Café Society and Sociability: A Shared Project – 2

Already I have had feedback – including the tweeting of a link to a paper I had not been aware of – for which many thanks. There’s an issue of authorship here. It was never my intention to profit quietly from the suggestions, guidance or insights of colleagues. Multi-authorship maybe, or a novel form of collective action: more feedback please – let’s innovate.

In the interim I have borrowed but not yet re-read some Goffman and Garfinkel from Paul Higgs, having not yet found my own copies (I thoroughly commend his office and filing, mimicking mine and blissfully reminiscent of a second-hand bookshop: see photo below).


I have also had an extra thought or two about the research project and a possible manuscript, committed to paper via my favourite Dorking café, ‘Burgundy and Black’ (see photo).


Goffman – like other (symbolic) interactionists, as well as pioneer ethnomethodologists such as Garkinkel (wasn’t Garfinkel’s Ph.D supervised by Parsons?) – was treading in the footprints of Parsons. It is not surprising therefore that he and his consociates shared an interest in social order. Goffman and Garfinkel migrated, of course from macro- to micro-sociological approaches. So, the café community as an ‘interactional order’, or have we moved on? A little more on this is ventured below when I anticipate a possible structure for a paper.

I have a few more observations at this point. The first has to do with trust and reciprocity. I omitted to mention in my initial posting that I routinely make calculations in cafes about extending and accepting relations of trust. ‘Will you keep an eye on my laptop while I go to the loo?’ Is this an astonishing query, or not? Laptops can be worth £1000+; and for us academics they can also harbour multiple drafts and powerpoint presentation. So why? Stereotypes play their part in quick summary appraisals: to trust or not to trust? But the expedient and routine prevails: there is surely someone who looks the part. And not just in cafes, in bars too; and bars in central London are suspect places. What is universal and what is local about the praxis of trust? Do ‘café communities’ develop different relations of trust?

Another point I mentioned but might have made more of in the first post concerned types of stranger encountered in cafes. In my contribution to the ‘Café Society’ book edited with Aksel Tjora I proffer typologies of cafes and of users. I wonder if there is a case also for a typology of strangers. If café communities offer some of us companionable solitude, what role might others who are co-present play? Here is a first stab at discerning types of cafe stranger:

  • Familiars: these are people who are recognized, whether users or baristas, and with whom (familiarity) ‘bonds’ have been: formed. Conversations with them are likely, although probably brief and on an ad hoc basis. Names are likely to exchanged or ‘picked up’, sometimes accompanied by potted biographies (e.g. ‘she’s applied to university and is waiting to hear’; ‘he teaches locally’).
  • Greeters: these comprise those other users or baristas who remain nodding acquaintances. Routine, slight and passing acknowledgements are the order of the day.
  • Props: these are strangers who are recognized and constitute part of the human furniture of the café and its community. They are as much part of the background as familiars, and to a lesser extent greeters, and part of the foreground.
  • Unknowns: these are total strangers, people who have not been either around or seen before. They may be ‘one-offs’ or they might turn into props, greeters or even familiars.
  • Shadows: these comprise the ‘absent present’. Bauman writes that the present is always infused with past and future (plus, time ‘flows’). The nature or appeal of a café community can be informed by (shadows of) the presence of users who have moved on and are now absent, people whose overheard conversations had grown salient perhaps).
  • Cyber-associates: these may be ‘actual’ people on the other end of email correspondence, Internet playmates, fellow-Facebook users or ‘tweeps’, or they may be the fictional or ‘virtual’ fabrications of web- or games-designers. Their placing at the end of this very provisional stab at a typology belies their significance. They are the key under-investigated protagonists in many a contemporary café community; and they may represent a telling challenge to outmoded concepts of institutional orders.

Okay, it’s only a start! So too is what follows, a first bash at outlining a potential structure for a publishable paper emerging from this project. It is probably a personal preference, but I like to work with an early ‘sense of structure’. It will change (I almost hope).


A brief explication of the concept of a ‘café community’, together with a rationale and justification for writing and submitting a paper.


I guess this will amount to a literature review: annotated statements about the history of the café, a note on the renewed research interest in Oldenburg’s third places (in the slipstream of Puttnam’s ‘Bowling Alone’), and a summary of the recent research literature.


I am a novice in this domain, but feel confident that I can defend the enquiries demanded by this project (which are in some ways allied to my notion of ‘meta-reflection’).

Café communities

An elaboration of comments in the Introduction. Flesh on the bones: why it matters that we take these communities seriously.

‘Degrees of fit’

Who uses cafes, becomes part of a café community, why, and to what effect? Are there discrete café communities, some of more salience than others, and according to what criteria?

‘Interactional disorder’

In the macro-context of (post-organized, ‘disorganized’, financial capitalism), can we sensibly refer to interactional disorder? Are we now in the ordinary everyday business of make-do?

Psycho-geography, or a new sociology of space

In light of the ongoing studies of Sennett and others, do we now need new theories and conceptualizations of public spaces; and is the cafe community part and parcel of this?


So what! Why does this paper matter and to whom? Setting out an agenda for future research of relevance across multiple sociological fields of enquiry.

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