Let's imagine: Gulliver's Travels and McDonald's restaurants

Two scenarios for cultural anthropology students

Can we learn something by looking at our own culture from an etic perspective?

These two scenarios call on us to suspend reality. We move into an almost science fiction mode. Force yourself to "think outside the box." In both instances, you are asked to look at your culture from an "etic" -- or outsider's -- perspective.

Scenario #1

Remember Gulliver's Travels? Written in the early 1700s by Jonathan Swift, this delightful book (which was actually meant as social satire) recounts voyages to one strange place after another. The most well-known of those places is Lilliput, where Gulliver is "captured" by a race of minuscule human beings, an event depicted in this antique advertisement by a thread company.

Gulliver's third voyage takes him to the flying island of Laputa. The inhabitants of that island speak a language that Gulliver does not know.

Suppose you were to travel with Gulliver to that flying island where you can communicate with people only by using objects that you are carrying with you. Suppose you could take only five things with you to "tell" people on Laputa about yourself.

What would those objects be? Once you've decided on them, write them on the chalkboard.

Drawing of Gulliver tied to the
ground by the diminiutive inhabitnats of Lilliput

Discussion questions

  1. How did the exercise of choosing five objects to communicate with the inhabitants of Laputa make you reflect on your own culture and personal identity?
  2. What criteria did you use to select the objects? How did these objects represent different aspects of your culture?
  3. Were there any challenges or limitations in using objects to convey information about your culture? How did you overcome them?
  4. In what ways did your chosen objects reflect cultural values or social norms? How might the inhabitants of Laputa interpret or understand these objects?
  5. How did imagining yourself as an outsider looking at your own culture from an etic perspective change your understanding or perception of your culture? Did you gain any new insights?

Scenario #2

You are space travelers who have been beamed down to Earth from the planet Pegasi. You don't know anything about life on planet Earth, but you have been instructed to carefully study what is going on and to report back your observations. When you were beamed down, you ended up in a McDonald's restaurant, a place that you assume is typical for the entire planet.

A McDonald's restaurant has thus become an ethnographic "text" for you. Look for things that reveal something of cultural values and practices. From your observations of the following things in the restaurant, what might you conclude about life on the planet Earth?

McDonald's iconic arches

Discussion questions

  1. What insights about the culture of planet Earth can you gather from observing the architecture and furnishings of the McDonald's restaurant?
  2. How does the food offered at McDonald's reflect cultural preferences or practices on planet Earth? Can you identify any specific cultural values associated with the food choices?
  3. Based on your observations, what conclusions can you draw about sex or gender roles in the context of a McDonald's restaurant on Earth? Are there any noticeable patterns or differences?
  4. How does the concept of family manifest itself in the McDonald's restaurant environment? Are there any cultural assumptions or norms related to family dynamics that you could justifiably infer?
  5. Reflecting on your experience of studying Earth through the lens of a McDonald's restaurant, what are some potential limitations or biases in using a single location to understand an entire planet's culture? How might your observations differ if you explored other aspects of Earth's culture?

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    -- Howard Culbertson.

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