Culture can be understood as a “web of significance,” or the interaction of meanings that we attach to the patterns and artifacts around us. Learning about culture, according to this definition, is an interpretive science, a search for meaning. Some scholars say that the most appropriate means of learning about culture is through “thick description,” or sorting out the structures of significance present in the symbolic actions of how people order their worlds.
The grocery store ethnography exercise is designed to encourage this type of ethnographic interpretation by exposing us to the cultural dimensions innate in the normal routines of daily life. The adjacent location to the culturally diversified Greater New York offers us the opportunity to conduct this exercise. The exercise encourages us to engage in thick description of a culture, attempting to discover the hidden symbolic webs of which it is composed. In addition, it teaches us how to do ethnographic research in an everyday context and helps us to begin to articulate the relationships between cultural values, the informal logic of a culture, and the symbolic expression of culture.
Some helpful concepts to think about before you enter the ethnic grocery stores include the use of space, nonverbal behavior, resource allocation, priorities and values, appropriateness, politeness, and so forth. Think of the grocery store as not merely a store, but rather as a warehouse of cultural values, attitudes, and beliefs.
Your assignment is to explore this warehouse and be prepared to talk about what you discovered in class. Slowly walk through the store. Note what products are available, what products are not available, how the store is arranged, the behavior of shoppers and shopkeepers, the variety of specific items, such as alcoholic beverages or fish, purchasing procedures, and so on. Record your thoughts as you move through the store, noting subtle differences between the store you select and stores where you normally shop.
As you note the differences, attempt to guess at the meaning of your observations (e.g., why the store only stocks one type of beer, but many types of fish). What do these differences imply about the culture you are studying?
Ensure that you take the necessary time to engage in careful, deliberate, detailed observation of your environment. Similarly, make sure that you spend sufficient time reflecting upon what you have observed and guessing about its cultural significance. This is the heart of the exercise: developing hypotheses about your observations.
Writing up and presenting your results:
On the day the exercise is due, you should have prepared your results in PowerPoint slides and Word document. This Word document should contain the following components: the name and location of the grocery store and the cultural group it represents (e.g., Polish grocery store), what you observed during the exercise, and most importantly, what you think your observations imply about that particular culture and your hypotheses developed based on what you learned in class.
Based upon what you have written, be prepared to present the results of your study in class. The PowerPoint slides should represent concise summarizations of your observations and hypotheses. More specifically you should explain to the class the specific traits you noticed and your hypotheses about what those traits might imply about the culture represented in that particular store in a narrative format (i.e., tell us a story).
Potentially useful questions for this exercise:
- In what ways is the store organized differently from what you expected?
- Are food items categorized in a way that makes sense to you? Is it easy for you to find the things you are looking for?
- Are the food items packaged in a way that seems attractive to you?
- What differences do you notice in how products are presented? In other words, which items received priority placements (at the end of an aisle for example)?
- Did you find items that you did not expect? Did you expect to find items that were not available? How do you think the store managers decide what should be offered?
- Does the store seem to have comparable standards of freshness and quality as those in which you normally shop? Do you think that there might be any cultural reasons for this?
- From your observation, who does the typical shopper seem to be? Young, old, male, female? Is this what you would expect?
- Do there seem to be different rules or norms for behavior such as politeness, appropriateness, and so forth?
- To what extent does the store seem to be identified with a certain culture or subculture?
- What does the type of food and product selection tell you about this culture?
- Do people seem to interact in the same way as they do in stores with which you are more familiar?