Food, Popular Culture, and Globalization

Boy in sedan chair in front of Starbucks in Shanghai

Analysis of food and popular culture reveals much about the cultural ideologies central to very different societies throughout the world and the intimate dynamics of family life. All peoples participate in some fashion and to varying degrees in the production, distribution, and consumption of food. Food culture can also be seen as the most basic of cultural activities — in the transformation of nature (as raw food or natural products) to culture. The cultural variety of what and how people eat — including the religious, political, and economic constraints on food — provide an ideal lens to study other anthropological issues such as cultural concepts of health, beauty, and body image.
To examine the relationship between food and globalization, I did a study of a particular Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Beijing to examine how global capital provides a new medium for local contestations and self-definitions of Chinese childhood in postsocialist China. My focus on KFC’s relations with children in Beijing is mainly warranted by two considerations. First, fast food restaurants like KFC and McDonald’s have had particular success among children in large Chinese urban centers. Children are often the decision makers in determining whether or not an urban family will patronize a KFC restaurant. Moreover, what children eat is a fundamental part of their socialization, and changes in children’s dietary patterns are indicative of changes in their social environment. Second, children’s consumption of both material and cultural goods are becoming a domain of fierce contestation in many parts of the world and among different social groups seeking to implement their particular visions of the future by shaping childhood experiences. As an organizational actor, KFC is a part of the social life of Beijing children, and influences Chinese experiences of childhood through its becoming part of local Beijing life. Before the ethnographic context of KFC in Beijing is set up for analysis, a few remarks should be made on this essay’s theoretical framework.