McDonald’s and religious ritual?

I’m no fan of Macca’s. Frankly, I would rather go without than line up for a Big Mac. But with close to a thousand outlets around Australia, I’m sure management is not overly concerned with my indifference. What’s more, my son has worked at a local franchise for the past couple of years. Likely he’s learned more than he realises about persistence, organisation and team work, and I’m grateful.

What’s interesting to me is the degree of comfort that the local presence of McDonald’s provides to a certain portion of the population. Research suggests that this has to do with more than just price and convenience. In the fickle world of fast-food, there is something predictable, even safe in the feel and product of this stayer. The success of McDonald’s depends on far more than its burgers and fries.

Some years ago the anthropologist Jeremy MacClancy made some interesting observations about the ritual form of a meal at McDonald’s:

‘A meal at McDonald’s can be looked upon as having some of the character of a social or religious ritual. Rituals occur in designated places, marked by distinctive emblems such as the cross above a church, and at prescribed times, such as the sabbath. For a patron at McDonalds, the eating rituals occur under the sign of the golden Double Arch and at the prescribed times of breakfast lunch and dinner. Ritual is also characterised by words and actions that have been prescribed by people other than the current performers of the ritual and that have been codified in some revered text such as the Pledge of Allegiance or the Bible. The employees at McDonald’s who take the orders and deliver the burgers, fries and shakes display a behavioural uniformity that is prescribed in the 360 pages of its standardised Operations Manual. Those responsible for carrying out the ritual have been trained at the McDonald’s analog of a seminary, known as Hamburger University, in Elk Grove, Illinois … Ritual is also repetitive and stereotyped, of a limited range, adhering to a largely invariable sequence. Day after day, year after year, burgers are sold at McDonald’s with vitally the same catechism of requests and replies: “I’ll haves a Big Mac.” “Will there be any fries with that?” “Thank you, have a nice day.” The transactions at McDonald’s express values esteemed by modern (Western) society: technological efficiency, cleanliness, service, and egalitarianism. At a McDonald’s, people find exactly what they have come to expect. They know the liturgy, and what pecuniary dues they will have to pay; they have found the comfort, the security, and the reassurance there will be no surprises that are among the benefits of any ritual.’

Interesting propositions. I’m not sure I can swallow the idea that a visit to McDonald’s has religious undertones for the average punter, but the broader need for dependable rituals of security and comfort certainly goes part way to explaining our Macca’s addiction. There’s certainly more going on here that the convenience of a drive-thru.

Jeremy MacClancy, Consuming Culture: Why You Eat What You Eat, New York: Henry Holt, 1993, 216-17.

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