Brian Cowan's The Social Life of Coffee discusses the cultural aspects of rise of the coffeehouse in seventeenth century Britain. Cowan traces the role of the virtuosi--a group of gentlemanly intellectuals interested in the arts and sciences--in the development of coffee culture. Cowan argues that virtuosi curiosity about the exotic ignited consumer interest in coffee and that the "intellectual proclivities and the social codes and conventions of the virtuosi" shaped the emerging coffeehouse. Cowan explores how coffee houses fit into the existing urban social milieu and thus gained social and political legitimacy. According to Cowan, coffee won out over various other foreign imports such as marijuana because, although it was exotic, it retained a reputation for sobering effects. Unhindered by a reputation for lewd behavior or social disorder, it could be accepted more easily by the larger society.
For the virtuosi, the coffeehouse became a site of intellectual discussion and debate, a site in which gentlemen virtuosi could at least superficially ignore the strict social distinctions present in the university or the great house. Coffeehouses became sites of political activity, and Cowan argues that participation in coffeehouse political debate could make or break political reputations. In the final chapters, Cowan sketches the coffeehouse as the locus of societal concern about various subversive political and social behaviors. Cowan outlines how the government and political elites regulated coffeehouses to control political foment and social degradation. In doing so, he seeks to problemitize the idea of the rise of the public sphere, showing that 17th century British society often supported a civil public life, not necessarily an open, democratic one.
Although the work is interesting and well researched, Cowan has a hard time shaking off the trappings of the original dissertation on which the work was based. He is heavy on the historiography, frequently invoking Jürgen Habermas as his philosophical foe. This deep engagement with the existing literature in the text, while perhaps appropriate for a dissertation, is distracting and unnecessary. There is also the problem of the scope of his study. It seems as if Cowan may have set out to write a history of the social aspects of the commoditization of coffee, and been carried away by his study of the virtuosi, which make up the most interesting and well-argued sections of the book. Narrowing the book to the topic of the social life of the virtuosi in the British coffeehouse, as well as reorganizing his chronologically and topically diffuse chapters would go a long way toward making this a more satisfying read.
Despite its shortcomings, Cowan's work leaves open many avenues into which future historians might delve, including a deeper exploration of the xenophobia leveled at coffeehouse culture, an exploration of the homosocial aspects of the virtuosi and coffeehouses, and a study of the commercial mechanisms that made these coffeehouses possible and profitable.