The site of my ethnographic experiment was the food court inside the CF Rideau Centre. I’ve visited the food court of the Rideau Centre multiple times a week for the past three years because of its close proximity to the University. I thought that it would be interesting to look at a place that I regularly visit through an ethnographic lens. The food court is quite a vibrant setting, especially on the weekends, and it was also an easy location to observe people without looking too strange. The fact that it is located so centrally downtown makes it a very attractive sit for this assignment. The University of Ottawa is extremely close, there is a high school a few minutes away, there are many government buildings close by, the national defense building is right across the street and most buses pass it on their routes. It is perhaps the most accessible and largest mall in Ottawa.
I divided my observations into two one hour long sessions, one during the weekday and one on the weekend. I made this decision because from my experience shopping malls are completely different during a weekday and on the weekend. The process of taking notes for one hour straight also seemed mentally exhausting, so dividing up the sessions benefited me and my observations greatly. I noticed and expanded on many more things during my second session than I did during the first.
The first approach will be descriptive while my second approach will be analytical. I hope the two approaches will be complementary, and reveal different things which happened around me. The second, analytical approach allowed me to connect my observations to broader anthropological theories.
Monday November 13th
Seated at 2:30pm
As I sat down with my plate full of food with my notebook in my backpack, I immediately started observing and noticing small things which I previously never gave a second thought to previously. Since it was 2:30 pm on a weekday, there wasn’t a very large concentration of people either in my area or in the food court. Several tables around me were empty at the time of my arrival. I seated myself in an area organized around two rows of tables lined up about 20 feet away from each other, with the space between them occupied by more tables. There were mostly groups of two people or more in my vicinity and they typically arranged themselves in the middle row of tables. Most of the people who were alone were seated on the outside tables. Everyone that I saw was either eating or had previously purchased something from the food court shown by empty trays and or drink bottles.
Those seated by themselves typically left much quicker than those who were socializing in groups while eating. They finished their food and almost immediately picked up their trays and belongings and left the area. Many people stayed for extended periods of time including two girls who ended up pulling out their laptops and textbooks. From a quick glance it did not seem as though they had purchased anything. The two girls represent a clear anomaly in how people can engage with the space. While everyone else was in the process or did eat, the girls saw the space as a place to study and do school work.
There were about 20 or so people located around me and from my observations only one of them seemed to have purchased something from one of the shops outside of the food court. There were a variety of people inside the food court in terms of ethnicity, age and gender.
A man who had an empty cup of coffee in front of him seemed to be using the food court as a leisurely place, he was just relaxing and observing the things taking place around him. It is possible that he was homeless and just came to the food court to escape the elements for a while.
Left at 3:26 pm
Saturday November 18
Seated at 1:00 pm
The mall was visibly and audibly more vibrant than my previous observation session at the food court. The demographic were much different as well: there were more families and teenagers, and a lot fewer university-aged people. I ended up sitting in a different area than before, on one of the “islands” with high chairs. Presumably this area was more or less meant for individuals by themselves because almost everyone at the table was alone as well. The area allowed people to have a seat without occupying an entire table that is meant for a group of people. The table had plug outlets which people around me used to their hearts’ content. Both the seats of the table I was sitting at and practically all of the other tables in my view were occupied already.
A lot of those at the food court seemed to have bought something before coming to the food court. There were eight distinct groups of people present in my field of view: adult couples, young couples, young families, young friends, elderly friends, elderly couples, individual young adults and individual elderly people. The ratio of individuals to people in groups was also much larger. Those sitting around me stayed at their seats significantly longer than those at regular tables.
In my field of view I could see both the main entrance to the food court and back entrance directly to the Mackenzie King Bridge. The main entrance had people constantly entering and leaving the food court while the back entrance was hardly used.
Left at 1:57 pm
At first glance one would assume that the food court of the Rideau Centre serves a singular purpose which would be to purchase and consume food while still being inside the mall. This would allow for people to have quick and easy access to food after they’ve done some shopping. In reality through my observations I have discovered that there are many different uses for the space. Firstly and most obviously, the food court is a space for buying and eating food and almost all of those who I observed were doing this. Secondly this space is also used for socializing. Those in groups of two or more were usually talking while and after they ate their food. Those who were socializing tended to stay longer than those who were just simply eating. Lastly people used the food court as a space for leisure, relaxation, or workplace. A few people who I observed also brought their laptops to the food court and began doing schoolwork; they mostly sat at the tables with the electrical outlets. There are many different uses for the food court and many of them intersect in that space. While many people may be inside the food court, many of them may use the space in very different ways.
While doing my observations I started to wonder how people inside the food court paid attention to the space itself. I attempted to identify signs which could help answer this question. Some people see the food court as a part of the larger Rideau Centre, as can be seen by the shopping bags which people bring with them into the food court. The shopping bags signify that they have purchased something most likely from one of the stores inside the mall. Therefore they see the food court as an extension or a part of the larger mall. I assume that this is the way the mall administration wants people to see the space: a place to get some food after spending your money inside some of the shops. During my visit on the weekend, most of the people there fit into this category. The entrance which people decided to enter through was also very telling. To me, the main entrance represented a connection to the larger mall, and the back entrance represented a kind of separation from the mall. The back entrance connects almost directly to the Mackenzie King Bridge, so it is much quicker for people who use that entrance (mainly students) to access the food court. If one were to both enter and leave through that entrance, they wouldn’t have to pass a single clothing store. When going to the food court to do my observations I did exactly this.
During my observations, I also noticed a great variety in the amount of time people stayed in the food court. People who just ate food by themselves left much more quickly than those who were socializing or those who had their laptops out. Eating is a time-limited activity because you only have so much food on your plate and your appetite can eventually be satisfied. Socializing on the other hand can be longer than eating because it is not physically limited in the same sense. People can socialize for much longer than they can eat. The plug outlets on the “island tables” made the space more permanent for those who used it. As long as the security doesn’t kick you out for not buying anything, you could last a long time in the food court. There are free plug outlets, free toilets, free Wi-Fi which doesn’t seem to have a time limit on it, and access to food all in that confined space. The design of certain types of tables hints at the length of stay the Rideau Centre administration want to encourage in this space. It makes sense that they would seek to create a more transitory feel in this area of the mall, one which would incite people to buy their food, eat it, and leave in a timely manner thereby making room for other people looking for a table.
The food court of the Rideau Centre provided me a rich and interesting setting for my research notes. From the notes I could then write two different ethnographic variations of the field notes. There’s not only one correct way to write an ethnography, but there are many different methods and strategies that can be used to produce different kinds of effects. By using both an analytical and descriptive styles I aimed to highlight the differences between them in style, voice and also format.
Reading many different ethnographies in class it gave me a larger sense of what an ethnography can look like. Ethnographies aren’t written in one single systematic way, but they can take many different shapes and forms. This assignment gave me firsthand experience of what these different ethnographic shapes and forms can look like. Class discussions on the ethnographies also showed me that one ethnography can truly resonate with one person, yet be completely unappealing to another. Both the topic and the writing style have a hand in this, so it is very important for ethnographers to know which style of writing best fits the topic being studied.