Experiencing the Mundane
Introduction and Approach
For the site of my ethnographic experiment, I chose my workplace setting: a produce department. I am a produce clerk, so my job entails stocking and customer service. This presents an environment where I can seamlessly observe and interact with customers, without the potential awkwardness caused by “being out of place.” My field notes cover a three-hour window (7 AM–10 AM) where I am responsible for ‘setting-up’ the fresh counter (wetcase or “back-half”). This task involves stocking the fresh greens and reducing the old product for quick sale.
After examining my notes, I was surprised at how nuanced menial tasks can be. I have setup the wetcase over a thousand times, yet my description was disorienting. Even though I recognized what I was doing; how I was doing it and what I was paying attention to seemed foreign. Interested in this, I decided to write the two essays on a single task: the broccoli display. This specific task featured prominently in my field notes. However, more importantly, it is a task that due to repetition has become banal. My first essay, “Cold Hands,” is a first-person narration with a focus on sensorial experience. I wished to convey what the task feels like, somewhat akin to “being there” in Hugh Raffles “The Deepest of Reveries.” In this rendition, sensation takes precedence. I am less interested in the procedural aspects of the job, and more curious about the nuanced sensorial experiences. The second essay, “Stacking Broccoli”, provides a third-person authoritative description of the task. More along the lines of a thick description, I aim to outline the procedural aspects and rationale of setting up the display. By comparing the two essays I hope to tease out how a simple shift in attention can turn mundane tasks into unique occurrences, rich with ethnographic data.
Almost done. Four more boxes and I will be finished. I push the rickety truck into the cooler, acutely aware of its tendency to veer left. The wax boxes are piled to my left. ‘Iceless Broccoli’ they read. If only that were true. Sporadic spots of green protrude from their frozen enclosure, the only cue that the boxes are not just full of ice. As I hoist them onto my truck, frigid water pours out, coating my apron and jeans. A handle breaks off in my gloved hand just as I get the last box piled on.
I push the truck out, met with the familiar resistance of getting caught on the door’s rivets. The warm air is instant relief and so is no longer being able to see my breath. Ignoring the fog forming in my glasses, I head onto the floor. I blink as my eyes adjust to fluorescent lighting, staving off any thoughts of sleep I might have. The whir of refrigeration units accompanies my walk to the wetcase. I pull my truck to a stop.
Now comes the fun part. Wrestling the flaps open sends water droplets flying, my upper body falling victim to the spray. I dig into the layer of ice, fingers probing for stalks. I begin piling them: vertically layered, end-over-end. One box. My fingers ache from the ice, the hardened crystals sharp as glass. These heads are a sickly yellow, a sharp contrast to the healthy greenery above. A customer passes by, the clink of glass striking the wire-framed cart reveals their haste. I wipe my latex-covered hands on my apron, specks of green clinging to the black fabric. They are so cold. Across from me, the abrupt chopping of pineapple refocuses my attention. Two boxes. Running out of room on the top of my truck, I shift the empty boxes to the bottom which dumps the remaining contents, creating a pool of water, chunks of ice and bits of broccoli at my feet. My shoes squelch in this as I continue grabbing stalks. I now shove the broccoli into the crevices between the layers. Repeated digging has reduced my gloves to shreds, my bright, pink fingers now wet and revealed. Three. “Excuse me?” Finally, a reason to stop. “Yes ma’am, what can I help you with?” I say as I wipe beads of water off my glasses. “Where are your avocados?” she asks while casually rummaging through the tray of day-old green beans. “Right at the front” I point, flinging a few flecks of broccoli. Water trickles down my arm as I quicken the pace, my placement becoming more erratic. A customer, betrayed by their heavy-handedness with cologne, reaches past. I lean away, from both his reach and the sharp smell of vanilla, his barely audible “Sorry” concluding our interaction. Almost there. I fling a few more onto the shelf, the ice starting to cut into my flesh. Unceremoniously, I slam the last stalk up, having lost all feeling in my fingertips. Four – Done.
Broccoli is one of the bestselling produce items. It is stocked and sold all year round, with no discernable qualitative variation during different seasons. Stacking this product is an arduous process. Each individual broccoli is non-uniform, demanding its placement be a delicate balancing act. This process is not enjoyable because of its tedious nature, and because it inevitably leads to frozen hands. For some, it is the first task of the wetcase, for others it is the last; but the common thread is that it is lamented due to its arduous nature and the physical discomfort of stacking cold, wet broccoli.
The first issue is that broccoli cases weigh fifty pounds and come in flimsy wax boxes. As a result, the handles are prone to tearing making it difficult to pick up the product. The casing also makes piling these boxes difficult, as they disintegrate when waterlogged. The other major problem is the ice. Although the boxes are labelled “Iceless,” broccoli is encased in chunks of shaved ice. Not only does this make broccoli extraction from the box difficult, it also ensures the clerk becomes soaked in the process.
Unable to be carried by hand for long periods of time, broccoli boxes are transported onto the store floor with manual trucks. Up to eight boxes can be transported on these two-tiered trucks, but it is advisable to leave the lower half unencumbered for the empty boxes. Otherwise, empties will be piled on the floor, creating both a mess and a hazard. Once weighted down with product, these trucks are hard to maneuver.
Roughly ten metres from the back room, the broccoli counter is the last part of the fresh wall before the refrigerated prepackaged salads. Approximately two metres by two metres, this section is covered with black perforated matting to prevent the product from sliding onto the floor. The number one rule of wetcase setup is that no black matting can be shown. Apart from aesthetics, this standardizes the amount of broccoli that is required to fill the shelf, facilitating the ordering process. To fill, broccoli is extracted from the boxes, careful to not recklessly spill its contents onto the floor. It is then layered in a lattice-like manner until it reaches the top of the counter. At this point, broccoli is wedged stalk-first into the crevices between the layers. This creates a canopy of broccoli heads that face the customer. This is strategically done for three reasons. It efficiently covers the black matting, it allows the customer to visually appraise the edible part of the product and it allows produce employees to water the broccoli crowns with ease. Once the broccoli stacking is finished, the employee must clear the ground of debris, often ice or pieces of broccoli, for customer safety. As aforementioned, broccoli is a bestselling item; therefore, this process must be repeated approximately fifteen times a day.
This ethnographic experiment revealed a crucial aspect of ethnographic writing: partiality. Clifford’s concept of “Partial Truths” asserts how writing from a position ensures the ethnographer deals in partiality, careful selection that tells a specific story. This exercise not only reinforced “Partial Truths”, but built upon my understanding of it. I was previously under the assumption that the ethnographer was responsible for their stylistic choices. As it turns out, they are more-or-less forced into specific conventions of writing based upon the arguments they are attempting to make. By shifting my stylistic choices, I unintentionally produced two markedly different works. The focus of “Cold Hands” was sensory experience. Written in the first person, this essay inadvertently answers the potential question: “What does it feel like?” In distancing myself, “Stacking Broccoli” describes the process of setting up the display. Importance is placed on the overarching process, rather than its implementation, reading as an assertive “how to” guide. Sensorial experience could not have been appropriately conveyed in a generic, authoritative description like “Stacking Broccoli.” Likewise, “Cold Hands” could not explain the rationale or the procedures involved in broccoli stacking. Since ethnographers, unlike this exercise, write with intended questions they must select stylistic modes that are conducive to answering them. In many ways, the stylistic choices are responsible for what questions are answered, as they dictate what the ethnographer can discuss.
Aside from ethnographic writing, this exercise provided insight into ethnographic focus. The task of setting up broccoli is a trivial experience to me. In focusing on sensory perception, I turned a banal task into a foreign occurrence. As a result, subtle shifts in focus change the very nature of experience; and, forgive the axiom, is capable of “making the familiar strange.”