Monthly Archives: September 2008

Some personal headaches.

Most of this stuff is quite academic and preachy – my personal thoughts either stay personal or end up on my 100words or find their way on to (highly addictive and brings on the illusion of being sociable when all you are doing is virtually poking your ex and providing copy for media scares about identity theft)
I am not in the mood for more essay writing, and I’m not sure what I would write at the moment anyway. I am slowly compiling a huge list of Worries, getting myself all wound up about what the next few months will hold, and wondering whether I am doing the right thing at all. I am just starting my second year of this PhD – that alone is a terrifying thought. The last year has gone so quickly, and I honestly do not feel prepared at all for Year 2 – which is fieldwork, fieldwork and more fieldwork, collecting my own real data and not just reading other people’s ideas. I don’t feel confident enough in my project or happy enough with the work I’ve done so far to be ready for this.

Take for example, these focus groups. The teenagers were fun, there were a few useful points to be drawn out of it, but for the most part, they were pretty silly. So, I did another group with Sheffield students, hoping that they would come out to support me because they share my suffering and probably have to do similar research themselves – and would also take it seriously enough for something useful to come out of it. That is not what happened. For a start, I ended up with a group to two – one took it seriously but for various reasons, couldn’t answer a lot of my questions. The other took it seriously in his own inimitable way, shall we say, which wasn’t actually the most helpful:

Bel: Do you go to coffee shops with groups of friends then?

I go to coffee shops with my Dear Friend. She’s my Friend. She’s called S—–. We have coffee mornings. And we air our… well, you know, we just, have heart to heart chats, we are on a very deep spiritual and profound level. Meaningful conversation. You know, putting the world to rights. She’s a woman of the world, you see. And I’m a man of the world. We just kind of like, amongst the sea of kids, we just found each other. She knows the crack, she knows how the it goes down. So do I. So we tend to break bread. Usually Thursday or Wednesday mornings. It’ll probably happen… what day is it, is it Thursday tomorrow?

Bel: Yeah it is.

Oh, there’s one due then. It’s on the horizon.

Bel: So,when you’re not with S——…

She’s my Friend.

Bel: Riiight.

I’m sorry, continue, continue…

The transcription of this interview took over three hours, and covers 12 full pages. Of this, I’d say about 200 words are actually on topic and useful. I have another two to do over the next fortnight. I am NOT looking forward to them AT ALL. That aside, I really am worried about not being able to get the information I need from these groups. It was pointed out both directly and inferred from that interview, that your average coffee drinker does not think about it in the same way I do. Whereas that is a fairly obvious point, I feel like I am not doing a great job of explaining this project to others, and how can I get useful data when people don’t understand what I’m asking them?

And then, I’m off on my journeys, and this is frighteningly close now. I’ve got all my flights booked, someone at Jubilee House Community (the coffee exporters) in Nicaragua emailed me with a phone number, saying “ring when you get here”. Which is suitably ad-hoc. I leave on the 30th October, but not directly to Nicaragua. On route I am going to:
A Conference on the Moral, Economic, and Social Life of Coffee

This is at Miami University in Ohio. This is the first big academic conference I’ve been to, certainly the first international one. And there will no doubt be loads of people – academics and industry professionals – who no doubt have a far better grasp of what they are talking about than I do, and I will sit in the corner terrified my own ignorance will be exposed at any time.

After that, I am flying to Managua via Houston, and ending up in Nicaragua’s capital late in the evening and with no idea of where to go when I get there. The plan is to go to Granada for a few days, see Donna and the kids and get myself acclimatised before looking up the JHC. But after that, who knows? After spending two months in Nicaragua collecting as much information about coffee waste and quality as I can, by whatever means I can, I am traveling overland to Costa Rica, where I will have to do exactly the same thing only on a much bigger plantation, where I have even more tenuous contacts to chase up.
Saying it is all a little scary is an understatement.

And then there is my even more personal concerns – leaving Carl for so long, even leaving the nice comfy safety net of university and my friends there. I have done this sort of thing before, I spent six months living with a wonderful family in Peru when I was just eighteen. When I was 20, I went to Nicaragua – twice, on a whim. I don’t remember either of these trips causing me this much anxiety. I’m hoping that this self-preservation, and marriage preservation instinct that is kicking in, is a sign of maturity. I know now that I am not invincible, and that is more scary than anything – I am thinking up more and more things to worry about.

But at the same time, it is amazingly exciting. Although I’ve never had any fixed idea on what I want to do with myself specifically, I’ve always wanted a job that would allow me to travel. Now I’ve got one, and I do love it – I am so lucky to have this opportunity. As nervous as I am, I wouldn’t change this for the world. After all, who is really going to complain about having to spend two months living here?

(Granada – Nicaragua. Thank you to Donna for the gorgeous photos!)

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Posted by on September 22, 2008 in Uncategorized


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I Like Mess. And Fishnets.

Science is not pure.

Science is not pure.

I am reading more from John Law, specifically, “Making a Mess with Method” – available online HERE

This bloke is a good bloke, in my humble opinion. He writes well – what he says is interesting and useful to my work, it is comprehensible to the theoryaphobic like me, but his writing is also entertaining and engaging, which is a very rare indeed. There are a lot of academics with brilliant ideas, but who are seemingly incapable of expressing those ideas to the layman, leaving us with pages and pages of impenetrable psychobabble to wade through. Not so John Law. Praise be! I wrote to him to tell him this…..

and he actually wrote back!!

Dear Annabel,

Thank you so much for your email. I’m very happy that some of the things
I’ve written have been useful to you! I do care about trying to write things
well, and I’m really pleased that you think I have managed. The topic of
your PhD is really interesting … please do keep me in touch.

With best wishes,

John L

But back to the point.

Making A Mess With Method, to my mind, champions the right to disorder. Or not even that, actually. There isn’t really a word meaning ‘devoid of order’ – I don’t mean “chaos.” Law uses the example of trying to map the ‘typical’ movements of patients with alcoholic liver disease throughout a health care system – and finds it impossible. There is no such thing as ‘typical’ in this situation. It is not meaningful to generalise too much either. There is a huge emphasis in research – even in social science research – to come up with clear, coherent, demonstrable and repeatable results from whatever it is you are studying, but this is not always as straight-forward as it sounds, and more significantly, these results are not always the most useful. Sometimes, it is not possible to impose order on things. Doing so, forcing your data into definite, quantifiable results, changes the nature of the research and does not produce an accurate representation of the subject being studied. Results cannot be ordered, definite and straight-forward if the subject of the study was not this way in the first place.

I have had this argument over and over again with Carl, my husband and a hardcore scientist. He describes what I do as ‘waffly nonsense’, can’t see the point of it, keeps offering to help me make maps or run statistical calculations for me, and claims ‘social science’ is a contradiction in terms. (-It is, scientists are never sociable!!). He will always choose the quantitative over the qualitative, as if ‘pure’ science has the monopoly on research methodology. But this does illustrate my point: I am concerned with the ‘social’ – “human” geography. And humans do not fit tidily into boxes. Sometimes, there is no ‘typical’ pattern to human behaviour. We are not always logical, sometimes the meanings behind our thoughts and actions are not straight-forward, nor definite nor obvious. Sometimes you cannot make generalisations, even based on huge amounts of data and doing so could dehumanise the research. We are messy because we are human, and being messy is part of what makes us human in the first place.

And now I am distracted by the desire for a cheese sandwich. I shall indulge this urge, and leave this thought train in this blog so as not to impose order on my writing. Inner editor begone!!

During construction of aforementioned sandwich, I ponder potential uses for the green beans left in the fridge, remove a ferret from the laundry basket, and scan in a picture of a duck that was sent to me for the RASC website. I have also now got the song “My God is drowning in the bath” by Amy X Neuburg stuck in my head, as if from nowhere. Are these the typical actions and reactions of a postgrad student? Very probably, thinking about it. But this behaviour is hardly definite, logical or easily understood from a detached viewpoint.

I am studying the coffee industry. Again this is not as simple as it sounds. The ‘industry’ is not a definite, singular, entity. It is a network, a production process – a huge array of different actors and agencies, both human and nonhuman, all linked with complex but mainly co-operative, economic, reciprocal and sometimes semiotic relationships. If these relationships, or the agents break down or disappear for whatever reason, then the ‘industry’ does not function. And as it is a production process, I would argue that without functionality, the process ceases to exist. It disbands into separate agents with no connections between them, and the industry-network is no longer there.

This view is obviously the result of being force-fed Actor-Network “Theory” for the last few months solid. (To my mind, it is not a theory, but that is a different story/narrative/impassioned rant). What feels like a lifetime ago, I started digging into the idea of commodity chains – which can be a much simpler way of looking at production networks. Commodities simply progress along this chain from production to consumption. I would love to be able to impose this sort of logical order on to the coffee industry, but I know now that it would never work. There are too many humans involved.

Instead, I am dealing with Commodity Fishnets. The production of “coffee” – and indeed, waste and quality if I am ever to get to the point of my project, – the leg, in fact, are bound up in an immense, complex and global network of independent actors, agents and relationships (the fishnets). There is some hierarchies within this network, power is not balanced or equally distributed – the waistband and toes are stronger than, say the knees. Sometimes, the whole pair of tights appears so tangled that from the researchers point of view, it seems impossible that they could ever fulfill their purpose and cover the leg or produce coffee. FairTrade, sustainable development initiatives and such like reinforce the relationships in this network, and can make the holes in the net appear smaller. Events like the coffee market crash and the dissolution of the International Coffee Organisaton in 1989 ladder the tights, perhaps irreparably.
And also like my fishnets (which are from Primark), construction of this industry is based on exploitation and child-labour.

In some respects, even this is imposing order on to what I’m studying, but for the simple reason of needing to talk about this meaningfully – expressing my ideas in a manner comprehensible to others – I think fishnets is suitably complex, non-straightforward and indefinite representation. At the moment, my fishnets are still very tangled and have plenty of holes and ladders in them. But even if they never become clear and detangled, at least I know exactly what I am looking at.

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Posted by on September 15, 2008 in Uncategorized


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Caffeinated Musings from the Teenage Fanclub

I have spent a significant amount of time in the last year trying to avoid Customers. For me, coffee shop customers are not really relevant. One of the main concerns and trains of thought within the Waste of the World programme is waste as part of the production process – often integral to production, and not just the end result of consumption. Therefore, I am interested in what, if anything, gets wasted as coffee beans are processed into the branded caffeinated-beverage-of-choice in UK coffee shops. Customers consume; they are not part of the production process, although, admittedly, they are the reason for the production process.

However, with some not so subtle persuasion from my supervisors, I have been convinced to do a few focus groups with customers in the cafes I am studying. Customers can create waste in their own way. The most obvious way being, if for whatever reason they do not like the coffee they are served, they complain, and the coffee drink is wasted. There are also more indirect ways in which the customer is responsible for waste. I am trying to argue within this project that very high quality coffees are more wasteful to produce. Therefore, if the customers demand high quality coffee, then more has to be wasted in order to supply that demand. In some cases, I would also suggest that the level of skill involved – not just by the barista, but by the farmers and roasters as well, is wasted on the customers who just want the caffeine content for instance. Then there are other even more subjective things like wasting time in coffee shops, and wasting money on overpriced fashionable coffee brands. And so on and so forth. Eventually, they wore me down, and I agreed to interview some customers to find out, essentially, how fussy they are.

My first ‘focus group’ – and I use the term very loosely in this sense, was with the self-defined ‘Teenage Fanclub’ – that is, a bunch of teenagers who I knew from when they used to take up space and not spend anything in the Voodoo Cafe, but who very kindly followed me to Caffe Nero when I started working there instead. They all do still go out to coffee shops of varying sorts, they all knew each other even if they didn’t know me, and they will talk for hours and hours with little prompting. So I thought they would be a good group to start with.

Having co-ordinated with “the first official layabout of the cafe” and told him to meet me in Nero and “bring friends”, we took over the back of the cafe, ordered eight different drinks at once which annoyed the barista until she realised how much it all came to, and then proceeded to ramble on about anything that came in to their heads about coffee in the full knowledge that I was recording this for vaguely sensible purposes. The one thing I’d forgotten in all of this is how tiring controlling the conversation of a bunch of over-confident, raucous adolescents is. I used to do this on a daily basis, whilst simultaneously cooking and making coffee for them, six days a week. That part of my life seems an incredibly long time ago now. I can’t decide if I actually miss it.

Most of the "Focus group" being "rewarded" with Nero coffee

Most of the 'focus group' in Darlington's Caffe Nero

In amongst the idiocies (and there were plenty), this bunch did actually say some useful things -especially about why they went to specific places:


Well you know I tend to go to In Arcadia but if you’re gonna go to one the old high street chains in Darlo then I tend to go to Coffee @ Elliots cos they don’t pretend to be Italian and you can go in there and say “I’ll have a large black coffee please and you’ll get a Large Black Coffee. No bloody Frenchy americano or whatever it is.

Although they did appreciate that customer service was important, they did not appreciate conspicuously being sold a brand:

Bel: Has anyone ever been to Starbucks in Darlington?
Grem: (very quickly) NO.
Timmus: Yeah…
Vince: Yeah, it’s terrible
Rose: Really overpriced
Sadie: I wouldn’t have but other people dragged me in.
Grem: That one (pointing at Meg) dragged me in to a Stabucks in Newcastle
Meg: I’ve not been to our Starbucks, not when the cappuccinos are nearly twice as much
Grem: Yeah but once when we were out in Newcastle –
Meg: Yeah but there were other people there telling us to come in…
Grem: Yeah I suppose
Bel: So would you see Neros are being better quality than Starbucks?
Grem: Yes.
Vince: And better value for money as well actually
Bel: Really?
Grem: Yeah, Starbucks in really expensive and you get a tiny little cup
Vince: I used to order Frappuccinos quite a lot and Starbucks give you like, ice cream! It’s just a milkshake, and you’re like, “I could’ve gone to McDonalds for that!””

They also admitted that often, it was not just the coffee they went in for:

Sadie: I think I’m just lazy. By the time I’ve walked all the way in to town, I just want to sit down somewhere. Coffee just comes with it!

Surprisingly, (for skint teenagers) they all said that they would pay more for high quality coffee, and good service:

Rose: Well you see them do more here.
Grem: Again, it’s all about selling the brand. If you see them do more here, you think, well, you tend to think you’re getting your money’s worth, it must be good! Maybe it is worth paying £2.90 for a big coffee!
Bel: So if you see them doing things you’re more likely to pay more?
Grem: If there’s more effort then you pay more money
Bel: Ok
Vince: You get a better quality too
Grem: yeah. If it looks classy and presentable then..
Vince: And if they look presentable as well…
Grem: Would you really go into a coffee shop where it’s being manned by a bunch of fat ugly sweaty slobs?

However, having said that, they didn’t really seem to realise what skills the barista actually has to possess:

Timmus: erm, make coffee?
Vince: Blend the beans correctly, erm, make sure it’s the right temperature and all of that, quite a lot really.
Bel: So, you mean using the machine…?
Timmus: Know how to make milk froth!
Vince: Put all the extra bits on make sure it looks right
Nelson: Know how to make coffee stylish!
Vince: Yeah, know how to make coffee in style for the customer

They were also all perfectly prepared to complain when their coffee wasn’t made right:

Vince: Serg.
Nelson: Serg made terrible coffee
Bel: Oh Serg! oh I see
Grem: He managed to burn filter coffee.
Grem: I don’t get how! It’s impossible! That is fool-proof! Vince could do it!
Sadie: Aawww. Poor Vincey.

Most were very politically aware of Fairtrade issues, and agreed that they would probably pay more if they knew the farmers were getting a fair price for their crops. They were also convinced that FairTrade is fashionable, and that most brands could sell Fairtrade coffee if they wanted to:

Vince: Most places now say they do fairtrade
Grem: – but really they don’t
Vince: Yeah
Grem: (cough) Starbucks!
Sadie: They can’t justify not having fairtrade cos it’s not that much more expensive compared to the amount they add on to the price of the coffee in the first place!

When I explained that Caffe Nero claims to pay ‘better than fair trade prices’ for its coffee, but doesn’t have the official FairTrade mark, they were not impressed: “I feel scummy now!”
They also had some endearingly naiive views on Fairtrade coffee plantations:

Grem: I think so, cos fairtrade farmers are getting more money so they can put more back in to it, to improve the quality of the beans, improve the quality of the harvesting machines, prevent against losses and bad weather and floods and stuff.
Vince: The extra money’s like an investment, isn’t it? The more money you put in, the more you get out of your investment
Grem: Yeah, with that little, whatever it is, -when they sign up to Fairtrade that first little bit of money that you get, they can maybe get a new harvesting machine or hire a few more members of staff, then they get a larger crop next year, and then they can sell more, and get more, and it expands at an exponential rate!

– I didn’t have the heart to explain that it doesn’t quite work like that.

I came away from this group very grateful to them for being unusually helpful. It was only when I listened to the recording over, and over, and over, and over, and over again in order to transcribe it, that I noticed how utterly silly they can be at times:

Bel: Ok! Great! Well, again, is there anything else anyone wants to tell me at all?
Nelson: erm.. Noooo.

Bel: Alright then! Well in that case, thank you very much-

Grem: Oh yes!
Bel: Go on then
Grem: Scientists might be creating a Black Hole with some particle accelerator or something.
Bel: Thank you for sharing that.
Grem: Well you said anything else!!
Bel: Groan.
Grem: They probably all drink loads of coffee, it’s probably why, they’re all trying to find the Tiny Little Coffee Particle!
Bel: Do you think they could make espresso through a particle accelerator?
Grem: What happens if you fire a tangerine, and a Malteaser through a particle accelerator?
Vince: It’d just go whiizzut!!!
Grem: You end up with a Terry’s chocolate orange!
[General groaning]
Grem: You see these are the kind of things you think of when you’re fuelled up on caffeine!
I am not on ANY kind of drugs today, thank you very much!
Oh! And that’s being recorded!

In all honesty, I think this material is actually more valuable for market research for when I open my own cafe than it is for my PhD research. When I open Dr Coffees, I must remember to sell Big Black Coffees, not grande americanos, I must provide “big slouchy squashy sofas that you can sleep on!”, I mustn’t upsell cakes at the end of every order, coffee must be strong but not burnt, I mustn’t make teenagers feel uncomfy if they sit for four hours in the shop having only bought one coffee, hot chocolates and mochas must be topped with as much cream as can be physically fitted in to the cup, and the whole place must be staffed by “fit” waitresses. And dying the coffee pink always helps too.

I have several more of these focus groups left to do, and I have a feeling that other, older, less caffeine-sensitive customers may have very different views.

One more quote from the Fanclub:

Vince: You should put it up as a podcast, it’d be hilarious!

In the relatively safe knowledge that no-one is going to bother downloading all 20MB of this file other than Grem himself, here is the podcast:

Teenage Fanclub Podacast 5th Sept 08


Posted by on September 9, 2008 in Uncategorized


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