Your first reaction might be to answer, “What’s wrong? So obvious. Julie was in a Starbucks!” Okay, so I usually avoid Starbucks. But I’ll admit that there’s ONE that has the best view in the world and the added bonus of being the only coffeehouse near one of my favorite hiking spots. They draw me in with the promise of a bathroom, hot water, and the possibility of seeing a few whales if I’m really, really lucky. (Yesterday, the Girl Scouts dangling Thin Mints in front of the door sealed the deal.)
The sun was shining, guaranteeing that the line would loop around the entire store. At one point in that line, I looked down and saw this…sign? Display? Trash can? Repository of coffee grounds to be used again in an environmentally friendly way? There’s not even a word for it, is there? But that didn’t occur to me in the moment.
My initial reaction was that people are rude. Illiteracy is low here, so I’m guessing they can read. Then the sociologist in me kicked in.
What happens when something new comes on the scene? Something we don’t quite understand, that we don’t have words to describe?
We can look at this particular cultural artifact through different lenses – shift our gaze – and start to answer and ask all kinds of interesting questions.
We can look at the artifact itself, and our shared understandings of how it should be used. In the culture where this artifact is found, we expect something round, sitting on the floor, and lined with plastic to be a trash can. We know what a “trash can” is. We’ve learned what it means, and what to do with it. (But do you know what a “bin” is?) All of that knowledge forms the foundation of an underlying assumption that when we see such things, we can throw our trash into it. In a similar fashion, we’ve learned what “trash” is, and sometimes we’ve learned to distinguish “trash” from “recycling.” It gets complex, doesn’t it?
In this instance, we’re not supposed to throw our trash away here. What??? We’re expected to violate norms. Instead of throwing trash into the trash can, we are supposed to take something out of it. It’s hard for humans to process this shift in gaze, this seemingly simple change in perspective that calls into question our underlying knowledge about the world around us. It calls on us to violate norms, and that usually comes with penalties. This is something we’ve learned to avoid!
Here, they’ve marked this shift with a sign, both telling people what to do and explicitly stating, “NOT A TRASH CAN.” Obviously, that isn’t enough to create a change in behavior. Our subconscious rules about how the world operates are too strong. The sign is irrelevant, and trash goes into the thing that looks like what we’ve always been taught is a trash can, just like it always has.
We can also go deeper and take other perspectives – symbolic, economic. We can start to ask what it means that we’re in a place where the expectation is that we will buy something, not be given something. What does it mean that we consider coffee grounds to be trash? How does that affect our interpretation of them being in a trash can that is not a trash can?
We can follow this path to answer the question of why this isn’t working. Better yet, we can design a better way – a way that it CAN work, within our current cultural understanding of the world. We start with the simple insight that a display with the goal of re-using and giving away coffee grounds shouldn’t look like what we define as a trash can.
Ultimately, this is what consumer ethnographers do. People often ask me why theory matters, how what I do is different from what anyone could do. My answer is always that anyone CAN do this – if they are trained to see the world through a sociological lens. This is the theory part. This is ethnomethodology in action, my way of understanding how people make sense of their world. You might see it through a different lens, a different theoretical perspective. If you’ve developed your sociological imagination, learned to shift your gaze to see the world from different perspectives, and practiced applying that insight to business problems, you can figure out why things don’t work and how to make them better. (And hey, Starbucks? There’s a freebie. For the good of all humankind.)
Anyone can design a better Coffee Ground Giver Awayer Thing through a sociological approach. It just takes a body of knowledge to draw on, an open mind, and some practice. Now can someone come up with a good name for it? 😉