The Social Transformation of Coffee Houses: The Emergence of Chain Establishments and the Private Nature of Usage

Rachael A. Woldoff, Dawn Marie Lozzi, Lisa M. Dilks


Ray Oldenburg (1989) developed the concept of third places as environments that offer friendship and a sense of community. However, the idealized image of the coffee house may need revision. In recent decades coffee houses have transformed from small-scale businesses to corporate-owned franchises, and with the advent of personal electronic devices many people now use them to work rather than to socialize. Using unobtrusive observation data from three independently-owned and three chain-based coffee houses in the Boston area, this research examines the ways in which modern coffee houses live up to or defy Oldenburg’s social expectations of a third place. Two key findings reveal that: 1) people increasingly use coffee houses as both a social sphere and a private zone to work, read, and use electronic devices; and 2) chain coffee houses, though often criticized for their sanitized lack of character, may better meet customers’ new third place needs by providing a wider variety of amenities (e.g., types of seating, food, and media) and free services that are in high demand (e.g., Wi-Fi).

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International Journal of Social Science Studies   ISSN 2324-8033 (Print)   ISSN 2324-8041 (Online)

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