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1 Int'l J. Soc. Sci. Stud. 205 (2013)
The Social Transformation of Coffee Houses: The Emergence of Chain Establishments and the Private Nature of Usage

handle is hein.journals/ijsoctu1 and id is 453 raw text is: 

                                                                 International Journal of Social Science Studies
                                                                              Vol. 1, No. 2; October 2013
                                                                      ISSN 2324-8033   E-ISSN  2324-8041
                                                                          Published by Redfamne Publishing
                                                                              URL:  http://ijsss.redfame.com

     The Social Transformation of Coffee Houses: The Emergence of

            Chain Establishments and the Private Nature of Usage

                        Rachael A. Woldoff1, Dawn  Marie Lozzi, & Lisa M. Dilks'
'Department of Sociology and Anthropology, West Virginia University, Morgantown, West Virginia
Correspondence: Rachael A. Woldoff, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, West Virginia University, PO
Box   6326,  307  Knapp   Hall,  Morgantown   WV,   26506-6326,   USA. Tel: 1-304-293-8831. E-mail:

Received: March 12, 2013    Accepted: March 26, 2013   Available online: August 13, 2013
doi: 10.11114/ijsss.vli2.200        URL:  http://dx.doi.org/10.11114/ijsss.v1i2.200

Ray Oldenburg  (1989) developed the concept of third places as environments that offer friendship and a sense of
community.  However,  the idealized image of the coffee house may need revision. In recent decades coffee
houses have transformed from  small-scale businesses to corporate-owned franchises, and with the advent of
personal electronic devices many people now  use them to work  rather than to socialize. Using unobtrusive
observation data from three independently-owned and three chain-based coffee houses in the Boston area, this
research examines the ways in which modern coffee houses live up to or defy Oldenburg's social expectations of
a third place. Two key findings reveal that: 1) people increasingly use coffee houses as both a social sphere and a
private zone to work, read, and use electronic devices; and 2) chain coffee houses, though often criticized for
their sanitized lack of character, may better meet customers' new third place needs by providing a wider variety
of amenities (e.g., types of seating, food, and media) and free services that are in high demand (e.g., Wi-Fi).
Keywords:  third place, urban spaces, public spaces, coffee house, caf6, neighborhoods
1. Introduction
Researchers have long  been fascinated with public spaces and the meanings they hold for individuals and
communities  (Goffman,  1959, 1963, 1971; Lofland, 1973). In particular, sociologists have celebrated coffee
houses as third places that promote friendship and community while serving as an alternative to socialization
at home  and work (Oldenburg,  1989). However, coffee houses vary in the extent to which they fulfill these
functions. Furthermore, two major transformations in the form and function of coffee houses may affect their
utility as third places.
First, there has been a shift in coffee house usage and culture from people using them primarily as public places for
socialization to using them as shared spaces for work and productivity. The notion of the caf6 as an environment to
foster geniality and communication stems from a larger discourse about the functions of public places for cities
(Whyte, 1988; Zukin, 2010). Historically, urban researchers have asserted that coffee houses serve as ideal spaces
for people to speak freely about political and social concerns (Cowan, 2004; Oldenburg, 1989; Pincus, 1995), but
with the rise of portable electronic devices and telecommuting, an increasing number of people now use coffee
houses less for socializing and more as a hub for reading, working, and productivity (Bazelon, 2009).
A second significant transformation is associated with ownership. The transition from small, locally-owned coffee
houses to chain-owned caf6s has been well documented (Zukin, 2010). The popular image of a bohemian coffee
house includes a devaluation of uniformity as illustrated by casual, artistic, or shabby furnishings and a lack of
emphasis on branding. This lack of homogeneity often extends to employees' attitudes, behaviors, and appearance,
as well as to the coffee and food (Oldenburg, 2001). In theory, residents should be more likely to support
locally-owned businesses as a way of giving back to the community (Mohr, Webb, & Harris, 2001). Chain coffee
shops, in contrast, are associated with corporate standards of cleanliness, bland simplicity, and prominent branding.
Chain customers  are stereotyped as having a low commitment to creative endeavors and desirous of upscale
environments without regard for aesthetic distinctiveness, cultural motifs, and the details of how and why a coffee
house runs the way it does (Roseberry, 1996). Furthermore, owners of chain businesses view the local community
as an afterthought, failing to prioritize the interests of the residents they serve and thereby undermining the caf's


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