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[The Café Phenomenon] Reading Cafés from a Sociologist’s Perspective

written by
Jun Sang-in
edited by
Bang Yukyung

SPACE May 2023 (No. 666) 


Coffees, Cafés

Selling and buying coffee is one of the social practices that originated in the Occident. Coffee, which was originally from Africa, took on an important position in Islamic culture and in the Middle East. The background to this was strict prohibition ethics. Coffee was first introduced in Europe around the seventeenth-century. Before that, alcohol was almost considered as one of your weekly groceries, as opposed to an item of personal preference. It is no exaggeration to say that Europe in the Middle Ages was an intoxicated continent. However, coffee’s ability to ‘refresh one’s mind’ was rediscovered during the Reformation, accompanied by the prohibition movement removing alcohol from regular consumption. After that, coffee was part of a new modern cultural and civic order based on individualism, rationalism, and Enlightenment thinking. It’s hard to imagine modern society and modern history without coffee. 

Above all, coffee containing caffeine has not only helped boost the mental labour of the bourgeois class or, more contemporarily, office workers, under capitalism, but also significantly contributed to reinforcing the discipline of workers. Coffee was a kind of social ‘drug’ in the early years of capitalism. Even today, our belief in the vitalising effect of a morning coffee, whether consciously or unconsciously, is due to this historically rooted memory.

Europeans first encountered coffee as a ‘public’ drink, as something to consume outside the home rather than inside. 

The café was the space that sold coffee. It was natural to drink coffee on the street or in the neighbourhood. Cafés first appeared in Oxford, a university city in England, in 1650, and they spread rapidly throughout Europe after the late seventeenth-century. As cities grew and expanded, cafés became a kind of haven and playground where anyone could enter without prejudice concerning social status, class, religion, or other identifying factors. Cafés gradually developed as a cradle for modern philosophy and modern science, as well as a stage for industrial revolution and democracy. People referred to cafés in London to as ‘penny universities’, since it costed only 1 – 2 pennies for a cup of coffee and you could learn about meaning in the world. Cafés became sites of instigation for the industrial revolution as scientists, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, financiers, and others exchanged information and knowledge there. In today’s terms, cafés were essentially start-up spaces or venture incubators!

Cafés were filled with newspapers, magazines, and literary publications, and people enjoyed conversations and debates in such intellectually engaged atmospheres. Cafés have become the banquet hall of conversation, mediated by coffee. The real protagonist of cafés was not coffee but ‘words’. Cafés were the preferred places for enlightenment intellectuals. In fact, the French Revolution of 1789 began in a café, and the people’s court right after the revolution was often held in café courtyards. Cafés performed the role of public forums. The German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas noted that the freedom of press, publishing, assembly, and association all began in cafés, and he also traced the origins of parliament and political parties to cafés.

The Third Place

Coffee has held its own social value and meaning for a long time, rather than simply being a matter of personal preference or taste. In the late 1980s, a more definitive opportunity arose in the United States for the industry to recognise its financial potential and for academia to acknowledge the social value and purpose of European cafés. The founder of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, defined coffee as not just a drink, but a medium that would connect people and creating new bonds. He then declared that cafés were not a profit-oriented distribution site, but part of public culture. He contended that Starbucks was the ‘third place’ that American society was lacking.

The third place was a notion created by an American sociologist Ray Oldenburg. If the first place is home, then the second place is one’s workplace or school, and the third place is an ‘informal public gathering space’ or ‘a place where unrelated people can relate to each other […] a home away from home’. This third place did not exist in the United States from the beginning. However, Oldenburg’s diagnosis is that any inkling of it rapidly disappeared with suburbanisation and the spread of automobiles in the late twentieth-century. The third place is a commercial facility that seeks profit, and it also executes a public function desired by wider society. In the past, pavilions, marketplaces, wells, and plazas which are the cultural heritages of the Occident, are not classified as a third place because they not only do not presuppose the separation of employment from home, but also were not originally used as commercial facilities. There are various types of third place, including cafés, teahouses, bookstores, salons, local bars, and stores. Nevertheless, the most compelling third place is the café. 

According to Oldenburg, the third place is a ‘social mixer’, neutral ground, sorting area, and a staging area. It is a loose ‘membership community’ where a relaxed atmosphere is created by ‘public characters’. It is not only a place where anyone can feel free to enter and participate, but also a space in which its own rules are implicitly operated. There is no fancy furniture or luxurious interiors that overwhelm the relationship between people and the atmosphere. Café, that represents the third place is a qualified space to generate conversations. Above all, café is a ‘watering hole’, and the act of drinking together relaxes the tension between people, and releases boundaries between people. However, coffee is different to alcohol when it comes to efficacy. Coffee can induce intellectual stimulation but does not completely impair rational judgement.


Café Fever

Today, cafés are sweeping Korean society. Korea’s love for coffee is among the highest in the world, and Korea’s preferred beverage is definitely coffee. Besides, at some point, Koreans are enjoying coffee in cafés, not at home. Of course, there was dabang, but this was the exclusive property of the elite class. Coffee captivated the public’s imagination as an ‘instant’ form of gratification, and it was common for families to drink it at home. After Starbucks arrived in Korea, coffee suddenly became a beverage to be drunk outside, and this is the result of the current surge in coffee shops. Statistics related to coffee consumption in Korea and the increase in cafés in Korean society change day by day, making it difficult to follow the exact figures one by one.

Some people criticise the rate of the increase of cafés and the café phenomenon, suggestive of developing Korean trend for overspending and pleasure, that ignores the true role of the café as the ‘third place’. Certainly, there are aspects of consumer and commercial culture to Korea’s café culture. From the point of view of the formation of an educated class through dialogue and discussion, the vitalization of public opinion, and the accumulation of cultural and social capital, Korean cafés are clearly different from their origins in Europe or the United States. However, there appears be no answer or principled stance behind the social usage of cafés. In other words, it is not necessary for Korean cafés to be tailored towards the traditional or standard type of cafés seen in the West. We must develop our own reasons for the popularity of the café in Korean society, and that’s all we need to make good use of cafés.

Korean cafés are transforming and evolving in their own way, to cope with wider ranging societal issues such as the surge in single-person households, the dissolution of the traditional nuclear family, an aging population, widespread unemployment, and chronic housing insecurity. It should be noted that the Korean society today has created today’s Korean cafés. As a result, cafés in today’s Korean society have the characteristics of being multipurpose and multifunctional convergence hubs. They are not just places where one meets someone, drinks coffee and has a chat. They also play the role of a more public facing space, such as an oasis for living and a guesthouse in the city. Cafés reveal their reasons for existence in that they allow a specific space to be privatised for a certain period of time within a payable range. Regardless of generation, gender identity, social class, occupation, and other factors, by consuming café culture as needed, people operate the city and make the world go round. The ‘round table’ format that is becoming popular in Korean cafés represents the spirit of the times of ‘together but separately’.

To cagong-jok (study tribe in a café), the café is a space to read or study. Coffice-jok (work tribe in a café), refers to intellectual workers using cafés as workspaces. There are many cafés that have separate conference rooms, and it is common to see cafés being used as exhibition halls or performance halls. There are many people who enjoy music or movies in cafés with their earphones on, but some cafés even commercialise silence by banning cameras or laptops. Visiting famous cafés as if on a pilgrimage to sacred places and posting them on Instagram is be a new type of café tourism in the digital era. Enabling homeless people to use cafés or opening them as shelters during midsummer proves that cafés can also become sites of public good and social welfare. Little by little, cafés are developing to occupy a core position in Korean urban infrastructure beyond the third place. ​​



You can see more information on the SPACE No. 666 (May 2023).​ 

Jun Sang-in
Jun Sang-in graduated from the Department of Political Science & International Studies, Yonsei University and received a master’s degree and doctorate in Sociology from Brown University in the United States. He has served as a visiting professor at Washington State University and Hitotsubashi University in Japan, as well as a professor at Hallym University and the president of The Korean Society of Future Studies. His major publications include Korea Addicts to Apartment, Spatial Sociology of Rooftop, Sociology of Convenience Store, Space and Society: House, Community and the Road, Park Chung-hee as a Space Designer, From Hungry Society to Angry Society, and The Sociology of Urban Planning. He also translated James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed into Korean. He is currently a professor emeritus at the Seoul National University Graduate School of Environmental Studies.