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Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2019

Page updated 25 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

CASE STUDY Fast Food Restaurants (Whyte, 1949)

We undertook a 14-month study of restaurants. We aimed to find out what sort of structure a restaurant is and what human problems are found in it. Both symbolic interactionism and structural functionalism are used to provide a broad theoretical framework for the analysis.

A restaurant is a combination production and service unit and the three-way link between producers (cooks, etc.), service staff (waitresses, etc.) and customers lead to complex human problems of interaction and of co-ordinating action. These problems get more difficult as the restaurant gets bigger. In a large restaurant there tend to be four groups: the customers, the table servers (waitresses and waiters), the pantry workers (who co-ordinate the cooking and the serving by taking customers' orders from waitresses, passing them on to the cooks, and handing the cooked meals to the waitresses to serve), and the cooks or chefs. In addition, there are various levels of supervisor to make sure the whole operation works smoothly, to the satisfaction of the customer.

The unique issue for the restaurant is that of linking the line of authority with relations that arise along the flow of work that is initiated by the customer when an order for a meal is placed. The formal structure of the work-place does not determine the pattern of human relations in an organisation but it does provide certain limits that shape that pattern. That is, to analyse the human problems it is necessary to outline its structure in terms of length of hierarchy, divisions into departments and flow of work.

The whole system of interactions that characterise the flow of work (customer–waitress, waitress–pantry worker; pantry worker–cook, etc.) constitute relationships that are all interdependent parts of a social system. Thus the emotional tension experienced by waitresses is readily transmitted, link by link, all the way to the kitchen. In order to deal effectively with the interdependent parts it is necessary to discover the pattern of relations existing at a given time and to observe changes within that pattern over time. This is done by watching how changes in one part work through and effect changes in other parts of the system.

Quantitative analysis can be used; for example, who originates action for whom and how often? In a large and busy restaurant a waitress may take orders from fifty to one hundred customers a day (and perhaps several times for each meal) in addition to the orders (much less frequent) she receives from her supervisor. When we add to this the problem of adjusting to service pantry workers, bartenders and perhaps checkers, we can readily see the possibilities of emotional tension—and, in our study, we did see a number of girls break down and cry under the strain.

The observation suggested to us that emotional tension could be related directly to this quantitative measure and it was noted that waitresses who did not get stressed were ones who initiated actions, getting customers, pantry staff, other waitresses and supervisors to fit into their work patterns rather than the other way round. But a quantitative analysis is not sufficient in itself. However, we cannot be content simply with quantitative descriptions of interaction. We need to know why A responds to B but not C. We observe that individuals respond to certain symbols in interaction. Status and sex are symbols that affect interaction. The approach can be illustrated by analysing the hypothesis that relations among individuals along the flow of work run more smoothly when those of higher status (usually men) are in a position to originate activities for those of lower status (usually women) in the organisation and, conversely, that frictions will be observed more often when lower-status individuals seek to originate for those of higher status.

However, this is only part of a potential explanatory theory and by no means a complete explanation of the friction observed.

In our society most men grow up to be comfortable in a relationship in which they originate for women and to be uneasy, if not more disturbed, when the originations go in the opposite direction. It is therefore a matter of some consequence how the sexes are distributed along the flow of work. In restaurant A, waitresses gave their orders orally to pantry girls. In restaurant B, waitresses wrote out slips which they placed on spindles on top of a warming compartment which separated them from the countermen. While we observed frictions arising between waitresses and pantry girls, such a relationship can at least be maintained with relative stability. On the other hand, it is difficult to prevent blowups between countermen and waitresses when the girls call their orders in.

The system in restaurant B seemed to work well because it cut down direct interaction between countermen and waitresses. One experienced counterman told us that the barrier was the reason why he liked his current job better than any previous one. He described earlier experiences in other restaurants where there had been no such barrier and let us know that 'to be left out in the open where all the girls could call their orders was an ordeal to which no man should be subjected. In such places', he said, 'there was constant wrangling'.

Most restaurants consciously or unconsciously interpose certain barriers to cut down waitress origination of action for countermen. There are a variety of ways of meeting the problem but they all seem to involve this principle of social insulation. Where there is no physical barrier, there can be trouble unless the men who are on the receiving end of the orders work out their own system of getting out from under.

Overall, analysing the symbolic element should always be seen in terms of the effect of symbols upon interaction. Symbols are incentives or inhibitors to interaction with specific people in certain social situations. Thus, to put it in practical terms, the manager of an organisation will find it useful to know both the pattern of interaction which will bring about harmonious relations and also how to use symbols to achieve that pattern.

Adapted from Whyte (1949). William Foote Whyte, Margaret Chandler, Edith Lentz and John Schaefer studied twelve restaurants in and around Chicago in the late 1940s.


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