January 24, 2000
Volume 52, No. 18
Class shows coffee, chocolate are not just beans
Freshmen who signed up for Peggy Barlett's "Coffee and Chocolate: Anthro-pological Perspectives" course last fall might have expected a semester-long tasting spree.
"This could not be further from the truth, though we did have a taste of the different kinds of chocolate and coffee products we were learning about," remembered Hilla Peled. "I had no idea that this course would be so writing intensive."
Barlett's rationale for the course? "I had decided to do a freshman seminar and was trying to figure out which topic to pick when I heard that the teenage son of my colleague wanted to major in 'chocolate,'" said the anthropology professor. "Suddenly I thought I could do my seminar on coffee and chocolate. I could bring in my experience in Latin America, while exploring a number of new dimensions in global commodities."
Barlett has long been interested in agriculture. More than 20 years ago she began her research in agricultural development in Costa Rica, where coffee and chocolate are important products. Both are significant commodities in world trade, and both affect the lives of growers and the histories of countries like Guatemala, Kenya, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ivory Coast and Ghana. And since the topic is not one of her special areas, another advantage of teaching the course was the opportunity for her to learn a lot.
"One of my goals," Barlett said, "was to expand the imagination about what there is to know in the world and to generate intellectual excitement about delving deeply into a topic. I am so pleased at how that turned out."
The 13 freshman participants in the course discovered the effects of caffeine on the body and the elaborate processes of growing coffee beans or cacao beans and making them into the commercial products. Students found themselves unexpectedly learning a lot about the history and economics of production, as well as connections between coffee and international politics.
For instance, explained Barlett, Guatemala has endured a series of dictatorships and Costa Rica touts a relatively robust democracy because of the coffee trade. One student's final paper compared the political effects of coffee on Kenya, Brazil and Costa Rica.
Peled's research was more anthropological--she described the significance of coffee in the lives of Bedouins. "I had some previous knowledge of the fact that the coffee-making ritual was symbolic and important, so I investigated further," Peled said. "I learned about the significance of coffee in many aspects of their daily lives: gender roles, separation of living spaces, creating art and music, hospitality, superstition, and other issues."
The unexpectedly complex course included a trip to the Atlanta Botanical Garden and a visit from Chef Alon of Alon's Bakery, who spoke to the class about how he uses chocolate in baking. In another esoteric moment, students listened to an obscure musical composition by Bach, "The Coffee Cantata." They watched "Black Harvest," an anthropological film about New Guinea tribes that have begun to produce coffee commercially, and were able to observe some of the complex problems faced by tribal groups--a crash in prices, labor issues, failed cooperation between leaders and tribal warfare.
The students honed their library research skills through sessions in the Woodruff Library with liaison Greta Boers, and they also learned qualitative field research methods, spending hours in coffee houses observing the habits of consumers.
The main focus of their research was to evaluate Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's assertion that the coffeehouse today is a "third place"--not work, not home, but a separate setting for socializing and community. "I wanted to train students both in observations of culture and interviewing," Barlett said. "We read Schultz's book about Starbucks, then observed different types of behavior in a number of different coffeehouses. We did three rounds of observations, developing and refining our hypotheses and research methods."
Katrina Connolly reported her findings: "The comfort of a third place does not depend on the amount of money put into it [or] enthusiastic intentions of the CEO of the coffeehouse chain; the atmosphere is created by the customers."