific values.
A coffeehouse is also a site that offers a promising sensory experience: the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes are invigorating, and can vary, even within the span of only two hours, as customers come and go. This characteristic gave me a lot of material with which to work, in order to create multiple ethnographic analyses that use different representational strategies and different kinds of voice.
Another reason that I selected this particular coffee shop is its excellent location that attracts a broad demographic; from elders to teens, and including students, business people, and the community of retirees. Their interactions, I imagined, would give me a lot of material for my ethnographic observation.
The first version of my ethnographic description follows a narrative analysis format where I rely on a more descriptive tone. I bring to focus my observations in a broad, multidimensional context that does not focus on a particular individual, or a particular bodily sense. In this essay, my goal is to provide the reader with an understanding of the diverse demographic within Bridgehead coffeehouse, as well as the variations I experienced from a sensorial perspective throughout the two hours I spent gathering field notes.
The second description is presented in the form of a ethnographic portrait. Its tone is analytical and it seeks to showcase only a particular part of my observations, focused on an individual who I encountered. In this text, my goal was to take on a more traditional approach towards ethnography in terms of style, but also to support the idea that representations are partial.
What Goes Unnoticed
As the last of the lunch-time rush is shuffling out the door, I am sinking into my seat in a booth near the back of the shop, back towards the window, which is giving off a cool air that tingles my neck and sends shivers down my spine. I am surrounded by people, yet I feel secluded; eyes glued to their laptops, no one pays much attention to the fellow customers who are sitting inches apart from them, aside from quick sideways glances as a means of ensuring their belongings are not touching one another’s. Further towards the entrance, I notice several round tables where conversations are being had; they are inaudibly muffled, so much that even the soft songs being whispered through the overhead speakers reign superior.
This hush is interrupted by a voice, catching me off guard- “do you mind if I take the seat next to you?” I look up, it is a woman; she has a tired, blank face that on the surface shows little emotion, but her voice is warm. I respond with, “not at all, go ahead!” And with that, coffee in hand, she sinks into the booth just as I had only half an hour before. I forget she is there as she settles herself. I am fixated on the commotion occurring behind the shop’s counter, which I am facing. With the flow of customers coming to a halt, the baristas begin to tidy their workspace in preparation for the next wave of caffeine-deprived visitors; ceramics clank together, a tap turns on and then off, followed by a paper towel being torn from its dispenser, coffee beans click together as they tunnel into a grinder that rattles as it breaks them down.
My daze is broken by a young man who passes directly through my line of sight. I can feel his stomp sending vibrations through the hard, concrete floor, which travel from the soles of my feet to my calves; but each step remains silent. My gaze moves downward to his feet. He is shoeless; his socks acting as the only barrier between his skin and the cool concrete, aside from his left toe that is peeking out from the frayed fibres. He does not simply pass by; he begins to pace. Back and forth, back and forth, like a pendulum. He is mumbling to himself and staring up towards the ceiling, as if he is trying to recall or remember the words.
I lock eyes with a woman diagonal to me; she breaks her stare to watch the young man as I have been. Gripped softly in both hands, she raises her mug to rest on her lips; as she tips it upwards to allow the warm, velvety liquid to escape from the top layer of foam and pour between her lips, her eyes continue to move to the tempo of his pace. In his final stride, he makes a sharp turn towards the bathroom; with a close of the door and a click of the lock, his performance was complete. The woman’s eyes averted back to her screen, and her hands delicately lead her latte back to its saucer.
By now, the customers who sat nearest to me have vacated their spots, leaving behind their plates sprinkled with crumbs, accompanied by presumably empty mugs. The quiet seclusion has returned, new and improved, hindered and hushed. The only decipherable sounds come from the overhead speakers again, but they are now accompanied by the rumble of the downtown-core traffic. My thought is interrupted by the barista standing in front of my table, she asks, “can I take your glass away from you?”
*Details of individuals have been changed to maintain anonymity*
A Stranger’s Tears
In the early stages of my observations, the majority of seats surrounding me were occupied, apart from the table immediately next to me. It wasn't long before a woman, whom I first thought was about seventy years old, but I later decided he was in her fifties, approached the vacant spot and asked me if she could take it. She was dressed in casual clothing appropriate for the cold, winter weather; complete from head to toe with a toque and boots. We shared a quick conversation as I welcomed the seat to her, she set her messenger bag on the ground, and that was that.
I continued with my observations for about fifteen minutes until my attention averted back to her. She was sitting still, looking down at the table in front of her; on it was a full cup of coffee, an unopened newspaper, and a card. The card was cut into the shape of an elephant, similar to something that a child would receive on their birthday. After a few moments, she opened the card, closed it, opened it, and closed it again; the inside was blank. She looked concerned or perplexed, maybe even a bit of both.
Again, I returned my attention to the rest of my surroundings in the coffeehouse, until I heard her speak. Initially, I thought her comment was directed at me, as I was the only one sitting near her at this point. I looked up, preparing to ask her to repeat herself as I was not paying enough attention to hear what was said, only to realize that she was staring straight ahead of her, despite there being no one there. This continued randomly for several minutes. Her comments included reference to her being late, receiving “bad” news, and questioning whether she would be “back” or not.
Following the verbal outbursts, she began to make erratic hand motions, and her stare remained fixated directly in front of her. This evolved into her entire body shaking, and I became concerned. Prior to these actions I had been observing her through peripheral vision, but I decided to turn and face her to make sure he did not need assistance. Tears were streaming down her face, which caused me to bring my eyes back to the notebook in which I was documenting my surroundings. I returned to my original idea of observing via peripheral vision.
Her movements plateaued, and she quickly shoved her newspaper and the card back into her messenger bag, stood up, and walked briskly towards and into the women’s restroom. Her coffee mug remained on the table, still full; this left me to assume that she would be back, and was simply skeptical about leaving her belongings unattended.
Sometime shortly after, she must have left the restroom and exited the building, leaving behind her full coffee mug. I must have missed her entirely, due to my assumption that she would return to his spot in the booth beside me.
*Details of individuals have been changed to maintain anonymity*
I found this assignment to be a useful addition to our course “Ethnography: Comparative Perspectives” because it allowed me to experience first-hand how ethnographic texts do not have to be limited in format, style, voice, or context. That being said, the variety of approaches that can be produced as a result of ethnographic observation are in some ways complementary. In my first version, which followed a narrative analytical approach, I attempted to create a broad sensorial description of my encounters at a local coffeehouse. By contrast, for my second version, I narrowed my scope in attempt to create an ethnographic portrait of a particular individual I encountered, while still seeking to give sense of the larger environment. The two versions, although different in format, tone, and focus, are also complementary; they both portray the coffeehouse environment based on my observations.
After completing both versions, I began to see “Version #1” as a map, which provides readers with a clear, concise, and identifiable sense of the space and those who occupy it. “Version #2” emerged as an inset map that highlights a particular element in the larger scene. Both versions are based on my observations and are equally important.
Throughout this semester we have read many ethnographic texts, none of which followed identical formatting. However, they were comparable, and each brought to light a different method or technique in their approach. Each text contributed to informing my own approach by allowing me to realize the potential variations that I could develop in writing out of a single exercise of observation. This allowed me to enter the process of writing with an open mind that was not in search of anything particular.
From Raffles’ “The Deepest of Reveries”, to Hurston’s “Mules and Men”, to Taussig’s “What Color Is the Sacred?”, it is evident that no ethnographer has the most ideal or correct method, because approaches vary from person to person, and place to place. There is room for exploration in the process of portraying one’s findings, and this realization transformed the way in which I have previously approached ethnography.
Completing this experiment, and reading the variety of ethnographic texts assigned throughout this semester has taught me that representation is partial, and it is also indeterminate. There is no clear-cut expectation of what constitutes an ethnographic text, as there is room for creativity and exploration within the bounds of the environment that I choose to indulge in and observe. Ethnographies, although revolving around the goal of representing the space which was observed, also act as self-representations through diverse methods and approaches; this uniqueness is what keeps the field of study thriving and evolving in our contemporary world.