For my assignment, I did my observations in a campus café, located in one of the university buildings. It was not my initial intention to take my field-notes at this site: once I started paying attention to my surroundings, suddenly the mundane became interesting. This location was ideal because the demographic is diverse—i.e., professors, students, various university staff members, etc. Both diversity of the café’s patrons as well as the locale’s vibrancy made it ideal for observing people as they go about their day, whether by catching up on studies, or by catching up with friends.
My first ethnographic description is in essence a narrative analysis, but it also blends a sensorial description with the raw field-notes format. I tried to capture the details and events that were happening around me, in order to enable the reader to feel as though they are there at the café. I wanted really pull in my readers—to smell, hear, and feel what I experienced. Naturally I am drawn to poetic and story-like styles of writing, so I intuitively wrote my first description in that form. In my second ethnographic description, I took on a reflexive tone in the form of an ethnographic vignette. In my attempts, I tried to embody a voice that was a little more open, and less focused on detail. I aim to show that despite the fact that both ethnographies are based on the same observations and field-notes, the way in which they are written up reveals different things.
Ethnographic Description #1
As I walk into the café, I am immediately taken aback by how full it is…every chair is occupied. I make my round and finally come across an empty seat—I nestle myself in between two people. I set my belongings down, hanging my backpack on the back of the chair, and draping my coat over top. After grabbing a coffee, I make myself comfortable, arranging my notebook and pencil case in front of me. The girl next to me takes a bite out of her honeycrisp apple, releasing a crunch that would send a trickle of juice down her chin—she slurps the juice from the curve of the fruit and wipes her face with the palm of her hand. She takes another bite out of the brick coloured apple, further exposing the porcelain flesh of the fruit before setting it down beside her binder. Directly in front of her, her friend snacks on some cereal that she has packed into a Ziploc bag. All around me people are occupied—some studying in silence, while others talk to each other. The smell of coffee and various foods fill the air as people warm up their lunch—the aromas create a feeling of comfort on a gloomy afternoon. At the table across from me, a girl carefully peels and enjoys her clementine while engaging in a seemingly funny conversation with her friends.
In the midst of everything, a feeling overcomes me—an interesting vibe in the air...one that is very familiar. It is the “end of semester” feeling…the feeling of exams fast approaching. My heart drops at the realization that finals are only weeks away!
In addition to the smells drifting throughout the café, one cannot ignore the sounds—the faint music that plays in the background, the occasional sniffle and cough of those who are sick or that have just entered from the cold; the multitude of voices and conversations that are taking place. Behind me I hear the quaint ‘ding’ of the cash register right before it opens followed by the sound of money being put into their proper slots, counted, and returned.
Slowly the café starts to quiet down. Some have packed their bags and left, perhaps to make it in time for their next class. Three girls look for a place to sit—they ponder before finally choosing a little square table. My attention is drawn to the far end of the café where a girl and her friend share laughs and giggles as they watch something on one of their laptops. On the opposite side of the room, a girl gets her hair braided by a friend—she winces as her friend runs her fingers through the knotted hair. In that moment, I get distracted by the gentleman sitting right next to me—he starts to talk about his grades, shaking his head in disappointment. His friend reassures him that “it’s not so bad.” He later proceeded to do online shopping for athletic gear.
An older gentleman has just finished doing some reading. He checks his wristwatch then proceeds to pack his belongings into a green plastic bag and leaves. The three girls that had earlier settled at the little square table are now enjoying their lunch. ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis comes on and the group of friends at the table across from me start to sing along…it was not long before the gentleman next to me started to sing the chorus…I inevitably find myself mouthing the words too…
Two girls start to talk about their group project and the difficulties they are experiencing with their group members—they are annoyed that they are the only ones putting in the effort, while the two absent members are not contributing. On the other side of the room, a girl changes seats to move closer to a wall plug—another girl moves her belongings in order to make room for her to sit.
At this point in time, things have quieted down much more…the music has stopped playing and the only sounds that fill the room are those of people’s voices and turning pages. A gentleman speedily walks into the café, trying to catch his breath. He meets up with a girl and apologizes for his tardiness. Her friendly laugh is forgiving, and she assures him that it is no problem.
As my stomach grumbles, I note that it is time to slowly pack up. Weary eyes and a hungry belly are always a good excuse to head home to a toasty abode.
Ethnographic Description #2
What is it to notice? When you think about it, every person is an anthropologist in a way—whether by questioning certain customs, or being an observer of others. During my two-hour fieldwork, I came to notice things that I would have otherwise looked passed. In my short yet informative two hours, I came to see how the social area of the campus café is used by my peers and by other university members.
It goes without saying that the café serves as a place to grab food and coffee, but it is also a place where one can come and warm up their own food and eat. There were many people who were at the café solely to eat their lunch and then leave. There were many who would eat and study at the same time, snacking on things such as fruit, vegetables, grains, and so forth.
The café was very busy, and full of students—the majority of which were doing schoolwork. There were many who were studying alone in silence, some in the company of others, and many who were discussing projects. Overall, there seemed to be an essence of ‘end of semester’ from what I could feel in the presence of the students and professors. I overheard a few students express anxiety about their grades, and another two students who shared their struggles of being in a group project with members who were not contributing.
There were many people who were on their computers or phones watching videos and catching up on TV shows. There was a moment in my note taking when I heard the little giggles and giddy laughs of two girls who were watching a video together while sharing headphones—the sharing of a picture or video was reciprocated by various students who would share laughs and then return to their schoolwork. I also witnessed the bonding of two girl friends, one of which was getting her hair braided by the other.
Something I found rather fascinating was when the song “Wonderwall” by the band Oasis started playing, there were many who started singing along. I myself felt compelled to sing aloud—it was very contagious.
My time among the students was short, but nevertheless I was able to gather an array of interesting observations.
This assignment proved to be much more difficult than expected. It was difficult trying to write up the same observations in two different ways, while maintaining some degree of differentiation between the two. This was particularly hard considering I knew early on exactly how I would write my first description. Choosing a second form without too much overlap was not an easy task. This exercise has taught me not only that there is so much to observe in the every day activities of people, but also that an ethnography can take on many forms and be interpreted in different ways.
Throughout the semester, having been exposed to a wide array of different anthropological works really demonstrated that there is no one right way of writing ethnographies. Being able to have creative freedom, or knowing that one does not have to stick to a certain set of rules allowed for me to be genuine. It was gratifying to see that ethnographies can take on many forms and styles. Whether it be in the form of a story-like narrative, as seen in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men, philosophical and analytic, like in Lisa Stevenson’s in Life Beside Itself, or even poetic, as seen in The Deepest of Reveries by Hugh Raffles. Every ethnographer will choose how they want represent a subject, or present an idea, but within the lines of their writing, there is something deeper than just a body of facts. How one chooses to write their ethnography will dictate how penetrating their point is. Additionally, after reading the ethnographies this semester, it is clear that no matter how much one tries, one cannot be impartial. There were undoubtedly many things that I did not observe, or chose not to write down. Therefore depending on the focus, what one writes about will not be the same as another person. What is foregrounded depends on the observer.