Coffee Shops Standardizing Modern Society

Since the time of its discovery in an Ethiopian rainforest centuries ago, coffee has transpired through the years to become a significant popular culture touchstone to individuals from all walks of life. Coffee has had a significant effect on consumers and modern life from its inception into popular use. Replacing alcohol as Britain’s favorite breakfast drink in the late 17th century and later becoming America’s nationalistic drink after the Boston Tea Party, coffee has embedded its deliciously delightful qualities into consumer society (Pendergast, 1999).

‘Coffee is a huge business. In fact, coffee is the second most valuable commodity after oil’ (Our Coffees, 2004). Coffee has intertwined itself into modern life while creating a group of contemporary consumers. In stride with coffee’s direct influence on consumer culture it has also become the source of the modern marvel of mass consumerism, we call the coffee shop. Through the analysis of coffee and its social function, the theories of popular sociologists related to coffee, and the role of the modern day coffee shop, the profound effect of coffee on its consumers and modern life becomes strikingly evident.

Mark Pendergast in his book, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World composed, “A good cup of coffee can turn the worst day tolerable, can provide an all-important moment of contemplation, can rekindle a romance” (Pendergast, 1999). People drink coffee for a myriad of reasons. Some individuals crave the rich aromatic taste, some like the caffeine boost to start their morning, some use it as a means of social interaction, some for a break from the fast pace of life, and some drink it for health incentives. The reasons why people drink this brown aromatic liquid are innumerable and ever-changing. But the most impacting aspect of coffee’s influence on consumers and modern life would unquestionably have to be the coffee shop.

No longer do we live an age of instant coffee heated in our own kitchen, we now indulge in a modern society of French presses, flavored coffees, and double skinny raspberry mochas; all available at any friendly neighborhood Starbucks. The emergence of these new fangled coffee delights is the result of the extensive selection of drinks at one of thousands of coffee shops based around the planet. A coffee shop is a world in itself where people go for a multitudinous reasons in addition to their desire for coffee; such as break from a hectic job, a needed energy boost after shopping at the mall, to socialize with a group of friends, to read and do homework, to relax and contemplate life, or for the sheer enjoyment of the local coffee shop atmosphere.

The offspring of coffee, the coffee shop, is an excellent place to invoke Erving Goffman’s theory of the ‘interactional order’ (Goffman, 1959, pp. 22-30). Goffman focused his research on the interactional aspect of social life, how people do things together and to each other. Our daily life is spent mostly in the immediate ‘socially situated’ presence of others. A coffee shop is a perfect microcosm of individual’s responding to others gestures, eye contact, body movement, and conversation. A sizeable amount of interaction can occur in a coffee shop, from discussing the meaning of life with the person sitting in the next lounge, to having a groundbreaking epiphany about life with your favorite cup of espresso, or even spilling a cup of steaming hot liquid onto your best friends lap. People enter a coffee shop expecting not only a satisfying drink, but also a certain level of social interaction.

People perform in coffee shops. When two strangers start a conversation in a coffee shop, it can happen for a number of reasons. You might see someone wearing a shirt and you want to know where they purchased it, or you need a place to sit down and the only chair available is at a table already occupied by someone else, or you are interested in where someone got their great tan when the sun has not shined for weeks. Goffman relayed that when individuals meet we try to find information about the other person so we know how to behave in front of them (Goffman, 1959, pp. 22-30).

This is especially pertinent, for example, when you begin a conversation in a coffee shop with someone you are interested in friendship or are attracted to; you act according to what your intentions are for initiating the conversation. Sometimes you are shy and hold back and other times you are confident and up front; depending on what you want from the interaction. A coffee shop is a great place to meet new acquaintances or to sit and chat with old ones, all the while contributing to the modern coffee consumer culture that has exploded upon society.

Coffee can also be related to the consumer revolution (Pendergast, 1999). This modern increase in purchases is observed when someone would prefer to pay three dollars for a cup of coffee at a coffee shop than brewing it in their home. This shows that coffee consumers drink it for more than just the taste people buy a specific brew/brand from a specific shop such as Starbucks or Gloria Jean’s Coffee. While convenience is an obvious reason for the expansion of modern day coffee shops; individuals buy coffee now for more than just the coffee. They are now buying a brand. If they go into a non chain coffee shop, many consumers still want to know what kind of preferred coffee is being brewed. Many modern consumers prefer to pay three dollars for a brand name coffee as opposed to the minimal amount it would cost to brew it in their own home. The packaging, the atmosphere, in addition to the coffee is all included in a coffee shop’s marketing and pricing scheme.

The coffee shop as mass popular culture includes chains such as Starbucks and Gloria Jean’s Coffee. Philosophers such as de Tocqueville and Freud talked of a modern society where homogeneity, standardization, and compliance dominating the masses. Chain coffee shops enforce this everyday by their uniform menu. Some of the coffee shops advertise that you can customize your own coffee; however you are paying them to customize something from already pre-selected ingredients. You can never have exactly what you want unless you prepare it yourself. It is an example of how modernization and homogenization have come to produce mass culture. A Starbucks shop can make you believe they are making you something exclusive, all the while you are still ordering something standardized because you are choosing from a limited amount of choices.

“The common attraction of dining out is that it brings the individual into the public with the promise that this is the proper place in which to find the satisfaction of personal pleasure” (Finkelstein, 1989, pp 44-54) Starbucks is trendy and attractive and people might go there to meet someone special or to find personal pleasure. Coffee shop culture has given birth to an entire social spectrum, to a consumer niche in which both novices and aficionados of coffee consumption can join together and drink their professional overpriced brew. The incorporation of the coffee shop of consumers from different social stratospheres is a beaming example of a ‘postmodern-like’ social scene, where people from all different cultures mix in a uniformed setting.

Coffee can also be seen as a commodity. It can represent social values. A cup of Starbucks coffee can make you feel special on the inside as well as the outside. Starbucks’ marketing campaign is that they only brew quality coffee and that if you as a consumer carry a Starbucks cup you are in possession of something superior in quality and taste. The Starbucks website,, gives a wealth of information on the world wide corporation. From nutrition facts on their coffee, to finding a job at a local Starbucks, to purchasing your own name brand coffee online. The modern day internet has linked this product to the consumer by making everything you would ever need to know about this massive societal corporation available from your computer (Our Coffees, 2004).

The coffee shop is a prime example of mass consumerism. The recent agglomeration of society has brought a stream of consumers to coffee shops. When prior to the modern period people would primarily dine in smaller groups, there is now a mass exodus to whatever coffee shop is most bustling. The modern consumer thinks if it is busy, it must be good, or possibly that it is just socially acceptable. The dominant group makes something available such a coffee shop ‘popular’, making it within social norms. This hegemonic view stated that an elite minority would impose what is socially normal onto the masses, while they actively accept it as consumers (Ortega y Gassett, 1957, pp. 41-45).

Coffee is one of those things we ‘do everyday’ and can be seen ‘as one the most interesting things about us’. Joanne Finkelstein believed what we do everyday and take for commonplace such a drinking that hot cup of coffee, can tell a lot about a person (Finkelstein, 1994, pp ix-xiii). Whether we drink that coffee in the coffee shop to meet someone or we drink it just to pass time. It is something to think about next time you are chugging down your raspberry espresso at midday; why am I actually consuming this steaming aromatic brown liquid?

‘What we all do everyday, what we take for granted and can rarely explainâÂ?¦ reveal a great deal about ourselves and modern life.’ (Finkelstein, 1994, pp ix-xiii) Coffee and the coffee shop tell us a lot about the people who consume it, why people participate in coffee shop society, along with its influence on modern life. Coffee and the coffee shop show that the modern consumer is willing to spend money on something special for themselves. Starbucks and the coffee shop have emerged as a powerful proponent of modern life and the identity of the coffee consumer. The coffee shop is a break from our ordinary or extraordinary life; it is where the masses come together, whether to make friends or to get away, to relax or rejuvenate, the coffee shop is ultimately for anyone who has free time, spare change, and a desire for coffee.

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