“Deep Hanging Out” in Coffee Shops Along The Ave

As part of my internship with the Doorway Project this summer, I conducted a series of participant observations in coffee shops along “the Ave” (University Way). Participant observation is a critical research instrument in the ethnography toolkit. Described by anthropologist Clifford Geertz as “deep hanging out,” it is used to understand how physical, social, and cultural contexts shape individual interactions, and vice versa. The focus of the project was to observe the different ways community members used cafe spaces that already existed, and how the physical design shaped those experiences.

I observed a total of eight coffee shops along the Ave, each with a unique dynamic influenced by various physical and social factors. Waxman’s proposed model for place attachment in coffee shops (image below), was useful for organizing the physical and social factors that contributed to the overall atmosphere in coffee shops.

Waxman's "place attachment" model (1)

Waxman's "place attachment" model (1)

Although the model helped us describe and categorize existing spaces, it does not account for the interaction between the two fields. Observations revealed that the physical design (layout in particular) played a role in determining the degree to which different groups contributed to the overall social dynamics of a space.1 Another overlooked element in Waxman’s model is the difference between first and subsequent visits to a coffee shop. The easier it is to “learn” a space, the more welcoming the space feels. Staff members, other cafe-goers, and the space itself all play a role in making sure cafe-goers know how to use and navigate the space. Therefore, the unique atmosphere found in each coffee shop is not only determined by social and physical factors, but is also shaped by the interaction between the two.

The proposed brick-and-mortar Doorway Cafe space will be distinct from existing coffee shops along the Ave. By introducing terms such as “third places,” “urban hybrid spaces,” and “semi-public spaces” to describe coffee shops, researchers reinforce the idea that coffee shops are much more than transactional spaces for drinking coffee and sharing pastries; they are culturally and socially significant spaces where community is performed, managed, and maintained1,2,3. Despite the unique dynamics found in each space, the majority of coffee shops along the Ave were accessible to a variety of cafe-goers -- including unstably housed youth -- and contributed to an overall community identity. By building upon the existing community structures found in coffee shops along the Ave, the Doorway Cafe has the potential to move beyond tolerance and create a space that fosters empathy and inspires meaningful interactions for all members of the community, regardless of one’s housing status or ability to purchase a cup of coffee.

Delphine Zhu is an undergraduate student attending Smith College, and the Doorway Project's Summer 2018 Intern.


“The Coffee Shop: Social and Physical Factors Influencing Place Attachment.” - Waxman, Lisa. 2006. Journal of Interior Design 31 (3): 35–53.

“Urban Hybrid Space and the Homeless.” Perry, Samuel L. 2012. Ethnography 14 (4): 431–51.

“Urban Multiculture and Everyday Encounters in Semi-Public, Franchised Cafe Spaces.” - Jones, Hannah, Sarah Neal, Giles Mohan, Kieran Connell, Allan Cochrane, and Katy Bennett. The Sociological Review 63 (3): 644–61.