Pure field of bar ethnography

Petr V. Ivanov March 31, 2020

Pure field of bar ethnography

The science of bars knows almost nothing about how people rest there.

A huge amount of literature is devoted to the problems that alcohol, bars and pubs create for doctors, police and urbanists. And this is understandable - any city wants to understand how to properly regulate this area of human life to maximize benefits and minimize damage. How, by the way, and any person who drinks regularly asks the same question.

This is partly why little research in social sciences is devoted to bar daily life. It seems that ethnographers and anthropologists feel embarrassed and afraid to be misunderstood if they write an application for bar research using the on-line observation method. What kind of business is it - will he be drinking beer in the bar, and the university will pay him money for it?

However, rare studies of this kind can be found. One of them was conducted by Melinda Roberts, Associate Professor of Criminal Law at the University of South Indiana in 2013. In The Use of Leisure: A Qualitative Study of Tavern Patrons, Roberts tries to find the theoretical and methodological basis for bar ethnography and finds it in the sociology of leisure time.

Melinda Roberts is studying Lowell's family bar, located in a poor, mostly working class neighborhood. Roberts' key research question was how the bar's owners and staff help visitors enjoy their free time at the bar. To answer that question, she observed the bar nine hours a week for four months, communicated with the owners, staff and visitors, took notes and photos, and conducted interviews.

In fact, Roberts wanted to understand what else leisure time in the bar consisted of besides the obvious elements of alcohol, arcade machines, billiards and darts championships.

Since Lowell's is located on the working suburb, most of the bar's clients are regular visitors. And most of them are people whose work is somehow connected with physical labor. Builders, installers, artists. And these are people who work as a fixed worker and, accordingly, have a regular schedule and a clear division into working and non-working hours.

Regular customers spend quite a lot of time in the bar - a week on average 24 hours, 4 hours per visit. Owners and staff of the bar learn the habits of regular customers and know that it is important for someone to be talked to, and for someone else it is important not to be disturbed. However, it is important for everyone that the bartender remembers their favorite beer and repeats it without asking unnecessary clarifying questions. The traditions of the bar are built according to the schedule of regular customers. For example, on certain days, barmen cool beer glasses in the freezer. And by the time some customers arrive, their favorite drinks are already being prepared.

Owners and staff build a warm relationship with regular guests, but try to ensure that the bar community is not locked into itself. A new client, once in the bar should not feel like a newcomer, not at ease. On the other hand, visitors in interviews often admitted that the bar community for them - customers, staff, owners - have become a new family.

The metaphor of family is very important - people from the working class, especially single people, often only in the bar community can find a big city of friends or partners for sex. Staff and owners involved in this family relationship not only keep clients from changing bars, but can also count on their help. Melinda Roberts describes a case where a Lowell's employee who was in charge of organizing a darts tournament fell ill and regular clients took over in his place.

Traditionally, the owners of Lowell's have a big Thanksgiving dinner. All members of the bar community bring some food and the whole community celebrates the holiday. They also celebrate the Super Bowl and other football events in a similar way.

Comfortable leisure is not possible without order control - this function is taken over by the owners and staff. Bartenders say in interviews that in case of conflicts between clients they understand what is happening and can expel either the instigator or all participants of the disorder. However, the bar itself can be the initiator of high power drunkenness. Melinda Roberts tells the story of Matt, a regular at the bar, whose owners decided to have a birthday party and banned drinking beer except from the pitcher. After the fourth pitcher, Matt was already so drunk that he danced in a single string erotic dance right in the middle of the bar. But, like, everyone was happy.

Melinda Roberts' observations may seem to be little connected with each other household sketches, but being placed within the theoretical framework of sociology of leisure, they contribute significantly to the scientific discussion. Roberts shows that, contrary to popular belief, people in the working class have free time. And what's more, they are happy to spend this free time away from home in front of a TV set or at some other passive leisure. On the contrary, representatives of the working class participate with interest in leisure activities that require involvement, proactive position, communication with others. And the specific family of Lowell's, the way the owners and staff adapt their service to the preferences of clients, only emphasizes their subjectivity in relation to their leisure time.

Often scientific texts end with the phrase "more research in this area is required". In the field of bar ethnography, everything is much more serious. It's not additional research that's required, but basic research. Melinda Roberts' work has highlighted what's going on in an American family bar on the working suburbs. And dozens and hundreds of other types of bars still live without their ethnographic description.

So if you are reading this text and you aren't alien to the ethnographic method in sociology and anthropology, you know what to investigate.


P.S.: The name "Lowell's" is fictional for the purpose of anonymization. Which particular bar is meant to be unknown. In the photo, one of the possible candidates for this role.

Melinda Roberts' article can be downloaded here


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