The Cappuccino Community : cafes and civic life in the contemporary city

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
Duration: 30 months
Start/End Date: July 2002 – December 2004

Non-technical summary
It is frothy, warm, and comforting, we can find it in nearly every city in the UK, but what exactly is community, how is it made and what does it have to do with cafes? Answering such a question requires that we move away from a vague general and often nostalgic sense of community to look at specific communities now arguably emerging in particular places. From near extinction, cappuccino-serving high street cafes have returned and are suddenly everywhere: from bookshops to DIY stores. This project seeks to investigate this new British 'cosmopolitan gathering place', alongside its historical precursors and competitors (i.e greasy spoons, neighbourhood cafes, dept store cafes) and its European counterparts. Histories of the emergence of European civic and civil society emphasize the key place of cafes for free and equal exchange, debate and commerce between the social classes. It is relatively well-known that Lloyds Bank was in fact founded in a City of London coffee house. Given the contemporary return to prominence and popularity of the cafe set against its historical role in the development of civil society, it is a timely and pertinent research topic.

Detailed Aims and objectives

1. To investigate the distinctive forms of community found in cafes and what grounds they provide for a vital civic life in the city. This aim builds on the historical evidence of the importance of cafes to the rise of civil society in Europe and seeks to situate them in a contemporary context. Studies of community life in the USA and the UK have often highlighted evidence of its general decline but in many ways have overlooked the new places within which forms of communal life are located. This project will extend the communities of practice approach to provide a more grounded and heterogenous understanding of community-in-action.

2. To document and index the varied forms of community interaction and social categorising that are found in cafes predominantly in the UK. What is unquestionable is that cafes support a diversity of activities for their customers, they also articulate with the daily routines of the customers in different ways. The project will assemble an occasioned corpus of customer activities to provide a sense of exactly what kinds of work, play, sociability occur. Whether there are meetings between the unacquainted, who the regulars are and what rights and obligations go with their categorisation as a 'regular'.

3. To examine the methods used by staff and customers for temporally and spatially organising cafes in the UK and Italy such that public encounters and informal meetings can occur there. Cafes are places where distinctive communities of practice can be found which are reflexively tied to their settings. The civic freedoms of talking to strangers, crossing social hierarchies or publicly debating news and affairs of the day come about through the sensitive use of codes of conduct rooted in the background expectations of cafes as category-bound settings.

4. To do multi-site ethnographies of a dozen cafes in the UK of contrasting types, drawing on commercial and other categorisations (i.e. franchise, 'greasy spoon', internet and also neighbourhood, city centre, youth cultured). Of these to select three for prolonged in-depth ethnographies involving participant-observation of the life of their staff, the world of customers and finally the interviewing of customers to see how the cafe fits into their daily routines.

5. To shoot, use and analyse video recordings of naturally occurring interaction in cafes. Methods of documentary film-making regularly used in anthropological and ethnomethodological studies will be pursued. Once video data has been acquired it will be indexed and analysed according to the distinctive and rigorous approaches of conversation-analysis and ethnomethodology. In addition research participants will generate photographic material for analysis and discussion.

In terms of research practice the project ran for two years and was based on an ethnographic study spread over approximately a dozen cafes in the UK. Ethnography is an increasingly popular method for gathering data in the social sciences which relies on inhabiting the sites of the populations under study and gaining an adequate grasp of how and why things are done in particular places. Studying cafes from the perspective of a 'native' means joining in their lifeworlds. To do justice to the diversity of cafes, sixteen study sites in the UK were selected on the criteria of maximising contrast. Subsequently four of the initial twelve cafes were selected for in-depth examination via time-spent becoming 'a regular', observing its production alongside the staff, and finally shadowing a dozen customers. Preceding the eighteen months of fieldwork, interviews were carried out with representatives of the larger cafe chains and managers of the actual study sites, which provided their expert views on the functioning and life of cafes. Alongside interviews, once the ethnographies were underway the researcher kept a traditional field journal. Moreover, with informed-consent videos were made of social interaction in the cafes for subsequent analysis and sharing amongst the research community (they are not publicly available). The principal investigator (Eric Laurier) had considerable experience in the use of video for recording naturalistic observations in unusual settings (i.e. inside cars, inside family homes, public lending libraries, hotels, shopping centres and cafes.) Finally a selection cafe customers were interviewed by the researcher about how the cafe fitted into their daily routines.