Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ethnography with the Capitalist

                For my ethnography, I decided to go to an In and Out restaurant because it is typically a busy restaurant with much to observe. The time is 6:39 PM on a Monday evening. This particular In and Out is located in a shopping plaza surrounded by stores and other restaurants such Panda Express, Starbucks, Verizon Wireless, Radio Shack, T-Mobile store, Target, Baskin Robin, Bally Total Fitness, and so on. I walk inside the restaurant which is full people. I have my laptop with me and I am ready to observe. However, I have to blend in and play the part to avoid other’s discomfort so I set my belongings on the only table that was free and have my friend watch over my things while I go order us food.
                I get in line and wait for the next available employee to ring me up. As I’m standing in line, I look to my right and see In and Out apparel posted on the wall. The T-shirts are sold online for $9.99. The employee tells me “I can help you right over here.” I notice the menu is small since they only sell burgers, fries, drinks, and shakes. Nevertheless, the menu is still very attractive to customers. There are two registers open, one is being managed by a young African American woman, and the other one is a young Latino male. I let the young Latino male that I want to order two orders of animal style fries and one small lemonade. He charges me and asks if that completes my order, and then he gives me my receipt and cup for my drink.
As I wait for my order, I observe the employees. They are all relatively young with an age ranging from 18 to 30 years of age. They are of either African American or Latina/o descent. The uniform they wear is a white short sleeve, white pants, and a red apron that has a big safety pin on the back. They also wear a sailor like hat or red cap that says the restaurant’s name on it. They all wear name tags. They are all moving at fast pace considering the bombardment of cars at the drive thru, and the continuing line of incoming customers. There is a sign lit on the wall that states “Quality you can taste” in bright yellow letters with red outlines and another red sign that states “nonsmoking area.” There are also paintings on the walls of In and Out’s drive thru, the store, and customers driving to In and Out.
The employee is yelling out order numbers to let the customers know that their order is ready for pick up. I decide to sit in the back corner of the restaurant which is a great position for thorough observation. The smell of fresh cut fries permeates the air in the restaurant. The main colors of the restaurant are red, white, and yellow. There are many chairs that are for a party of two and four. The chairs are positioned around the table to face each other. There are only a few single high chairs. In those seats are families, couples, or friends. Everyone is chatting up a storm so the volume is very loud. The customers are all dressed casual.
Sitting next to me were two African American young ladies on my left side. I could hear them talking about women and men. I heard them say something like “it’s always the women that do that.” They were saying something about phones and the way women respond and how many times they call. However, they left a few minutes later. Replacing them was a party of five which consisted of a grandmother and a mother with three kids (two baby girls and one adolescent boy). There was no father figure around. However, they moved to a booth so that they could sit all together.
A couple sat to my upper right. The guy was bald with a hat. The woman wore a lot of makeup and jewelry. They both had neutral expressions on their faces as they engaged in conversation. Once in a while, they would glance my way so I stopped looking at them to disengage any discomfort they may have felt. When they were done eating, the waiter came to pick up the trash. Then two young Latina girls occupied the chairs next to my table. One had her hair straight and was wearing a loose red shirt that showed her navel. The other one had long curly hair and wore a purple shirt. The one wearing red told the other girl that she did not want her talking to girls that she was not fond of and states “because you are my friend.”
For the most part the restaurant was very clean. I went inside the girl’s restroom to check the cleanliness. I was surprised to find the restroom very clean considering the high volume of work the employees seem to be facing. There were many employees behind the register working in the kitchen. Thus, they had enough employees to work at every station whether it was being the cashier, cleaning, taking orders, cooking, etc.
The restaurant can be described as an element of popular culture that is “manipulative because its primary purpose is to be purchased” (Barker 49). The manner in which the chairs are positioned persuade the customers to engage in a discussion. This is probably why so many families, couples, and groups of friends come to eat at the restaurant. The restaurant is very attractive to customers because it is a business that targets certain types of consumers with the use of signs and advertisement. Everywhere I looked there was a party of two of more people. Even in the single chairs, couples or groups of people sat next to one another and talked to each other.
The In and Out industry uses “creative consumption” (Baker 50) in which “meanings are produced, altered and managed at the level of use by people who are active producers of meaning.” The restaurant produces the meaning of a “family oriented” place for groups of people to come together to eat and connect to one another. Thus, consumers are buying into what the industry is selling and become victims of manipulation.  Writers such as Chambers, Fiske, and Hebdidge would believe that these “buyers become bricoleurs, selecting and arranging elements of material commodities and meaningful signs” (Baker 51). In other words, the buyers may believe that by taking part in what the capitalist is selling, they themselves are producing their own meaning to their own culture.
Ferdinand de Saussure would interpret this form of culture as part of the “signifying system” (Barker 76) in which the signs that permeate the restaurant call upon delightful interpretations by the customer. Thus, the customer responds to his/her sense of these signs which in this particular case is alluring to him/her. The signs such as “quality you can taste,” touch upon the idea that what the capitalist is selling is something of good quality which is related to the idea that “quality” is “most adequate and expressive” (Barker 48). In and Out is also known for the use of “fresh” produce. The word “fresh” employs right out of the new which is also another signifier that compels the signified to interpret the word as something of good quality.

Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. 3rd ed. Sage Publications Ltd. Los Angeles. 2008. Print.

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