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Observations in a Coffee Shop

A Diary I Kept for a University Course Assignment That I'm Sharing Here for Nostalgic Purposes

Image courtesy of Shoppers Mall

For this observation assignment, I have decided to make my field notes at the tables in front of the Tim Horton’s. I used the method of covert observation to study people in their natural state without intervention. Before I began my observation, I anticipated that the majority of people I would find in this particular area are students like myself, and the reason why I chose the area is because I was interested in how students interact within a socialized environment beyond the classroom. 

I will discuss my findings in two ways: by providing a critical analysis of my observations, and then moving on to a reflexive discussion where I talk about how my presence on site, my personal experiences, and my predispositions might have affected the environment itself and my overall interpretations of it.

Critical Analysis

Before I begin sharing my interpretations of what I saw during my observations, I would first like to make a disclaimer that all descriptions in my original field notes have been made to the best of my ability on the basis of what I saw or what I believe I saw within the context of my time at Tim Horton's.

I intended to reduce as much bias as I possibly could, and certainly did not fabricate any of my observations. For this report, I have made three trips to the site instead of just one, for I felt that visiting it at least several several times would allow for deeper immersion. Additionally, it allowed me to make note of any differences in interactions or people I might find within the environment depending on the days and times I was documenting my findings.

The first day I began this study was on October 23, 2014 and based on my observations I can group people into several different categories. The first noteworthy group of people was those seated, typically in pairs or larger groups. What I found interesting about them was that nearly all of them had at least one laptop and most of the conversations involved the use of laptops, especially since there were generally times during which the participants did not speak to each other and at least one of them was focused on their laptop.

This leads me to believe that they were either studying together or were looking to pass the time in between classes by viewing social media. I bring up the latter because social media is popular, and it is also worth mentioning that students nowadays use Facebook groups that are school-related as well as professional profiles for potential careers that they might pursue after graduation. I also know from experience that whenever friends who spend time together have at least one electronic device at their disposal with internet, they will refer to social media at least once during their hangout.

The second group was individuals who appeared to have shown up alone to the area, because all of them were either on their electronic devices and/or eating and not interacting with anyone. From this, I can assume that these people likely came to take a short break from their schedules and grab a bite to eat in between, although this might not be the case with the laptop users as they usually remained in the site for a longer period of time. It is possible that the users had longer breaks and had planned for independent study or leisure time.

The third group are those who would go right inside Tim Horton’s for the purpose of making orders and leaving promptly, and they were usually alone or in pairs. These are the people who clearly made no plans to stay in the area and probably stopped there along the way to whatever business they needed to attend to because they either happen to like what Tim Horton’s had to offer or it was just a convenient food establishment for them to stop by.

Aside from the few individuals who were studying directly from books and were not using electronic devices, everyone else falls out of the major categories mentioned above. However, a person I'll refer to as “Wallet” stood out to me the most out of everyone because he was the only person to have noticed me several times, interacted only briefly with others, and did other things besides just looking through his wallet. It is evident that he knows the two girls (I'll call them persons "B" and "C") I also studied personally, and I assume that they have a class together but may not necessarily be close as he came to the site separately and was sitting farther away from them. It is probable that he encountered them by chance.

Aside from him, nobody seemed to pay any mind that I was intently observing them. People genuinely seemed immersed in their activities. But what I find interesting is that despite glancing at me twice, “Wallet” never made any sort of indication that he wanted to question my motives. What I can conclude from this is that I must have appeared as no more than a backdrop to everybody, which tells me that I must have blended in well for people to not realize I was watching them and making notes. In the case of “Wallet," he probably took our glances at each other as nothing more than a neutral event.

On October 27, 2014 I made my second observation. Most of what I saw was similar to the first observation, although it was quieter than the first day so it was easier to hear the conversations some of the students had in relation to schoolwork. I can see why people would want to study here. Most people I have seen thus far really do seem to treat this area sort of like a library, and I have seen similar interactions like these in cafes outside of the university. I will say though that the conversations I witnessed this time were more expressive and vocal than on the first day. This could be due to me sitting among people this time as opposed to a corner.

In general, this is not a loud nor crowded area, and there are plenty of seats as well as options for food and drink, so while I can see people coming here as casual consumers it can also be a spot for genuine productivity. This time around, body language was something that I focused on a lot, particularly when I saw how nearly everyone seated was hunched over. This could mean different things: discomfort masked as comfort, isolation, close engagement or simple disregard for the back.

Person A from this second observation stuck out to me the most, because I actually saw him again on October 30, 2014 when I went back for my final observation. This tells me that people likely do make this area a frequent hangout. It was a co-curricular day, and I was surprised to see even this many students as I was expecting to see more of an older demographic, specifically people working at the school. Regardless, there was more mobility in comparison to my previous two observations. I was constantly seeing new faces as people would come and go too fast for me to record as many details as in my other studies. I concluded that these students were either from residence and came by casually, wanted to take advantage of the co-curricular week and get some studying done, or were visiting their peers who live on campus.

Reflexivity

I found myself describing people in groups in more detail than individuals, so while I definitely did notice different ethnicities, genders, and overall appearances, I paid less attention to them and more to interactions and body language. For my research, I was mostly interested in social interactions and consumer behaviour at face value. In this regard, I do not believe that my own appearance or previous notions have influenced how I viewed others.

Despite the fact that few people have noticed me looking at them, their behaviours never seemed to immediately change, and were consistent throughout their stay at the setting, so I do not believe that my presence has made an impact on how people interacted with the environment. I was expecting this area to be a lot busier, when really it is relatively calm, even during the early afternoon.

I did not expect to see as many students as I did go to that area with the intent of getting any actual studying done. I would expect to see more casual socializing, with Tim Horton’s being a food establishment, than anything else. Any deviations from the patterns I saw during my studies were minor, so I can only assume that times and days were not a major factor in this case. I felt at ease in this site, to the point where I did not feel odd or out of place observing people, as no one seemed to give me any odd looks.

Before I began my research, I had always held to the belief that this site is a form of social control, with it being a public setting characterized by several forms of surveillance (employees, students, security passing by, natural surveillance such as lighting, etc.) as well as involving the buying and selling of goods and services to further reduce the potential for crime. There would also be less of an incentive to steal from students as is the case in the school library for example, because the people who had electronic devices were actively engaged with them and one can assume that they were paying close attention to their belongings at all times.

From what I saw on all three days, nothing was ever left behind except for the one person who forgot his scarf and the person sitting across from him who brought that to his attention. Whether it was studying, casual conversations, or independent leisure time, no one was acting out in such a way that really deviated much from the norm, so I still do believe that social control has influenced these consumers. 

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