links for feb 2009

9 replies on “links for feb 2009”

A good collection this month. I enjoyed your interview on the BBC and the Sir Humphrey clip was good for Maddy who is in a nursing research methods class right now.

Ha ha! “Depressingly reductive”! Tom, I love it! I want to start a blog of my own now at

There’s something wrong with the HTML of your Youtube link.

As for the coffee, frankly, the conversation between the journalist, the other guy and you baffles me. You did indeed say something depressingly reductive, but also, I think, wrong. If I look at myself (my most available guinea-pig) I would rather forego coffee entirely rather than drink bad coffee – and that includes all instant and most filter coffee. I’ve done it on occasion, so this is no idle talk. As for a favourite mug, the idea is quite novel to me. Now of couse you might say I am not a coffee addict, but I do drink a cup of coffee every morning and sometimes another one after lunch, so in terms of quantities ingested, I should qualify. Don’t you think there might be something cultural going on here, like an illustration of a very Anglo relationship with food – or at least a very Anglo expression of that relationship, since I doubt you’d be able to swith that easily to instant coffee ?


I am sure you are right about your own tastes, and you may be right about the cultural influence (I don’t think I know enough about continental attitudes to food to make any sensible inferences). Undoutbly there are cultural influences at work here. If I am a reductionist, I don’t want to be the kind that doesn’t believe in the profound and ubiquitious influence of culture…

However, speaking as a psychologist, I think my explaination is still good. My ‘theory’ doesn’t explain all coffee related behaviour, maybe not yours, maybe not the difference between English and Belgian attitudes to coffee, but it does capture, crudely, some essence of people’s behaviour, namely ritualisation. People have solid preferences for the delivery of caffeinated drinks in a way that they don’t for, say, orange juice (which may taste just as nice). There may be individual exceptions to my general description, but my job here as a psychologist is to capture a general truth rather than define a rule that will hold across all individual circumstances. (Note, btw, that this is contray to the popular view of psychology – which is that we try and understand individual variation.)


What is a ritual ? Is it a ritual to open the door to your car, step in, put the key in the ignition, turn it, do some fancy foot-and handwork and drive off to the same place 5 days per week ? Why should it be less or more a ritual than the act of filling the boiler of the moka pot with water, taking the coffee out of the fridge, spoon some of it in the filter, put the filter on the boiler, screw the upper part on the boiler, putting it on the stove, lighting the stove, take it off the stove when the coffee is in the upper part, pour it into a mug, add some milk and drink it ?

Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t a ritual have to have cultural significance? Maybe if you think your route to work involves the least sitting in traffic, then you will stick by it, however much evidence of faster routes is provided. This kind of ritual could be reinforced by getting to boast to your colleagues about missing traffic that they had to sit in, or the reward of being on time for a meeting when others are late – “I’ve got my special route – it’s never failed me yet!”.

Your description of coffee making, Hubert, while reductive, does not acknowledge the possible variation onto which culture may hook. I prefer not to measure the beans before I grind them. I just pour them in the grinder. And however irrationally, I believe that when Maddy measures out the same amount with a tablespoon, she is shortchanging me, and that the coffee she makes is not as strong as I like it.
But I can’t have a favourite mug, because all of our mugs are identical, as far as I can tell, so there is nothing for me to hook my prejudices on.

Right, it can’t be just any repetition of a set of actions, but one that has a cultural significance, otherwise the concept becomes so broad that it barely has any meaning at all. I am not sure the preparation of one’s daily coffee-fix qualifies. Another question, which I think a blog called “idiolect” is a good place to ask, can a ritual be recognizable as such by one person only ?

As for coffee, most of the stuff I read here makes me think about the old joke on English food and table-manners…


You’re quite right that a ritual proper will have cultural significance, and be socially shared. However I think there is still a sense in which individual’s private behaviours can be more or less ritualistic. Something about the fixity of sequence, emotional importance attached to timing, carrying out the behaviours correctly etc etc

This is what I think makes some people’s coffee making behaviour “a ritual”

What is the joke about English food and table-manners?

The joke is that the English have no food, they have table-manners. Obviously this is not true in post-Thatcher Britain. 😉

If a ritual is a set of actions that has cultural significance and is socially shared, I think we should agree that one’s little idiosyncrasies whilst making and drinking do not qualify, or do they ?

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