Friday, December 08, 2006

Friday Food Politics: McDonald's vs. Chinese Culture Edition

My favorite food podcast is Good Food by KCRW. This week's was great, with commentary by food science guru Harold McGee on "meat glue", but I found the interview with Harvard anthropology professor James L. Watson especially interesting.

Watson is the author of Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia, which has just come out in a second edition almost ten years after it's initial publication. I had never heard of Watson or the book before, but his thesis is counter to the conventional wisdom on the influence of corporate globalization on local food cultures.

Watson suggests that the "culture imperialism hypothesis" is mostly incorrect, and that corporations do not simply replace local food and local culture with sanitized global cuisine. The Chinese visiting McDonald's are not "puppets" of corporate power, but have their own agendas for eating there. Watson argues that McDonald's is more the "caboose" than the "locomotive" in the globalization happening in China. The transformation from a traditional society to one with a large, consumer-driven middle-class is not due to the growth of McDonald's in East Asia. On the contrary, McDonald's growth in East Asia is made possible by the transformation that precedes its entry. He offers the perspective of those on the ground experiencing rapid change first-hand, rather than the perspective of distant observers with pre-conceived notions about how traditional cultures should evolve.

Listen to the whole thing here, or pick up Watson's book.

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