October 4, 2011

Coffee and Community

I've written a lot about various bits of cafe culture, and the community that seems to form between those who frequent a particular bar. Of course, my perspective is that of the one person a coffee shop patron (usually) has to talk to. After all, without the barista, there is no drink. And that's a problem.

So my perspective is not that of the customer; and it's certainly not that of an academic. This is not to say, however, that cafe culture has gone entirely without study in the past. More notably to me, however, is the current work being done, right under my noes, by a former teacher of mine. There is nothing published yet (when/if it is, I'll certainly link it here), but the topics of study are fascinating to me.

Coffee shops, when first introduced to Europe, became breeding grounds for intellectual discussion. Speculation and inference says that switching from a depressant (alcohol) to a stimulant (coffee) helped to get neurons firing, and perhaps even helped give rise to the enlightenment. In short, the Arab world gave the West more than its retained classical library. This tradition of coffee shop as a "penny university" continued, some argue, until very recently.

The last decade has seen cafes transform slightly. While they are still places of congregation, they no longer foster the same sense of community. At least, that's the emphasis of my former teachers' study. He notes that people hide behind laptops and earbuds, shirking human interaction in favor of performing private functions. They are, paradoxically, collectively alone. At best, this can be called ambient socialization, but probably nothing more.

Whether this is inherently good or bad is beyond the scope of the paper, and indeed, not really an academic question. Regardless, the fact that the study is being done at all is exciting to me. Coffee shops (and the beverage in general) are such an integral part of the American experience, that it only seems logical. He's apparently considering several other cafe-centric paper ideas, including one examining the ways in which customers and baristas use each other to fill social needs. For obvious reasons, I'm particularly interested in that, and would like to be interviewed.

For the time being, however, this is all still percolating.

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