Text: Kaisa Järvelä, Picture: freeimages.com

A Hundred Hours in a Corner Table Changed Views on Partying

Sociologist Antti Maunu devoted five years to study young adult partying in the Helsinki area. The data based on his study will later be available in the online Aila Data Service maintained by the FSD, though in Finnish only

Can a researcher find interesting information of the world just by sitting in a corner table of a night club for 100 hours? The dissertation of Antti Maunu demonstrates that researchers can.


Partying is an important social ritual, not meaningless binge drinking, says Antti Maunu.

The findings presented in his dissertation are, however, not based on observation sessions in night clubs only. In addition to the ethnographic data, Antti Maunu interviewed over a hundred 23–25-year-old party-goers living in Helsinki. Furthermore, about 60 persons kept a diary of all their nights out for two months.

Antti Maunu found that partying is an important social ritual and that there is a purpose behind it.

— Partying strengthens the sense of fellowship and solidarity between the members of the group. If we look at the bigger picture, drinking has only a minor role, Maunu tells.

Universally acknowledged truths not acknowledged

Antti Maunu's dissertation is part of a large Nordic research project focusing on pubs, bars and night clubs. The project was led by Jukka Törronen, adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Helsinki and professor of sociology in Stockholm University. Jukka Törrönen participated in the collection of Maunu's interview data.

Antti Maunu had studied alcohol use a lot, and at first aimed to study what kind of a role alcohol or gender played in people's pub or club behaviour. However, he soon turned his focus on partying.

—It is the most visible and expressive form of pub culture, he says.

Maunu started to collect ethnigraphic data from thirteen night clubs in Helsinki. His aim was to study partying removing from his mind all 'universally acknowledged truths' associated with it.

Keeping an open mind allowed him to see that the recognised truth about the role of alcohol in partying was not borne out by reality.

—In Finland we tend to think that our pub culture means binge drinking and individualism. In reality, partying turned out to be mainly a social activity, with alcohol functioning only as a facilitator.

Blending into the background

Antti Maunu admits that he was worried his observation would disturb or anger party-goers. He soon found out that a researcher sitting apart and quietly writing his notes attracted no attention. Blending into the crowd was easy in a night club.

— I was the lonely man in the corner table who stared at girls dancing, he says laughing.

Even though Maunu sometimes felt it was ethically dubious to observe people without them knowing about this, he thinks that knowledge of the research would have affected people's behaviour too much. He decided not to reveal even to staff members what he was doing.

—I queued to the clubs just like everyone else. Some evenings standing in line took two to three hours.

It was not time wasted, however. When standing in line he got the idea of what kind of mechanisms functioned in the transfer from preparing activities to the night club and in queueing.

Over time, Antti Maunu honed the art of blending into the background.

—As the years passed, people started to ask me at what time the club closed or where the toilets were, as if they took me to be a staff member, he reminisces.

Different types of data

Antti Maunu collected data over the years 2003–2007. The collection includes ethnographic material, interviews of over 100 young adults, group interviews, and diary stories relating to more than 300 nights out experiences. Altogether, a massive amount of data.

Maunu did not get stressed about the amount of material. According to his experience, the main features of a phenomenon are easier to detect when there is a lot of data. Different collection methods provide different viewpoints on the same phenomenon.

—Some observations remained constant across different data types while some were contradictory.

For instance, people tended to say in interviews that they are open and like to spend time with all kinds of people. Yet the diaries and field observation revealed that in practice they mostly partied with the same circle of friends.

Maunu ended up giving the smallest value in his analysis to the interviews, particularly because he had observed that what people said and did differed.

The significance of dancing and movement was best detected in field observation.

—Diary writers often used no more than a couple of sentences to describe the dancing part of the evening and concentrated on the group's activities before and after entering the night club.

The interviews, in their part, were good for revealing what kind of image party-goers had of different night clubs and what made them choose one club over the others.

Three main types of party-goers

Antti Maunu detected three types of party-goer categories. The biggest group were those whose partying was laid-back and social interaction with others open. The second group consisted of people for whom partying principally meant strengthening their own social status. Cool party-goers formed the third group and tended to emphasize their individuality.

Common to all groups was the fact that their expectations of an evening out were almost impossibly high.

—They seemed to expect that every single evening out would be fireworks and mind-blowing experiences, Antti Maunu says.

He interprets this to signify how unique a way for escaping everyday life partying is in Finnish society.

—It is one of the few social occasions where strong togetherness can even be aimed at.

Access for other researchers

Antti Maunu wanted to offer his unique data for the use of other researchers but admits to having been hesitant regarding his ethnographic material.

—There is always the risk that somebody will deem my notes to be ridiculous, he says.

Yet he decided to ignore this eventuality and think that researchers must do what they can for open knowledge.

—I feel that my role as a researcher is basically a service function, he muses.

His main wish at present is that somebody would decide to use the data and get interesting information out of them. He tips that the varied and large data collection might contain good material for marketing research or historians.

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