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The McDonaldization of Society

An Overview of the Book by George Ritzer

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In The McDonaldization of Society, author George Ritzer takes the central elements of Max Weber’s work and expands and updates them, producing an analysis of the impact of structural change on human interaction and identity. It is not about McDonald’s itself, but rather how the principles of the fast food industry have come to dominate all parts of American society and the rest of the world.

The central theme in Max Weber’s analysis of society was the process of rationalization in which traditional ways of thinking were being replaced by an ends/means analysis concerned with efficiency and social control. A perfect example of this, according to Weber, was the bureaucracy – a large, formal organization characterized by a hierarchical authority structure, a well-defined division of labor, written rules and regulations, impersonality, and a an emphasis on technical competence. According to Ritzer, the fast-food restaurant has since become the organizational force representing the process of rationalization. In The McDonaldization of Society, he uses McDonalds as a case model to illustrate this argument.

The term McDonaldization refers to “the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world. “(Ritzer, 1993:1). The central concepts employed in the fast-food industry have spread not only to other types of restaurants, but also to industries like toy stores, bookstores, newspapers, childcare, learning, and more. What is happening is what is called the Chain mentality.

Central Themes of the Book

In The McDonaldization of Society, Ritzer outlines five major themes within the process of McDonaldization: Efficiency, calculability, predictability, increased control, and the replacement of human by non-human technology. These are all concepts that the fast-food industry initiated and have now spread to other parts of society.

Efficiency. Efficiency means reaching a specific end rapidly while using the least amount of cost and effort. The idea is specific to the interests of the industry or business, however it is typically advertised as a benefit to the customer. Examples include: the drive-thru, salad bars, self-serve gasoline, ATM’s, microwave dinners, and self-serve soda fountains. What is interesting here is that the customer often ends up doing the work that was previously done for them, however they are now paying for the “privilege” to do it themselves. The customers end up spending more time, being forced to learn new technologies, remember more numbers, and often pay higher prices in order for business to operate more efficiently and therefore have a higher profit margin.

Calculability. The fast-food industry places a great deal of emphasis on things that can be calculated, counted, and quantified. That is, they tend to emphasize quantity over quality. For example, the Big Mac, Whopper, Big Gulp, Wendy’s Biggie Meals, and food sold by it’s weight (such as Taco Bell’s 8-ounce burrito) all emphasize the size of the product instead of its quality. Another example relates to time: Quicker is better. Things like microwavable meals allow for people to spend less time in the kitchen while claims to “lose weight fast” make the consumer believe that time is more important than safety or quality of how the weight loss is done.

Predictability. Predictability refers to the attempt to structure our environment so that people know what to expect. It is the belief that rational people want to be sure that the fun, satisfaction, taste, and benefits they received at McDonalds last week in New York will be the same next week in Texas. A Big Mac is the same no matter where in the world you are. This spills into all sorts of other industries too, from shopping at a mall to the movie industry that make sequel upon sequel. This makes our lives are structured and controlled so that we go through the motions on autopilot.

Control and the replacement of human by non-human technology. In the book, Ritzer combines these two elements of the McDonaldization process because they are closely linked. That is, the replacement of human by nonhuman technology is usually oriented towards greater control. When things are pre-packaged, pre-measured, and automatically controlled, the human employee is no longer required to think. They simply have to follow the instructions and occasionally push a button.

For example, checkers at the grocery store don’t have to think – they simply scan the barcode. Now, customers are even doing the scanning as self-serve scanners are replacing the checkers. Airplanes are also under the control of computers – pilots simply oversee the process. This means that the skills and capabilities of the human being are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Who we are and how we interact, Ritzer argues, is becoming defined by our dependence upon and subordination to the machine.

See more examples of the McDonaldization of society.

References

Ritzer, G. (2011). The McDonaldization of Society, 6th Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Keel, R. (2011). The McDonaldization of Society. http://www.umsl.edu/~keelr/010/mcdonsoc.html.

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