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Observing a Public Space: Dipping into Ethnography

October 4, 2007

Assignment: Observe a public space for 1-2 hours, taking note of any recurring behaviors of people interacting with the space being observed.

For this assignment, I plopped myself down at a local coffee shop after scouring my neighborhood for a location that deemed to be active enough to fulfill this assignment. I always found coffee shops to be brewing with interesting observations about the people who frequent them, so instead of interacting in the this environment I tried to observe what people were doing without being intrusive on the haven people create for themselves in these establishments.

My first observation was that people come to these places and basically set up an office-like environment in a bustling public space. There’s definitely something about being in a location other than your home even though it may be louder and busier that makes people want to set up a zone of concentration that encourages better thought processes.

It takes most people several minutes to scour the room and find a table that suits their desired comfort zone. Everyone is very involved in their personal tasks, but sits very close to one another. There may be something about the energy that is released from one internally focused person to another that promotes the flow of ideas. Even when there were many small individual open tables, people tended to congregate around the one communal table in the room and sit with multiple strangers. Personally, I’m more apt to sit at an individual table, but I noticed that many times (not just specific to this location) more people congregate at the communal table at coffee shops. I guess that there may be a sense of calm people get when sitting together with others, even though they may not know one another.

It’s one of the few places of food service that you can sit for hours without feeling like you’re holding up a seat for the next customers. People come in, set out their belongings and tools, and act like their at home.

There’s any almost overly cliched amount of writers. From where I was sitting, there was almost a perfect quadrilateral of writers surrounding me.

The observation I concluded with and though to be the most interesting is that, almost everyone that walked into the room, hesitated at the door before entering. It wasn’t always because they were looking on the menu posted outside. They literally walked to the front two steps, stopped to look around, and either slowly walked in, took a few moments to find a seat, and interacted with the environment, or they came in decided it wasn’t right for them and left. This happened with all single, individuals that walked in. A group of women walked in and immediately sat down. The individuals displayed a slight sense of unease before coming into the room. See image below:

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