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Qualitative Research: Case Study 01

Location: Café, The Mall, Shimla

Social Group: Cafe employees

Project Information


Course Faculty

Dr. Anand Sukumaran, Dr. Jignesh Khakhar

Ethnography is the study of people in naturally occurring settings or “fields” by methods of data collection which capture their social meanings and ordinary activities, involving the researcher participating directly in the setting, if not also the activities, in order to collect data in a systematic manner but without meaning being imposed on them externally

– John D. Brewer

Ethnography can help investigate very complicated or critical design challenges. Ethnographic research is a qualitative method where researchers observe and/or interact with a study’s participants in their real-life environment. Within the field of usability, user-centered design and service design, ethnography is used to support a designer’s deeper understanding of the design problem – including the relevant domain, audience(s), processes, goals and context(s) of use.​​​​​​​

A branch of anthropology that involves trying to understand how people live their lives. The goal is to see people’s behavior on their terms, not ours. It enlightens us about the context in which customers would use a new product and the meaning that product might hold in their lives.

Research Question
What sounds are significant to the social group? 

What are the insights with respect to the significant sounds? What "meanings" does the social group hold with respect to the significant sounds? What is the life world of the group in terms of meaning and significance?

Researcher's Autobiography

Researcher's frame was established through open coding of the autobiographical data. Synthesis of the researcher’s frame based on the emergent categories from the autobiographical data. An outline of the possible implications of the researcher’s frame with respect to her engagement on the field.

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Research Plan

A research plan was devised for engagement on the field.

Social Group

The Social group consists of four male members.


Note - Names changed to protect the privacy of individuals.


Sanjay is 33 years old and belongs to Chhapra, a city of the Saran district in Bihar. His nickname is Babu bhai because he has been dressing up formally ever since he joined the Café. He does not dress up casually even in the summers. He is 5’10’’, fair and unmarried. He has been working at the Café since 2012.He makes beverages and manages the Billing counter. In the absence of the Manager, he manages all the inventory and billing. 

Sanjay has always been fond of mountains. When he was young, he met with two accidents successively. He went to Gyan Vihar institute in Japipur to study Hotel Management however didn’t like it there and left it after 6 months. After that his friends came to Shimla to get admission at the Heritage Institute of Hotel and Tourism. He decide to come along for a vacation. However, while roaming on the Mall Road he came across the Café. He liked Shimla a lot and decided to stay and work here. He has an inquisitive personality with keen observation skills who also likes to network. He is friends with many local and regular customers. He is outspoken but not much with regular customers.

Since, there is very less scope of business back home, he intends to sit for Govt. Bank exams and get into a government job just like how most of his friends and other people do in Bihar. 


Bhanu is 32 years old. He is fair, 5’8” tall and belongs to Kumarsain, a small town in Shimla district. He is going to get married in 2021 and is going to have an arrange-love marriage. He has three elder sisters and they all are married with children. He wanted to get into either police or army. He attempted several times however, was not able to clear. 

He did not want to get into the hotel line. He is not happy with his salary, as it has not increased much in the last 7 years. Even the Manager’s salary is not that much. He is a Chef at the Café. He is mainly responsible for making pizzas, breads and beverages. He wants to get into a Government job because of the security, timings and work-life balance. He has applied for a peon job and is waiting for the result. He is quite reserved and talks very less. He smokes and drinks. He takes smoke breaks with other staff members occasionally. He has a reserved personality and spends a lot of time watching videos on the phone.


Ramesh works as a Chef at the Café. He manages all the main dishes at the Café. He is 5’4’’ and fair. He is married and has a daughter, Manisha who goes to playschool. He belongs to a village, which is 10km ahead of Nerwa in Chopal district of Himachal pradesh. He has been working at the café since, 2012. 
He was always fond of cooking and has been cooking since Childhood. He had in interest in Mechanics and applied to a Polytechnic college. However, his family members suggested him to pursue cooking as a profession. He was unable to take a decision then and went ahead with his family’s wishes. He studied Hotel Management at Heritage Institute of Hotel and Tourism, Kufri, Shimla. However, left the course midway. He intends to complete his HM degree later. He had cooking experience in Indian, Chinese and South Indian cuisines. He worked as a Chef in Sirdi for 2 years and then in Manali for 1.5 years. It was during his vacation back home to Shimla, when he came across the Café. He thought it looked different and decided to stay back in Shimla with his family. Since, he left the hotel line he cannot go back. He wishes to go back to his village and manage the orchards. For the time being as long as he is here in Shimla, he will continue to work at the Café. 


Jagdeep is the youngest among them all. He is 5’2’’ with a tan brown skin and red cheeks. He works as a server and runner at the Café. He is simultaneously learning how to prepare dishes. He used to work at the Café earlier but left the job after more than a year of working. He joined another Café situated on the Mall Road. He worked there for less than a year and then went back home to help with the apple season. He helped harvest apple season for his family and other fellow village members. After coming back, he joined back the Café again. He had just been working there for 4 days before I came. 

He is very talkative and rambles all-day long. He chews tobacco to sustain his stamina and smokes. He has his matriculation exams next year in March. He failed five times in fifth class. He intends to finish his studies until class twelve. He will think about further studies. As of now, he wants to learn as much as possible about cooking and service. He intends to become a Chef and learn Indian cuisine. 

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Data Analysis

Data collected from the field –

Participant observations, field notes, Short interviews and long interviews. 

Detailed observations were made of the shared patterns of daily life and other phenomena of interest. Open Coding was used to analyse the collected data. Categories were developed through open coding supported with evidence from the transcripts. Each category was described, and its interconnections with the other categories were also identified.

Coding Categories








Ghar / Humare

yahaan / Gaon





Syaapa / Pareshaan

Significant Categories







Background sounds -

Muffled sound,


Customers talking,

giggling and laughing

Music Playing


Spoon use

Glasses Clinking


Footsteps approaching and leaving



Closing, opening and sliding

Coins clinking

Moving items

Babies crying

Cooking sounds -


Stir& scrape,

Utensils crinkle,


Sputtering, Steamy water,

Washing utensils

Sharpening knife,


water running,


Plastic / shrink wrap

Machine sounds -

Coffee shot emptying,


Grounding /Grounded


Whirring / Engine running


Card machine swiping,


Mixer, blender running,


Mouse clicking

Significant Sounds

Footsteps approaching and leaving

Interconnection between Categories

The most prominent theme and metaphor that best describes the social group is Jagah banana i.e making space and place. The word literally means making space and figuratively making place.

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What “meanings” does the social group hold with respect to the research question?
What is the life world of the group in terms of meaning and significance? What are the insights with respect to the research question? 

The most prominent theme and metaphor that best describes the social group is Jagah banana i.e making space and place. The word literally means making space and figuratively making place. The most significant sound that best describes their life world is the sound of the footsteps (approaching and leaving). The Café is a place where people come to eat and spend time together. One can hear footsteps approaching and leaving throughout the day. People come and go and one keeps a lookout for when a customer is coming and leaving, a routine activity, related to the theme of the social group. Footsteps leaving means vacant space and footsteps approaching means checking availability for the space.


The Café is small and cramped even though its spread across two floors and a terrace. The plan is rectangular with a narrow area and the kitchen is even smaller. Not more than two people can stand and work together simultaneously in the kitchen. Since, the orders keep coming in; they cannot leave items on the table top for long. They are constantly making space, clearing items and keeping items back from where they have picked it up to clear their workspace. Ramesh, Sanjay and Bhanu have been working there from the beginning. They have become comfortable and have managed to find place for themselves here at the Café. In their respective individual lives, they want to do better and progress further.


Ramesh wanted to get into mechanical however; he was not able to make a decision and ended up pursuing cooking. He wanted to work at a place, which was closer to his house and ended up working at the Café. He is one of the oldest workers and has managed to find place as a Chef, here at the Café. Since, he quit his job he can no longer go back to Hotel line and will continue to work here as long as possible and then head back home i.e. his gaon (his place) to manage orchards. Bhanu has been working here along with others for almost seven years however; he is not satisfied with the income he is earning. Although, he has found comfort here, he has been applying for other jobs. He had applied for police and army but did not clear. He wishes to secure a government job of a peon so that he can live a comfortable life with a set time schedule and no extra hours. 


Sanjay is also one of the oldest workers. He is from Bihar and came across the Café while on a holiday. He was looking for a place to work at and recuperate from his injuries. He has managed to find a place for himself, here at the Café. He takes care of his health and goes to gym regularly. He came with the aim to recuperate and have better health, which he has achieve now. Although, he is not from Himachal, he has managed to stay here for long along with others. The fact that he is more educated, well read and spoken compared to the rest has played out well for him. He is well aware of it and uses it well. He has made acquaintance with many customers and stays up to date with everyone’s life. He was not able to do well in his exams back in Bihar and gave exams again under a second name. In order to achieve more in life and secure a government job such as in Banking he has been living two lives. One, under the name of Sanjay and the second under the name of Aditya. He has adjusted and found comfort in living two lives. He has managed to find place for himself by living under two names. He will complete his studies and head back home to prepare for competitive exams and find a better place for himself (Jagah banana).


Jagdeep aspires to be a Chef and find a better place suited for himself. He intends to learn as much possible and then move on. He is new in comparison to the rest and has managed to find a place for himself as a shape-shifter. His main role is that of a runner and service. He learns very quickly and seem to have adapted well to the working atmosphere. He constantly keeps shifting between the roles of helping, running serving, cleaning, clearing and cooking.They talk and complain about not having enough space to work freely. It has been difficult for new people to come and stay here long because they are unable to adjust to the cramped up workspace and the fact that they cannot work freely. The main roles of Chef and billing are not available. The only roles left are that of service, running and cleaning. The only way for someone to stay there for long is by being content with the available roles. Scope for further improvement in terms of position and money is low. All the members are aware and working there until time and circumstances permit. Due to long working hours, they do not find enough time and are unable to spend time to pursue other avenues where they can work at. At the same time, they have found comfort in the current place (jagah) they have.


Jagah banana also means maintaining one’s place/image in their life world. They keep a check on their colleagues’ fathers’ condition (Sunny’s father). They adjust their schedule and manage work along with their duties as friend and colleagues. They are constantly pacing in between various chores, both personal and professional. Their work area was limited and there was constant movement due to the influx of orders. As I spent more time with them, I figured the only way for me to get closer to them and become one of them would be to take a role similar to that of Jagdeep’s. I was able to make a place for myself by not having any specific place but constantly adjusting to whatever role or place was available.


Based on the analysis of the data we can conclude that 'Jagah banana' is the main theme around which their work and life revolves. The sound of the footsteps constantly cue them to make place for whatever the next chore is going to be and act accordingly and even change the role if required.

A tangible representation of my “understanding” of the social group.

Jagah banana

The artefact is a rectangular wooden tray with wooden block pieces. It represents the metaphor ‘Jagah banana’ and the sound of the social group.

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Keeping in mind the wooden interiors, shelves, tables, chairs and the wooden steps of the café, material wood is used to make the artefact. The teak wood used is same as that of the interiors of the cafe. Since, they belong to the hills and have orchards, wood is also associated with memories of their home.


The wooden tray consists of small units of wooden blocks of varying size and shapes. The outer body i.e. the tray is rectangular and narrow. It represents the café itself and the wooden blocks within represent the members of my social group. The enclosed space within the rectangular tray is not completely covered and space is intentionally left. The empty space represents the little space they have in the café to move about. In order to move around, they constantly make space for each other. They are able to move only when there is enough to move. The phrase 'Jagah nahi hai' is often heard during conversations.

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The café is a busy place where a lot of interaction takes place all day long. The idea was to create an artefact, one could interact and play with. Initially, one would try to move and fit in the blocks. However, upon interacting one comes to realise the limited space, and all wooden blocks have to adjust accordingly. It is similar to how all the members adjust time to time and make space for each other to get work done. 

The shapes are intentionally different representing members of the group. The size is relative to the amount of time they have spent in the café and the degree of adjustments the members can make relatively to each other.

​​​​​​​Even though there is space for more members, they do not have enough space to work. The social group has adjusted and become comfortable with their respective roles in the cafe. Upon interacting with the blocks, the blocks make wooden sound which is subdued similar to the bass like sounds of the footsteps that one can hear all day long in the café. All the interactions that take place in the café are results of all the people who walk in and out of the café. 

The artefact made is to support this ethnographic report and the interactive nature of it, is to help the reader understand and experience, what the lifeworld of the social group feels like.