Meena Shams

 An Anthropological Glance at Two Student Lounges

For the observation portion of this assignment, my sites of choice are the two student lounges on the university campus. My reasoning behind this selection was that I would be able to observe a continuous flow of people, and perhaps even discover some unpronounced patterns or tacit cultural practices.

For both of the mini-ethnographies presented below, I have attempted to create complementary and somewhat contrasting descriptions of the recorded field notes. The first ethnography emphasizes personal impressions and reflections and contains a relatively quieter sarcastic tone. The second tends more to an analytical perspective, and is prominently sarcastic.


The first lounge is situated between the staircase leading to a large lecture hall, and is occupied mainly by people sitting in pairs, most of them chatting sociably rather than working on assignments. The students come and go, periodically joining and abandoning these seating arrangements.  Most are moving slowly; some are eating their food. Chatter fills the air. I take note of the different kinds of homemade packaged meals and coffee brews. I attempt to take notes discretely, but am noticeably awkward.

In the lounge, the main colours—brown and grey—match the theme of the rest of the building.

The tables in the first lounge are circular while those in the second are square-shaped and larger in length. They are surrounded by a variable number of chairs, sometimes two, other times as many as six per table. In the first lounge, quite a few people are actually speaking with one another rather than looking at their computers. Hence, the ambience of this first lounge tends to be more sociable. It helps that the couches in this lounge appear slightly more decorated with intricate patterning than they do in the second site. In the second, they are only grey.

Despite the sociable nature of the first lounge, the majority of the conversation seems to be about assignments.

Now, I move to the other lounge. Here, the man-woman ratio is much closer and men sit at the sharply defined square tables, each of them with a laptop in front of him. There is work to be done. The somber environment of the second lounge, filled with students hard at work, is a sharp contrast to the sociable and carefree ambience of the previous lounge. In this lounge, more people are focused on studying—even though there are still a few groups of people sociably chatting away. Clearly, the students in this second lounge utilize their time to get through their assignments. Their assignments, however, seem to be particular and similar. They involve social media or YouTube.

Netflix viewing is also common among the especially focused students, who have a greater span of time on their hands in between classes or work. I find it unusual that professors would assign such a large amount of work to be based upon such platforms, but nonetheless, it appears to be the case. A number of students seem to be dealing with mundane assignments. A number of students seem to be dealing with mundane assignments given from the more rigorous professors– which are typical of what I have seen in previous years.


As I sat down in the first lounge, my meticulous nature as an observer made note of a rather important detail: the quotidian ramblings and habituations of student life may be amply placed for display in such a condensed region of higher learning.

Firstly, however, I shall contribute a brief description of the two lounges investigated on the first floor: It should be noted that the tables in the first lounge were circular in shape and quite small, bringing about a forced intimacy.

Beside the fact that the lobby, (at this point) seemed to be female-dominated, I also observed that the people sitting at these tables were eating meals and socializing rather than doing work. Perhaps the size and shape of the tables is not ideal for getting work done, leading them to instead function better as social junctures?

These circular tables also inherently do not have a definite shape or straight edges. This means that the number of people who could possibly join a conversation is ambiguous and cannot be previously determined. One table might have two chairs at its side, while two tables over another couple has surrounded themselves with six chairs, four of which are empty. Many of these ‘empty’ chairs held on to nearly backbreaking weights of bags that students are made to carry in between classes.

The people who sat at these circular tables were ‘chatty’ and sociable. Although they engaged in schoolwork, they remained friendly in their disposition. In fact, the entire lounge embraced a welcoming ambience that allowed its guests to remain relaxed and willing to communicate.

This, then, opens the door to the second part of the observation.

I realized that I had not taken into account the second and objectively larger lounge area next to the plant wall to the left of the building’s main entrance. In this area, there were more men making use of the tables, relative to the other lounge. Also, the waffle bar attracting attention near the main entrance of the building, beside the second lounge, may account for some of the increased traffic within the area. The student often floats towards any areas where there is any mention of free food, having spent large sums of money to be in such a building in the first place.

Also of note, the tables within this second are are square-shaped, with four sharp corners and defined edges, allowing for a "4-side, 4-chair" rule between groups that would not have been available to people sitting at the circular tables. This rule apparently creates a more rigid and formal environment, since a larger number of students here  in this second lounge found themselves hard at work with group members. Their Internet tabs brightly displayed the blue and white logo of the Facebook website, one of their most frequented ones. It is a website that allows for constant commentary upon a person's life. On something called a 'newsfeed' one is bombarded by photos and updates, belonging to people that the user has often met only once. They are forced to go along this feed and add additional commentary or opinions. It is clear to be an excruciatingly time-killing activity that seems to be forced upon them by the academia, as they are constantly on Facebook or others similar to it while in these lounges. Nonetheless, you must applaud such students for being resilient enough to adapt to such miserable conditions and still excel.

And thus, this brief description of the sites of observation show that the lounges in the Faculty of Social Sciences provide optimal opportunity to students for being productive.

This experimental ethnographic exercise has taught me one crucial point: that depending on what points of observation an anthropologist wishes to emphasize, an ethnography can and will become completely different. In a sense, this is shocking and disturbing because it reveals the extent to which writing may both “tweak” reality and achieve a certain effect on the reader. I attempted to reveal the impact that a variation in levels of sarcasm will have upon an audience, with the first piece having objectively less sarcasm than the second.

Reading ethnographies that were presented in various voices and styles helped greatly in the writing of this assignment. I enjoyed looking at stylistically contrastive works such as “What Colour is the Sacred” by Michael Taussig relative to “The Anthropologists” by Kathleen Stewart. Taussig’s work was complex in terms of content as well as word choice, whereas Stewart’s was almost its polar opposite: it was short and did not make use of nearly as many examples to prove the author’s point. The most important reading, however, that contributed to the sarcastic tone would be Horace Miller’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”.