Date of Award

December 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science



First Advisor

Tracey Heatherington

Committee Members

Erica Bornstein, William Warner Wood


Distinction, Materiality, Milwaukee, Neoliberalism, Qualification, Specialty Coffee


I put qualification at the center of this research, because the intensive emphasis on coffee quality in the Third Wave Coffee Movement is the first thing that drew me to this research. When I talked with people in the specialty coffee industry in Milwaukee, they did not always admit they are part of the movement but they did highlight coffee quality as the core value of the specialty coffee market.

The concept of qualification comes from Michael Callon and his colleagues’ (2002) theoretical framework “the economy of qualities.” It refers to an economy in which tradable goods in the market are defined by the characteristics attributed to them in successive qualifications and re-qualifications, enacted by producers, marketers, and consumers. This framework helped me to locate my research and initially directed me where to look and to make sense of what I have seen and heard. I asked, What are they actually doing when they provide coffee factory tours, mark coffee flavors, perform a pour over, and meet with producers? Under the framework of “the economy of qualities”, the question became what marketers are doing to all the other relationships they are embedded in through qualifying coffee.

Nevertheless, this framework has a major problem. It draws an ahistorical picture of commodification. “The economy of qualities” does not deal with politics, at lease at its macro level. It presents a synchronous picture in which different groups of people and their agencies all enact through and are connected by a certain commodity, so that the historical relationships, especially inequality, among producers, consumers, and marketers are neutralized and ignored. What the framework does is to capture the moment when commodity connects to different groups of people and pay attention to the dynamics or negotiations on the basis of this network. However, the framework does not talk about what happened before the network of multiple qualifications came into being, for example the history of colonization, and the collapses of international regulations in the global market. Meanwhile, the framework does not concern the social or political consequences of such qualifications, so that it ignores the invisible and the silent ones that are left out in this network of qualification. For example, how to make sense of marketers’ practice of qualification as the signs of gentrification in the urban space? How to think of consumption and marketing patterns as consequential sites of class reproduction beyond the (re)qualifications of the commodity?

I organized this thesis under the framework of “the economy of qualities,” but at the same time reached to theories and ethnographies that consider how social discourses and practices are inexorably linked to hegemonic social relations. These theories and ethnographies enable me to look at the spatiality of the specialty coffee shops in the context of gentrification and analyze the effectiveness of tastes as a resource for social stratification.

Coming back to my title, “good” in the qualification of good coffee can be interpreted from different perspectives. Good could be ethical, doing good or evil, being right or wrong. Good could be a standard, which sets apart those products that failed to meet the standard as not good enough. Good could also be personal. People think the coffee is good because they like it. Intentionally or unintentionally choosing one perspective over the other to define “good” is embedded in a specific socio-economic context and has its consequences. This ethnography is the case study of how the specialty coffee is (re)qualified by the marketers and why it is important to document and analyze it.