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Silin Li '11 Studies "McDonaldization" in China

By Laura Bramley
Posted August 17, 2008
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Silin Li '11 is uniquely placed to study the effects of globalization. The rising sophomore from Shenyang, China, is spending the summer researching the growing presence of McDonald's and other Western fast-food restaurants in Beijing and in his hometown. The collaborative project with Professor of Government Stephen Orvis is one of 18 student research projects this summer funded by the Levitt Center's Research Fellows Program. The students receive a summer stipend and spend 10 weeks working intensively with a faculty mentor on an issue related to public affairs.

Li's project focuses on fast-food chains like McDonald's to study Chinese cultural identity in a globalizing world. During the winter break, he conducted a survey of around 600 people, asking them about their opinions on fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's, KFC, and Pizza Hut. His work this summer continues that research, using secondary literature on the subject and conducting interviews and surveys in Beijing, where the effects of globalization are more apparent than in Shenyang. Conducting the surveys can be especially difficult, says Li, and some people refuse to meet his eyes while he speaks. Part of the challenge of his research is simply to hand out the questions to strangers.

In addition to surveys from the two cities, Li will use interviews conducted with restaurant managers to write his final research paper. Of course, the project also required direct research on the food itself. Li notes that there are slight differences between the restaurants in Beijing and Shenyang, as well as the much larger differences between Chinese fast food and the food served in the U.S. "Part of the research goal is to understand the cultural differences and globalization through the food," he says.

The original project grew out of research that Li did for a freshman writing class with Professor Orvis, where he first became interested in issues of globalization. From his initial survey during winter break, he found more questions that needed asking. His summer research explores whether McDonald's is a force for cultural homogenization or a means to help China adapt to global capitalism, as well as how eating at McDonald's affects Chinese cultural identity, and how the chain interacts and competes with local restaurants. With China's entrance into the World Trade Organization, Li wants to determine whether the Chinese are resisting trends like McDonald's or whether they favor Western fast food over local food. Ultimately, he hopes to see "whether globalization is a process for westernization or an opportunity of cultural interaction." Li enjoys the chance to do summer research as a rising sophomore, and says the project gives him a deeper view of globalization, which will help him in studying economics, his possible major.

So far, his research shows that young people in China eat at McDonald's and similar restaurants more often than older people do. Individuals in higher income groups are also more likely to eat at McDonald's, and Li finds that most people believe McDonald's is the winner in globalization. Although he has yet to determine the final results, China's surging economy seems to come "at the expense of Chinese culture." 

-- by Laura Bramley

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