First Update: Coffeehouse Communities

Throughout the first few weeks of my research, I studied a wide array of literature that addressed different elements of where I want to take my finished project. Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society discussed how scale effects have created a streamlined, efficient, and overall rationalized America. However despite the benefits of a world where there are no “surprises,” Ritzer argues that McDonalized businesses are in fact no more than show businesses. They create an unreality where “have a good day” is a meaningless and obligatory response – not an invitation to form any sort of relationship within the walls of the third place. Oldenburg’s The Great, Good Place offers an argument as to why third places – the lifeblood of community and conversation within society – are a vital yet dying piece of America. We’ve lost half of the casual gathering places that existed midcentury. Neighborhood salons replaced with Hair Cuttery. That old burger joint cast aside for Five Guys. Small town coffeehouses replaces with 3-4 Starbucks. Time and time again, places of gathering in a community have been replaced with what Oldenburg calls “nonplaces”: a location where a person’s status as an individual human is replaced by his status as a customer. Where market norms replace the social potential of a place, and leave them lacking the sense of community that used to do so much for those that frequented them. Putnam offers a similarly depressing look at the state of community in America, as evidenced by his famous book’s title: Bowling Alone. Even as Americans are busier than ever, they’re losing the social capital that once provided the “coloration of life” for much of society.

So over 10 years after these books painted a picture of social life and third places in America, where does this leave our sense of community at these gathering places? These authors would all most likely agree on a simple conclusion: lacking. Developers and theorists who buy into the New Urbanist movement would argue that NU communities are the answer – high density, mixed use/housing developments that create community upon their inception. I’m excited to utilize GIS software in order to see if a third place’s presence in a NU environment impacts the sense of community that patrons of the gathering place feel, so as to gain insight as to whether society’s social capital can be saved through New Urbanism.

That leads me into my work thus far! I’ve finished my literature review of articles, books, and studies related to coffeehouses, third places, New Urbanism, and scale effects and gain a lot of understanding about the state of societal interactions at present. I’ve also begun to form my surveys in Qualtrics, with a hopeful launch of late next week. One discovery that has allowed me to make my summer more about analysis than data collection is Amazon Mechanical Turk – the web’s leading “artificial artificial intelligence”. Through small payments to survey respondents, I can collect hundreds of data points on sense of community in coffeehouses nationwide in a matter of a weeks, rather than employing survey collectors to slowly and potentially impossibly collecting it individually. That will give me far more time to focus on SPSS and GIS analysis. While mTurk is not perfectly representative of Americans as a whole, it is representative of the internet using American population, and is mostly likely a more diverse sample than individual collectors could manage.

My next step after posting and collecting responses from the survey (which I’ll post a copy of next update!) will be to understand how to use GIS software for address matching. I will also need to develop a proxy for New Urbanism to overlay on top of my third place address points – and that is something I am hoping the CGA can assist me with. Originally I had worked to find studies that had created an index of NU that could be translated to a map in GIS, but the parcel data needed for that could only be obtained on a city level, which was just something unfeasible for a nationwide survey sample. However a less exact proxy will work fine for my study, which is definitely becoming a learning experience in what is possible in a research project. I’m excited to learn this new skill and better understand spatial mapping. Next week should involve a lot of Qualtrics, mTurk, and a nifty new book called Spatial Behavior: A Geographic Perspective. ‘Til next update!

P.S. I’m writing this in The Grind, being unsocial and not feeling like a part of a community. Not sure what that alludes to.



  1. Barbara Rion says:

    Hi Jack,

    I’m interested to know more about your research into the idea of “third places” and the impact that they supposedly have on American society (to the extent that they still exist). My research project this summer is focused on the marketing factors that make independent coffeehouses successful, but what I am so far discovering is that it is not necessarily the marketing as it is the creation of a “destination location”, which (without knowing much about “third places”) seems to me would be a similar or at least complementary concept.

    Overall your research sounds fascinating! Especially New Urbanism. I look forward to learning what you discover.

    – Barbara

  2. nicholasudell says:

    Hey Jack,

    First I would say that it probably alludes that you are just NOT a people person and the Grind makes delicious coffee…

    On a more serious note, your research, and particularly your means of surveying, are really fascinating. I am curious to know what type of questions you intend on asking on the survey to better gauge the community feel, and who would your survey ideally target (not just internet users, but age, gender,etc).

    Sorry for my excessive use of commas and keep up the good work! Good luck with the survey!!

  3. That’s a cool way to look at American society. I have to agree that most gathering places are being replaced with chain stores and familiar yet impersonal monotony. The idea of a ‘third place’, a home for social capital to accumulate, is a cool concept. I look forward to reading more about your result. Will new urbanism be a solution or in this technical age, is community bounding being forced into cyber space?

  4. This sounds like a really interesting project! I’m really interested to know what impact the growing number of “non-places” have for society, and if this New Urbanism could fix that. And I love the Grind!