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© 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 Dixie's Place (Marshall, 1986)

I undertook participant observation research into the labour process in a large licensed restaurant, Dixie's Place, in Central Scotland. The observation took nine months spread over a period of two years during the late 1970s. The thirty or so employees of the small business were found to work hard, under difficult circumstances and for relatively low wages. Yet they displayed high job satisfaction. Although the consequences of the processes connecting their own and their employer's class situations were transparent, and the processes themselves commonsensically understood, there was little or no employee dissatisfaction.

Most sociological studies of restaurants or bars tend to focus on patrons and are little more than a redescription of the minutiae of casual social encounters (Hayner, 1936; Roebuck and Spray, 1967; Byrne, 1978) or functionalist classification of establishments (Gottlieb, 1957; Maclomson, 1973) or a mixture of the two (Cavan, 1966; Jackson, 1972; LeMasters, 1975). Analysis of restaurants in terms of a work-place culture embracing both customer and staff is dominated by Whyte (1946, 1948, 1949). Although useful in imaginatively addressing the problems of fraught interaction when low-status staff put demands on high-status staff, the main weakness of Whyte's approach is the failure to address systematically the relationship between worker and customer.

Dixie's Place was a very profitable establishment, the more so for the owner because of the various fiddles he indulged in. The staff knew about them, were encouraged to collude in such activities and were rewarded for their collusion. The only people from whom the informal economy of the restaurant was hidden were the various tax officials who checked the books and accounts. Dixie had an extravagant life-style that was very apparent to his employees.

The employees were expected to be flexible and to help with other work as required. Full-time staff were paid for an official working week of forty-two hours but we never worked less than fifty-five and often much more, with no additional overtime payment. Not one of the forty or so weeks of my own employment came even close to the official forty-two hours. Dixie knew I was a sociologist (as did his staff) but it was simply his manner to use me as he used the others. The staff were paid low wages, about half the national average, and were expected to work very hard indeed. Yet despite this, and the occasional abuse from an unpredictable employer, there was remarkably little discontent amongst the employees. Although there was alternative employment available at better money hardly anyone left the restaurant to seek work elsewhere. When questioned, all the staff declared themselves not only to be 'satisfied' with their jobs but actually enjoyed being at Dixie's.

Aye, well, it's a good shop to be in really. You get a rare laugh sometimes.
And Dixie's a great bloke. Disnae hang around, checkin' up on ye a' day, ken whit ah mean?
Your yer ain gaffer, that's what I like about it. Ye can get on wi' whit yer doin at yer ain speed. And there's a' kinds of perks too.

The quiescence among the work-force could partly be explained by their involvement in an informal workplace economy from which employees felt they benefited substantially. This went hand-in-hand with Dixie's paternalism. The symbolic significance of the gifts he offered from time to time and the involvement in the informal economy far outweighed their material value. However, the staff perceived these gifts as significant perks and all mentioned them as part of the attraction of being at Dixie's. Similarly, they all thought the fiddles to be a normal part of the bar business but did not talk of them as compensating low wages.

I became increasingly convinced that neither Dixie's paternalism nor the pilfering were sufficient alone to explain the staff's satisfaction in a blatantly exploitative situation. More subtle, cultural processes were at work. The employees viewed their work within the tavern environment in a way quite differently from outsiders looking in. The everyday language of the staff did not include references to work, instead the employees talked of 'going in to Dixie's' or 'having a dinner-dance tonight'. It was as if, despite their economic dependence on employment at the restaurant, the staff had commonsensically come to think that being at Dixie's was something other than work. Incredulous as it seems it was as if they did not really think they were working for their pay packet.

For many of the women who had had a lifetime of male-dominated society, the job was an extension of the housework tasks they performed at home and they accepted that 'only doing waitressing' was a job for 'pin money'. For these employees the symbolic boundary between work and non-work was thus very weak. Dixie also further undermined this symbolic difference by encouraging all his staff to be convivial with the patrons and to join in their leisure activities when the pressures of work permitted. This collapsing of the boundaries between work and leisure was further enabled by the presence of friends or even workmates among the clientele. On top of this there was no formal clocking on or off procedures and the ritual free drink and subsequent bout of drinking at the end of the evening created another grey area where we were at work but not working. Thus work and play became merged.

In summary, Dixie's Place offers a compelling illustration of capitalist hegemony. Dixie worked his employees hard, transparently extracted a profit from their labours, yet they neither grudged him his riches nor attempted to change their circumstances. Indeed, they identified closely with the capitalist enterprise. The physical proximity of employee and client, thus of work and leisure, leads to a work-place culture with a shared belief that bar work is different from 'real work' undertaken, for example, in a factory. The licensed restaurant employee comes to see the job as neither work nor leisure but as a whole way of life. To analyse it in terms of the extraction of surplus value would be to mystify it to the participants themselves. For them, their own exploitation was only what Dixie deserved and besides they were not doing real work anyway. Thus bourgeois ideology had become proletarian reality!

Adapted from Marshall (1986).


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