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Ethnography and pubs

In this article Victoria Wells discusses the use of ethnography for studying pubs and pub consumers.
Photograph of beer glasses coming together for a Cheers!
© Victoria Wells/University of York

Pub research has been going on since the “Pub and the People” in the mid 20th Century. Researchers, both commercial and academic, have sought to understand more about pubs and their consumers for many years.

For commercial researchers this is so that pubs can be designed to entice consumers; for academic researchers it may be to understand social interactions, drinking behaviours and many other elements. Like most research there are many methodologies that can be used to collect data and analyse behaviour. These might include interviews, questionnaires/surveys and analysis of sales, for example.

One particular research methodology that has been used effectively in pub research has been ethnography. In its most basic sense, ethnography places the researcher in the context (here the pub) and they observe, record and take note of what is happening, collecting field notes and observations and then taking these away to analyse and to make sense of behaviours. It can also include interviews, filming or audio recording. Ethnography is used to understand routine and mundane social activities and seeks to understand the insider’s perspective in their natural surroundings. This data collection can also take place over long periods of time.

Mass Observation’s ‘The Pub and the People’ is perhaps the earliest and most famous example of this type of research. As we noted previously, for two years the mass observation researchers joined the community in Worktown, visiting pubs, taking part in social activities and, all the time, observing, note taking, counting and interacting (through casual interviews and conversations) with staff and consumers. All this work was bought together to provide the comprehensive understanding of pubs that “Pub and the People” provided. Without this dedication to spend time in the environment experiencing the environment, the resulting work would have not had the depth and detail it contains. That dedication also led to taking part in drinking as they observed, which may or may not have affected their observations, but helped them become true participants.

In 1981, Michael Smith, took on the baton of ethnography and completed a period of observation (as a participant) for six months in a pub called The Nelson. Unlike the Mass Observation observers, Michael Smith wanted to avoid drinking while observing and

“adopted the strategy of non-alcohol drinkers who frequent pubs… to drink pints of coke – a drink which looks remarkably like Guinness – dark, strong and ‘a man’s drink” (pages 2/3)

although it is not clear if the other pub consumers were fooled by this. His work particularly highlighted the different spaces across the pub (while also commenting on sexual interaction between consumers and role of the publican): public space, negotiable space and closed social space. These were demarcated, not necessarily, by physical features, but by the accepted behaviours within them. For example, in public spaces, any topic of conversation was acceptable and anyone in that space was assumed to be open to engagement, whether they were known or not, and people would ebb and flow. In the negotiable space, groups of consumers who knew each other would be together, perhaps engaging in pool or a particular discussion and, apart from trips to the bar or the toilet, people would remain in their groups. In the closed social space people displayed what Michael Smith called ‘shields’, such as sitting with their backs away from people, to show that they were not open to interaction and wished to be alone.

A final example of ethnography and observation in pubs is in the book ‘Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour” by Kate Fox. This work looks at and examines a range of English contexts and behaviours including weather, racing and food rules from an anthropological perspective. In one chapter Kate Fox focuses on the pub context. She outlines a number of ‘rules’ that are followed in the pub environment. These include the sociability rule where at the bar, normal rules of privacy and reserve are suspended and it is acceptable to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. Another rule she notes is the free-association rule to understand pub conversations where inhibitions are shed and customers give voice to any thought that happens to occur with them moving the conversation haphazardly through a myriad of topics in a short time. Like Michael Smith, she also notes the segmentation of the pub into public and private zones, not by physical features, but by accepted behvaiours.

Pub ethnographies provide a massive amount of information about what people do in pubs and why. Sadly we don’t see enough of this work, probably because of the significant commitment in terms of time and energy that is needed to do it. Hopefully we’ll see more of these in the future.

Further reading

Fox, K. (2004) Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, Hodder & Stoughton.
Kirner, K and Mills, J.L. (2020) Introduction to Ethnographic Research: A Guide for Anthropology, Sage Publications. Mass Observation (1943) The Pub and the People: A Worktown Study. Smith, M.A. (1983) Social Usages of the Public Drinking House: Changing Aspects of Class and Leisure, The British Journal of Sociology, 34(3), 367-385

© Victoria Wells/University of York
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Pubs: History, Consumers, Management, and Protection

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