Contextualizing Effects of Public Spheres on Community Socialization


The purpose of this study is to examine the changing role of public spaces, particularly coffee shops, in community socialization. Guiding the understanding of community and public spaces is the Third Place theory. This research focuses on the changes in socialization and interaction caused by the increase in work-related activities occurring within third places. The increase in work-related activities is in part caused by the increase in technology offered, through Wi-Fi by coffee shops.

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    Life here on earth can also be devoid of color…as long as people continue to habituate third places; color will not disappear…in fact, when third places do lose their color it is often because they are invaded by people of singular purpose…for their worldly pursuits. (Oldenburg, 1982, p. 279)

    Third place explains the concept that people exist within three basic spheres: the home life, the work life, and the sphere in which everything else occurs. This in-between sphere, dubbed the third place is present globally and throughout history, existing in taverns, coffee shops, and other public spaces. Although these places do not host any “special” activities, they remain a vital part of community socialization (Oldenburg, 1982). The primary purpose of third places is to serve as cornerstones for group socialization. According to Oldenburg, there exist certain ingredients necessary for success in third places, the most crucial being the existence of non-discursive symbolism, defined as “communication established not by contractual bonds between people but spiritual ones, providing not simply knowledge of people but also knowledge about people” (Oldenburg, 1982, p. 272). One of the primary benefits that come from visiting third places is the expansion of social networks. Within these networks hierarchies fall away, presenting people from all walks of life for social interaction.

    The purpose of this study is to examine the changing role of public spaces, particularly coffee shops, in community socialization. In recent years there have been signs indicating that changes in etiquette within these public spaces have caused a decrease in levels of community unity. Oldenburg’s theory suggests that these changes in etiquette might stem from the increasing frequency for people to visit third places without the intended purpose of socializing; instead, they might go in order to do their own individual work. This increase in work (defined by Oldenburg as “achievement of formal goals” particularly as a form of “modern economic production”) is conducted within third places has been facilitated to some extent by the increasing availability of Wi-Fi in coffee shops (Oldenburg, 1982).

    By visiting coffee shops and interviewing coffee shop customers and employees, I examine the infiltration of technology (in the form of Wi-Fi) into coffee shops. I also analyze the ways that this increase in technological availability has changed, and possibly increased, the instances of coffee shop clientele bringing “work” into third places. Lastly, I evaluate the ways that the changes in coffee shop activities have on individual interactions and by extension on community interactions.

    Literature Review

    Contemporary Roles of Coffee and Coffee Shops

    In the world of coffee shop goers “many drugs seem to have a synergistic relationship with social interaction” (Stafford, 2003, p. 359). Consider this; the National Coffee Association stated that by the year 2000, 54% of the U.S. adult population is coffee drinkers ( Furthermore, according to, Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), by 1999 United States coffee drinkers were spending an “approximated 9.2 billion dollars in the retail sector and 8.7 billion dollars in the foodservice sector every year” (, n.d., p. 1). Coffee is “fundamental and ubiquitous” or at least it certainly seems that way, it is irrevocably attached to the concepts of both work and work-breaks (Sherry, 1995).

    Given the importance placed on coffee it is crucial to examine related associations and the role coffee shops have in communities and consequently on society. If going out for coffee is the “key symbol of consumer culture,” then what does that statement say about coffee shop goers and coffee consumers (Sherry, 1995)? The customer experience of going out for coffee is an interesting one, arbitrary but laden with social significance. “Going out for coffee” generally, means setting up a specific kind of interaction, one that is scheduled between two or more people (Gaudio, 2003). These types of interactions can be described as acts of sociability. According to noted sociologist Georg Simmel, sociability is defined as “association for its own sake … [which is] accompanied by a satisfaction in the very fact that one is associated with others and that the solitariness of the individual is resolution into a togetherness, a union with others” (Simmel, 1949, p. 186).

    The origins of coffee houses began in Oxford and London in the mid 20th century. These early coffee houses were seen as places where both “gentry” and “tradesmen” could easily sit and converse, creating an egalitarian social haven conducive for conversational interaction (Gaudio, 2003). Because the main activity taking place in these early coffee houses was dialogue-based, they encompassed the ingredients outlined by Oldenburg in “Third Place”. Another significant historical aspect of coffee shops is that they served not only as catalysts for casual conversation, but also as prominent spaces to conduct business negotiations (Gaudio, 2003). This particular aspect seems to be at odds with Oldenburg’s third place theory because such pursuits, according to Oldenburg, are most harmful to successful third places (Oldenburg, 1982). The fact that early coffee shops were created, purposely keeping as one of their primary goals the pursuit of worldly affairs, implies that originally it was acceptable for these types of interactions to take place; furthermore, it also implied that the introduction of these interaction types does not explicitly damage third place social interactions.

    What Is Community?

    Third place functions as a part of communities. According to Oldenburg third place exists as a cohesive entity, which binds different parts of the community together. In general coffee shops in do not offer much commonality except for providing caffeinated beverages. Because coffee shops are places where the customer defines the purpose, and customers reasoning vary, it is difficult to determine what holds together coffee shop communities.

    One common way of approaching the concept of community is through the work of cultural anthropologist Victor Turner on communitas and liminality theory. Liminality is an ambiguous concept dealing with “threshold” people, places and situations that are in between phases, oscillating between series of characterizations or classifications (Douglas, 2002). In itself, this social theory creates the possibility for perpetually undefined territories whose purposes cannot be pinpointed because the location itself survives as a fluid territory. These undefined territories in many ways are comparable to third places, which change and differ through time and geographical space as centers existing for the constant shifting purposes of the populace that support it. Third places have existed in various shops, plazas, taverns, bars, gyms, and so forth (Oldenburg, 2001; Low, 2000). Third places are threshold places. It is not the physical space which dictates the success of a third place; success relies more on less tangible elements.

    Within the liminality theory exists the notion of communitas, which depicts two models of human interrelatedness (Douglas, 2002). The distinction between these two types of community models is the amount of structure and hierarchy existing between members. The first model exists within politico-legal-economic positions; it describes structures defined by the achievement of goals and in which members exist under series of expectations (Douglas, 2002). This type of model for community mirrors the way that Oldenburg describes home and work spheres as being “controlled,” “structured,” and whose existence is “goal-oriented” (Oldenburg, 1982). The second model for community types is associated with an “area of common living” in which members of society agree to submit to a general authority (Douglas, 2002), a structure which strongly resembles the configuration of third places.

    Virtual Worlds: Sustaining Community Interaction and Ties

    Virtual forums are self-described by members as cyber-communities. They encompass similar aspects of communities outlined by Oldenburg, for example role requirements and non-discursive dialogue. Both these examples of community features are what Oldenburg describes as ingredients or characteristic of third places. It is important then, to begin to consider online forums and social networking sites as community types despite the lack of face-to-face interactions between members. Once online communities are legitimized, the presence of persons who enter coffee shops with the intention of interacting primarily online instead of with other physical people in the coffee shop can be legitimatized as interacting. If the definition of interaction within third place is expanded to include Internet interactions, then we can logically accept Internet socializers as fulfilling the requirements specified by Oldenburg for third places. Sociologist Barry Wellmen argues that societies are moving away from traditional, physical, close-knit, local communities in favor of “networked individualism” where people are members of networks that are widely dispersed (Christensen & Levinson, 2003). These far-flung communities seem to be creating increases in civic engagement and considerations need to be made in order to integrate virtual and physical communities in order to create cohesive interactions. Not only are internet-based communitas aiding interaction within third places by expanding the possible activities that can be conducted in third places, thereby increasing both the diversity and density of clientele, but the Internet also promotes community and civic engagement which are the fundamental to third places.

    The Role of Technology in Community and Civic Engagement

    According to the American Psychological Association, the definition of civic engagement is “individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern” (Civic Engagement and Service Learning, 2009, p. 2). Civic engagement can be locally based (i.e. volunteering at local soup kitchens, serving on neighborhood associations or groups, etc.) or more globally based (i.e. voting, writing letters for national campaigns, etc.). Civic engagement can, therefore, be seen as a form of community engagement, depending on what sort of community the individual feels an attachment to. Third places are ideally locations of community engagement; therefore, it is vital to understand civic engagement trends in order to contextualize any changes occurring within community hubs like coffee shops.

    Past studies indicate that the usage of Internet, both at home in the office and in third places, is on the rise (Jennings & Zeitner, 2003). The increase in internet-use has created some pessimistic outlooks for the future of both civic engagement as well as community engagement. A well-known author on this subject, Robert D. Putnam, has noted the overall trend in American communities for lower turnout rates in most social institutions, ranging from voter turnout to church attendance. Armed with these alarming facts, Putnam gloomily declares that organizational membership (and, as an extension, third place membership) is decreasing (Putnam, 2001).

    Although Putnam might be right that physical engagement in the traditional sense might be dipping there is evidence that shows that new, less explored forums of social and civic interactions are increasing. In other words, although people in coffee shops might be speaking and interacting less (because of increasing tendencies for individuals to bring singular work-related activity into coffee shops), these same individuals might be increasing their own individual community and/or civic engagement through virtual forums and internet-based network communities. The boundary limits on community have been drastically increased, in part, due to advancing technology, which allows people who have common interests to create web-based networking. Oldenburg calls these characteristics “ingredients” while Simmel calls them “common elements.” These features of successful social interactions have been found by anthropologist Robert Moore within virtual worlds (Moore, 2009).

    The rise in Internet usage has received criticism because of the notion that Internet usage increases tendencies for decreased sociability and increases inclusive patterns among users. The nature of interactive virtual communities, however, is social and heavily interactive. One longitudinal and cross-generational study conducted by Jennings and Zeitner addressed questions on the effects and connections between the rise in Internet connections and civic engagement. Jennings and Zeitner concluded that internet use does not negatively affect civic engagement. This conclusion was drawn based on positive associations between internet use and civic engagement on 14 indicators for civic engagements, ranging from volunteerism to media attentiveness, which could be geared (depending on the interest of the individual) to either more local or global focus.

    Gauging feelings of attachment occurring in third places solely by the amount of interactions individuals engage in fails to include the non-verbal, intangible contributions individuals make simply through their physical presence. Coffee shops are a part of communities just as individuals are a part of coffee shops; therefore, the presence of individuals in coffee shops implies the presence of individuals in the community. Less emphasis should be placed on whether or not individuals are physically interacting with other individuals in coffee shops and more attention should be paid to physical attendance. If the individual, for example uses the coffee shop as a workstation location, they still run the high probability of engaging in Internet-based socialization. In this way, a sense of community is still being reinforced, both within the wireless-based community as well as within the physical one. Participants in both become familiar strangers. The concept of a “familiar stranger” was first addressed by Stanley Milgram and is defined as two or more people who have observed each other’s presence repeatedly without interaction and from this acknowledgement they create a “real relationship” (cited in Paulos & Goodman, 2004).

    Who is Bringing “Work” to Coffee Shops and Why?

    Differences in sociability patterns in coffee shops can also be attributed to increases in the mobile-workers sector. The relationship between business and sociability is becoming increasingly important and more widely accepted because of the rising frequency for work to be a “thing you do, not a place where you go” (Davenport, 1998). The existence of virtual offices is increasing in both variety and frequency. Davenport commented in 1998 that there was a steep rise in transition or phasing out from office work to mobile work. It could be assumed that, since that time, it has continued to rise, as the capacity of technology has enhanced the possibility and occurrence of mobile workers. Although companies deploying mobile workers equip them with electronic tools, many employers worry that although office functions might not be needed, it is difficult to replace office culture and sociable communication (Davenport, 1998). One way that the under-socialized mobile worker community might increase sociability is to adopt surrogate workspaces in third places like coffee shops.

    Changes in Internet usage and changes in workspaces have increased the frequency of coffee shops to serve as a surrogate workspace for mobile workers. It is therefore important to expand and contextualize the way we understand the concept of socialization in order to properly apply it to this new sect of coffee shop goers. Sociologist Georg Simmel, author of “The Sociology of Sociability,” created a distinction in sociability types, by establishing upper and lower sociability threshold. The upper sociability threshold is associated with objectives and associations, which are “absolutely personable” (Simmel, 1949); this sociability type can easily be attributed to mobile workers in coffee shops and in the occasional occurrence of business meetings being conducted in third places. By combining business with social situations, as in the case of coffee shop and/or golf meeting, individuals are expanding their social network. Instead of thinking of this type of situation as the individuals reducing their sociability because they are directing their association toward objective content and purpose, it can be more accurately identified as an attempt to achieve a higher threshold of sociability even if sociability is not the major purpose (Simmel, 1949).

    Research Design

    This research focused on males and females aged 18 and over. Neither health status nor race were deciding factor in subject recruitment. I attempted to gather two groups of participants at all field sites: employees and customers. There were three field site locations, Art 6 coffee house, Jupiter House coffee shop, and the Hydrant Café, which are all located in Denton, Texas, near the University of North Texas. I gathered data through participant observation at different times of the day and on different days of the week. I made efforts to compartmentalize the various sections of each field site by creating mental maps of socialization trends in order to assess the best locations to gather data. Both Art 6 and The Hydrant are multi-room establishments, and, in the case of The Hydrant Café, multi-story. From each location, I noted participants’ ages, gender, duration of time spent at the location, activity, and whether they came in accompanied, joined others, or sat alone. These characteristics were vital to gauging the significance of the coffee shops in the lives of each customer/employee as well as a possible method of uncovering any profiles for coffee shop goers.

    The second main data collection tool used was a series of 10 semi-structured interviews and social/cognitive mapping exercise. The interviews were comprised of answering a set of 10-20 questions regarding their coffee shop behavior and their personal relationship to the location and to the community in general. Some of the participants consented to sketching simple maps of the field site. They were given the option to draw a map of what the place looked like, where people sat, or any interesting or important characteristics of the location. These maps were critical to grasp the perspectives of each participant.


    Denton County has a population of approximately 600,000, and is the home of two state universities, the University of North Texas and the Texas Woman’s University (U.S. Census Bureau). Because of the universities’ strong foci on art and music, Denton is recognized and respected for their local music culture. All four field-sites in some way supported Denton’s music or art scene, either through exhibiting and selling local paintings or by serving as venues for local bands to play. All three coffee houses offer free wireless Internet and have numerous power-outlets scattered throughout the space.

    Jupiter House Café

    Jupiter House Café is centrally located on Denton Square and is accessible by public transportation. It is a large, rectangular, one-room coffee shop with outside seating available. Along one side are tall tables with bar stools. The middle has circular tables with up to four chairs at each table. Along the other side are single or double tables. Closer to the counter are large comfortable-looking couches and a large variety of pastries displayed along the walls near the counter. It is common to see the barista (coffee bartender) deep in conversation or chuckling with the customers as they ring up orders.

    All along the walls leading to the counter are various power-outlets, and it is along those walls were the majority of people working on laptops or reading books tend to sit. The majority of people who enter accompanied by others or expecting others to join them sit in the middle, where more seats can easily be brought and tables can be pushed together. Jupiter House opens at six a.m. and, for the majority of the morning, the customers have a tendency to take a cup to go. The afternoons and evenings, especially during weekends are usually very busy and customers tend to stay for hours.

    Art 6 Coffee House

    Art 6 is located off Denton Square and is close to, but not on the route of, the city’s public transportation system. It is a medium-sized white house with four rooms, three providing seating. The first room is connected to the coffee counter and has both tabletops and single tables. The majority of customers who sat in that room used it for studying or reading. Walking down the hallway and past the bathroom are two rooms connected through a large open doorway. There is eccentric, locally made painting for sale decorating the walls. These rooms have been used to host large study sessions, local band gigs, and job interviews. People have also been observed to use the space to sketch, or play board games. On average, Art 6 has fewer customers than the other two coffee shops.

    The Hydrant

    The Hydrant café is located near Denton Square and is accessible via public transportation. The shop front is theme-decorated with large inflatable red hydrants, firemen, boots, and axes. The first level is a small room with booths along one wall, equipped with power-outlets and the second level is a large room with tables, couches, recliners, and love-seats. There are many board games available to customers. When the coffee shop hosts bands, the performances are usually set up in the second level. The coffee shop is only a couple of years old and is owned by a UNT alum and his wife. They are very amicable and community-centered, often greeting many of their customers by first name. This coffee house is generally much quieter than the other two and the music is, on average, very peaceful and calming.


    Interviews were conducted in all three field sites and included customers who socialized, who sat either alone or in the company of others, with or without any type of physical entertainment source (laptops, newspapers, books etc). Other participants included coffee house employees and musicians who held performances at the field site coffee houses. The frequency of coffee shop visits and the personal attachment felt by participants varied tremendously. One participant reported to visit coffee shops approximately 2-3 times per month, usually for an hour at a time. Another participant reported to have frequented his favorite coffee shop daily, many times for up to 5 hours a day.

    Third Place theory conveys the hypothesis that the introduction of work-related activities, or the idea of third places being “invaded by people of singular purpose,” would in some way damage third place socialization because those activities would change the original purpose of third place. Interestingly enough, throughout all interviews conducted, not one participant mentioned any negative sentiments toward coffee shop customers who use the space primarily to conduct individual job or work- related work. Several of the questions from the interviews centered on the participant’s personal feelings about what they deemed to be appropriate and inappropriate coffee shop etiquette and behavior. There was a consensus among all of my participants that it was acceptable for coffee shop customers to simply sit by themselves doing their own work, as evinced by the response “you can read, you don’t have to interact, it’s not expected, no pressure.” In fact, one customer, who also performed in musical showcases in several coffee shop locations in town, mentioned that even in special cases such as community music events where it is expected that the coffee shop might not be the most conducive environment for working, he still asks the customers if his loud music would bother them. When specifically asked on this subject, one participant said “at least they come to mingle, they could have just as easily stayed at home,” (personal communication) which implies that the behavior of these work-doers is not only expected, but also appreciated within the coffee shop community. When asked about their own activities and purposes for frequenting coffee shops, all mentioned in some way that it is a chance for them to engage in dialogue, and that is was “not just about coffee, it’s a place to socialize, to sit and stay” (Respondent 3, personal communication, Aug 13, 2009). Over sixty percent of participants in some way mentioned using the space for some form of work or study; over half of participants mentioned Wi-Fi usage. The fact that the overall majority of participants mentioned both work, technology, and socializing as primary reasons for visiting the coffee houses shows two things: people’s opinions about coffee shop purposes still strongly include interaction and socialization, and secondly that an additional element (work-related activities facilitated by Wi-Fi accessibility) is now a moderately strong reason for attending coffee shops.

    Cognitive and Social Mapping

    Participants were asked to hand-draw social or cognitive maps of the coffee shop space in order to better gauge the individual experience of each participant. Participants were asked to draw any features of the coffee shop space that they felt explained and exemplified the space. Each participant was told they could draw permanent physical features, seating patterns, or anything else that would help describe the coffee shop.

    The majority of participants in this study choose to draw spatial maps of the physical objects in the coffee shops. The fact that participants placed more importance on spatial features instead of social features indicated that activities by customers are not the aspect of the place that is most central or significant to them. Strong similarities can be drawn between sentiments conveyed through answers from interviews and maps drawn by participants about work-related activities in the coffee shops. In general customers did not make a strong distinction between customers. The fact that participants choose not to label or compartmentalize coffee shop goers, either in maps or in their interview, signifies that there it is not a strong importance placed on the type of activity customers choose to engage in, and, therefore, among these three third places; the introduction of “work” has not negatively affected the space.


    This study examines one aspect of the third place theory, the notion that introducing job or school related work as a primary reason for going to third places will ruin the purity of the place because it will decrease the amount of interaction and socialization that takes place. Over the course of this study I have witnessed goal-oriented work activities being conducted in third places primarily by students. Findings from interviews and participant observation in three coffee houses in Denton indicate that generally coffee shop customers and employees do not share Oldenburg’s assumptions. In fact, findings show that coffee shop customers and employees feel neutral, and in many cases, positive, toward people who go to coffee shops with the primary purpose of doing work.

    The first step toward understanding the modern third places is by examining the way that individual coffee shop customers and employees create coffee shop communities. The coffee shop community is, by nature, transient and has varying interests; their commonality often lies solely in their collective presence in the coffee shop. A common conscience is created, and feelings of connectedness begin to emerge. There is a repeating idea of connectedness, which exists when people coexist within the same location. One participant described community as “not about knowing every single person; it’s about sense of togetherness” (Respondent 4, personal communication, Aug 13, 2009). Milgram addressed the idea of the familiar stranger; the idea that a relationship can be made simply from repeatedly acknowledging each other’s presence and that interaction was not necessary to creating these relationships. The concept of communitas runs along the same vein of the possibility for the existence of substantive relationships created through limited physical interaction. Although preliminary, the research conducted within this study opposes segments of Ray Oldenburg’s Third Place theory, and raises discussion concerning forums for socialization as technologic innovation advances. When asked about their ideas about communities, all, except for one participant, mentioned commonalities, or common interest. The one exception brought up regional and state boundary lines as pre-requisites for defining communities.

    The second theme that is important to address is the types of activities done in coffee shops. According to Oldenburg, the primary purpose of third places is socialization and anything that is work-related would ruin the space. The impression derived from participants in this study is in direct opposition to conclusions drawn in the third place theory. Although some people do go to coffee shops and choose not to interact with other customers, many of those people still do interact with virtual communities online. The increase in mobile workers has created an entirely new group of people in search of surrogate workspaces. The availability of Wi-Fi facilitates the transition for people with job or work-related activities to go to coffee houses. Many sociologists, including Robert Putnam, have ascribed the increase in Internet usage to be the reason for decreases in community and civic engagement. More recent studies conducted on Internet usage have refuted Putnam’s earlier claims. Community engagement is on the rise, in part, due to virtual communities. An increase in community involvement is one of the biggest drives that Oldenburg outlines for the existence of third places. Although the way by which individuals are connecting to their communities is changing slightly from face-to-face encounters to virtual encounters, the original result is still occurring.

    The consumption of caffeinated beverages often comes as a secondary incentive for individuals who frequent coffee shops and other third places. It is not solely the act of consuming coffee which drives people to go to coffee shops; it is also the search for a “common element,” the need to exist with others in the same place doing the same thing (Simmel, 1949). Like Oldenburg, Simmel also believes that “sociability in its pure form has no ulterior end, no content, and no result outside itself” (Simmel, 1949, p. 254). This, like all attempted definitions related to elusive subjects such as “community” and “socialization,” are merely working definitions, as these concepts are dynamic and ever-changing. Who, for example, when attempting to create the definition of friendship, could have ever fathomed the concept of cyber-friends before Internet, or of pen pals before post? People continue to visit third places like coffee shops in order to socialize, but an added purpose is now becoming commonplace, the search for a workspace. The introduction of Wi-Fi to coffee shops has facilitated and encouraged work-related activities in coffee shops. The upsurge of these new activities has not ruined third places, like Oldenburg hypothesized. Instead these newcomers have become an accepted part of the coffee shop community. These new customers still engage in interaction and socialization, both physically and through virtual forums, thereby fulfilling role requirements for third places as outlined by Ray Oldenburg.


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