Ethnography in London: Everyday Differences

In our pre-departure orientation just before beginning my program here, one of our guides mentioned, much to my surprise, that London is often where study abroad students experience the most culture shock. This is because we don’t expect British culture to be too different from our own – America was originally a British colony, after all. Through my time observing my surroundings over the past few weeks of being in London, I have discovered quite a few things considered normal here that are not as common in the United States.

Adult Scooters

Remember those Razor scooters we all asked our parents for – the ones we used to run home for and play with outside with for hours in the street after school when we were younger? Now imagine walking down the street and seeing an adult, fully dressed for work in a designer suit and equipped with a briefcase riding the same scooter you owned when you were in elementary school. As I will mention multiple times in this article, the British walk absolutely everywhere. Many consider this a better, faster alternative to walking, but I can’t help but to think that a fully grown person on what is usually considered a child’s toy is rather odd-looking.

School Uniforms

Before coming to college, I attended an all girls’ school. To answer a few of your questions up front: yes, we had uniforms, and yes, I was always quite a bit jealous of my public school friends who could wear what they chose to school instead of the same tights, penny loafers, kilt, and name tag every day for four years. Back home, I was the odd one out for having to wear a uniform, but here, you would be looked at funny if you didn’t wear one as virtually all UK schools require uniforms. It’s always easy to tell the time of day by the students walking to or from school in their blazers and polo shirts. I truly feel like I have a leg-up on understanding their experience after actively participating in this practice, which I wasn’t too thrilled about at first, but learned to love when I discovered you could roll out of bed, knew what you were wearing, and were out the door in a matter of minutes. It was a strange concept to my public school peers, but I now know there is a whole country of students who can relate to my sentiment.

Pre-made food

Whenever you first walk into any grocery store here, there is a huge section of pre-made food specifically for that day. I’m not talking about quick, unhealthy takeout, or a seven-eleven sandwich that could arguably be a week old – these are all quality, ready to go, reasonably priced meals. My first week here, I lived off of Sainsbury’s array of salads, chicken tikka, protein veggie bowls, and prawn pasta. Full meals were about £3.00, or $4.00. Don’t get me wrong, McDonald’s is almost always packed, but it is amazing to see the difference in healthy low-priced alternatives offered in this country. As a sociology minor, it makes me wonder what kind of effect it would have on citizens if we had these same balance options available in cities across America.


In the U.S., going into one of the major museums in Philadelphia or New York is a full-day event. You explore as many parts of the museum as possible to try and get your full money’s worth – usually around $20 per ticket. Here, all major permanent exhibitions are free to the public, so people sometimes pop in on during their spare time such as their lunch break. I have about an hour free each day, so within one week I had seen the entirety of the amazing Victoria & Albert Museum, one of three major museums in the Kensington borough, and only a ten minute walk from where my classes and internship are located. The ‘V & A,’ as it is better known as, has become my London library. Certain rooms are great for sitting and doing work, studying, or just getting out of the flat and admiring the beautiful space. So far, I feel this is one of London’s best lesser-known attractions.