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On the value of urban ethnography in understanding contemporary society

I recently came across an article in The Guardian on McDonald’s (yes, the transnational corporate chain that has been at times criticized for the negative impact that fast food may have on human nutrition) and was astonished to find described a phenomenon I’ve seen throughout the many years I’ve undertaken urban ethnographic work: marginalized populations building community inside a McDonald’s branch.

Surprising as this may sound to people who don’t do urban ethnography (or haven’t experienced this phenomenon either by observing it or living it), many low-income people can only afford to eat a McDonald’s combo meal. As low in nutritious content as its food may be, McDonald’s offers something more than just the food: a space to gather and interact with other people who may be in the same position as yours.

I’ve observed this phenomenon in dozens of cities. I have, myself, eaten at McDonald’s (because it’s the cheapest food you can get in many places, and because it gives me a sense of the neighbourhood). I’ve been inside McD’s branches in Dublin (Ireland), Aarhus (Copenhagen), Chicago, Washington DC, Milwaukee, San Francisco (USA), Madrid (Spain), Mexico City, Aguascalientes, Leon (Mexico), Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria (Canada), just to name a few. The phenomenon is pretty much the same. I don’t study food anthropology nor the urban geography of foodways, but somehow this topic seems fascinating, because as I commented on Twitter, my experience mirrors the comments by The Guardian’s journalist. I quote:

When many lower-income Americans are feeling isolated by the deadening uniformity of things, by the emptiness of many jobs, by the media, they still yearn for physical social networks. They are not doing this by going to government-run community service centers. They are not always doing this by utilizing the endless array of well-intentioned not-for-profit outreach programs. They are doing this on their own, organically across the country, in McDonald’s.

There are many scholarly ways to examine this community-building phenomenon. One could invoke the social capital thesis of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, or theories of racial segregation as driving factors in the growth of fast food chain branches in marginalized neighbourhood. But regardless of the theoretical framework invoked, I strongly believe ethnography is the right method to answer questions prompted by this phenomenon. I’m not alone in thinking this, as this 1979 ethnography of a Burger King franchise shows.

As Dr. Malini Ranganathan indicates, it is fundamentally important that we recognise that sometimes in our studies we have assumptions about the linkages between different elements of the social system (in this case, as Dr. Ranganathan shows, space, food and culture).

And on that note, I would like to point people out to the latest issue of Food and Foodways, where you’ll find discussions of eating in semi-public spaces. From what I could read in the introductory essay, this collection is written by ethnographers, and I believe that this methodological slant will definitely enrich the conversation.

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Posted in academia, ethnography, research methods.

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