Café Society and Sociability: A Shared Project – 1

As the manuscript for our edited book on Café Society was dispatched to the publisher, the American branch of Palgrave Macmillan, I took the decision to write a paper arising out of four decades of personal café usage. The purpose would be twofold: (a) to reflect on the parameters of this varied and varying usage, as a kind of exercise in auto-ethnography; and (b) to draw on sociology’s traditions of symbolic interactionist and ethnomethodological research to throw further light on those rules and rituals of sociability that café behaviour accomplishes and reproduces (with Goffman and Garfinkel serving as my primary mentors).

I bought a small notebook to keep in my jacket pocket and headed off to the nearest café, the ‘Burgundy and Black’ in St Martin’s Walk in Dorking. I had in mind three initial lines of entry: (a) field notes on my own experiences; (b) notes towards the structure of the journal article I saw as the project’s eventual outcome; and (c) notes on the inspiring research of predecessors like Goffman and Garfinkel. Seated, another thought occurred to me: why not conduct the project from start to finish on my website? For better or worse, this would afford material for any interested third parties to consult or, preferably, critique or comment on. With neither line managers or funders to appease nor career aspirations (beyond an immanent transition to retirement), there would be no restraints on ‘thinking and noting’ my way towards an accepted or rejected paper.

I jotted down a few initial summary observations of my own fairly routine café behaviour as follows:

  • I have never really minded where I sit, or overly much the quality of the coffee (nowadays ‘flat white’ for preference, or Americano with milk); but this is not to say that I am without spatial preferences. In order of priority I prefer:

(i)            to occupy my own discrete space;

(ii)          if I am writing, a table with sufficient space for a book or article and at the right height for laptop use;

(iii)         if I am reading, an armchair if possible;

(iv)         I like to observe people, either outside from a seat by the window, or inside from a table on the café periphery;

(v)          I also like hustle and bustle, even noise (unless only a beat is audible);

(vi)         If I am neither writing nor reading or I am in company, I become indifferent to (i) to (v).

  • Unless I am with someone, I usually shy from interaction. This is in part because I am always reading, whether it’s work-related or not. More recently – after Spring, 2012 – I have been checking twitter or tweeting too. I suspect I deploy mannerisms (e.g. conspicuous concentration) and props (e.g. positioning books) to create social distance and preserve a functioning anonymity.
  • This purposeful or ‘achieved’ isolation is not akin to loneliness; on the contrary I relish it. Paradoxically though, I favour isolation in a crowd, not least because this allows the distraction of the flaneur; but it is agential distraction, or a time-out of my choosing (i.e. when I am tired, bored or stuck).
  • There are usually local and/or national newspapers lying around, and what is litter elsewhere can be a considered donation in cafes: I often pick up a paper, scanning it in those moments prior to or in a break from more serious endeavours.
  • I find profitable a kind of companionable solitude in cafes.
  • Stepping back, there is a division of labour by place. I do certain things, read certain things, by place. In cafes (and bars), and sometimes in my study at home, I am as creative as I get; my office ‘at work’ is reserved for more routine tasks: answering emails, devising powerpoints, holding tutorials, etc.
  • ‘Familiarity bonds’ are significant too. Familiarity relaxes, is comforting and promotes wellbeing. Like others, I can head for a favourite table, purchase the same coffee, have my choice anticipated by a known barista, exchange a comment, recognize and nod at other regulars, and so on.
  • So the café for me can be a living room, study, office or department common room (remember those?). It can undergo spatial metamorphosis; and maybe, accordingly, I occupy a discernible statuses and roles in its precincts? Are certain identities specifiable too?

I noticed I was getting gradually more sociological. And there were themes already emerging in my head:

  1. The design and parameters of the space comprising a café will shape sociability and interaction in ways users are likely be unaware of.
  2. Users’ projects, allied to geographic location, are likely to help determine who goes to which café to do what, in the process facilitating the development of discrete café communities of the like-minded.
  3. If there are ubiquitous properties to sociability (Goffman’s territory), there may also be aspects moulded not only by national/regional/local structural and cultural factors but by rules and rituals exclusive to a particular café community.
  4. It could be possible for a café community’s rules and rituals to become ‘sedimented’ over time, to become (Durkheimian) external constraints on who users are as well as how they behave.
  5. There could be ‘familiarity bonds’ (Scambler & Aksel in the latest issue of MedSocOnline) in such sedimentations, showing a return not only in the likes of wellbeing but in creativity and productivity.
  6. Do users adopt/slip into (Mertonian) status- and corresponding role-sets that are specific to particular café communities, becoming different persons in the process.

Here my preliminary hour’s worth of notes ended. At least I have so far practised what I have preached to research students: observe, chat, enquire, listen, make notes and think before heading for the theory books. Eschew any notion of establishing a ‘frame’ as a kind of prolegomenon. The theory will comeand as it comes you will know where to go for guidance and inspiration. In the meantime, I must seek out Goffman’s numerous texts (but especially ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’) and Garfinkel’s ‘Studies in Ethnomethodology’ on my over-loaded shelves and stacks on floors.

I also find I work best with a provisional structure for a paper, but this usually emerges out of a dialogue between data and reflection. It is in the nature of the beast that there will be loose ends after an hour’s thought!