Where there's Mc there's brass

The McDonaldization of Society
August 16, 1996

The McDonaldization of Society is a good title, but this is not a witty or revealing analysis of society. Rather than the "theoretically based work in social criticism" George Ritzer presents it as, this is populist pseudoscience high on hyperbole and short on argument and analysis. But more interesting is the fact that it has been adopted as a set text in more than 200 United States colleges.

Ritzer defines McDonaldization as the influence of the fast-food business, and about half the book is about McDonald's itself. Ritzer then also makes McDonaldization interchangeable with Weber's notion of rationalisation, which brings under it any instance of efficiency, predictability, calculability and control in the modern age. He takes examples from health care, work, leisure and education, to make the point that we are living in an "iron cage of McDonaldization".

With such wide scope the term becomes something of a misnomer, however, and Ritzer seems more interested in marketing McDonaldization as a buzzword than using it to explain society.

Ritzer comments on, among other things, pre-packaging, processing, deskilling and the urge for instant gratification, referring to Disney World, dieting schemes, multiple-choice exams, assembly lines, shopping malls, all-weather pitches and the Holocaust. It is not always clear what he is driving at: he presents much as mere data and adds the label "McDonaldized", but fails to draw conclusions.

This book is too simplistic and sloppy to have much educational value. It is not sociology and it would certainly not teach students how to reason. Where something does not fit Ritzer's theoretical scheme, he fails to mention it or redescribes it. He identifies McDonaldization with dehumanising assembly lines and alienating bureaucracies, but does not mention that these are tending to be replaced by more flexible working structures. Places like McDonald's are proliferating, but so are extremely congenial cafes and sandwich bars.

Ritzer deplores "the substitution of nonhuman for human technology", but defines these notions with regard to what he already deplores rather than to what is human or technological. So hammers are human technologies, but forceps, because of their use in obstetrics, are nonhuman technologies, and so are social norms, rather oddly. He bizarrely describes what most people see as benefits of technology as impositions, saying that cash dispensers force customers to do unpaid work for the banks. And instead of being grateful for scanners in supermarkets for relieving checkout staff of mindless work and for reducing queues, he denounces them for benefiting shops at the expense of customers merely mentioning those exceptional places where it is the customer who has to push the goods across.

One of Ritzer's themes is that modern institutions can be self-defeating, such as queues at "fast food" counters and just-in-time delivery systems that put more trucks on the road and slow the traffic down. He characterises this as "the irrationality of rationality", explaining: "irrationality means that rational systems are unreasonable systems", and asking us simply to note that he regards rationality and reason "as antithetical phenomena".

From a less preconceived and deterministic view of society, Ritzer would be able to ask more interesting questions, such as why people go to McDonald's. For McDonaldization, if it means anything, must explain not only the production of goods that Ritzer finds objectionable, but also their voluntary consumption. Conspiracy and manipulation cannot be the whole story: not everyone at McDonald's is a child exploited by advertising. We are not dealing with a confidence trick practised on innocent victims, but one to which people flock to be taken in by. Ritzer's book is in fact a symptom of the disease it claims to diagnose.

Andrew Gilling is a freelance technical author.

The McDonaldization of Society

Author - George Ritzer
ISBN - 0 8039 9076 6
Publisher - Pine Forge Press
Price - £12.50
Pages - 265

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