Why I...believe global business offers us nothing - and at an ever higher cost

May 2, 2003

Jenny Sanders is a freelance writer with a background in social science

In a provocative address to British sociologists, George Ritzer, distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, asserted that global business was fast turning something into nothing.

The man who coined the term "McDonaldisation" to describe the world's colonisation by multinational companies argued that consumers were no longer offered products with any substantive content. Instead, they get simulations of products and experiences, devoid of meaningful content and masquerading as the real products and experiences they have replaced.

The message provoked a rather sceptical response from last month's British Sociological Association's annual conference in York. Ritzer told delegates that our lives are increasingly driven by the desire to accumulate more of, well, nothing. In fact, he says, we're slaving away to amass an excess of, yes, nothing. Meanwhile, the poor of the world are doomed to make do with something, unable to access the nothing to which they aspire.

This was, Ritzer said, the most significant conflict in society today: the struggle between "glocal" (local, distinctive, independent business) and "grobal" (corporate-style global business, the Disneys, McDonald's, and Gaps of the world).

His arguments may have inspired a generation of young sociologists, who have found his critical and populist depiction of US capitalism refreshing.

But the British sociologists at the conference remained unconvinced. Lovers of complexity and detail, they did not take kindly to this binary division of the consuming world. It seemed altogether too simple, and it posed the question Ritzer was at pains to avoid - was he himself guilty of replacing the something of sociology with the nothing of soundbite culture?

Some openly wondered whether Ritzer had himself fallen prey to the McDonaldised global academic system that values publication sales above academic merit. Was his plenary itself a case of nothing masquerading as something? There seemed little support among the British sociologists for Ritzer as a great new theorist.

Many felt he had said little that was new. Instead, he had dressed up widely accepted sociological thought with the clever use of language.

Others suggested it was indeed a case of the emperor's new clothes, and that Ritzer had boldly climbed the academic podium in little more than a metaphorical pair of boxer shorts.

The conference delegates were reluctant to accept Ritzer's something-nothing argument. Perhaps they were resistant to the prospect of funding bodies catching wind of their studying nothing rather than something, a possibility that might lead to public pillorying of the social sciences followed swiftly by the sudden absence of government funding.

After all, Ritzer introduced his work by saying he had spent the past three years busy working on nothing and still had a way to go yet. Not a statement you'd want reported in the newspapers if you were an embattled head of department of an underfunded sociology department.

Sociologists may have found his description of our global economy somewhat lacking, but for the rest of us it may offer some answers. For instance, if you've ever wondered why a serious bout of retail therapy leaves you with an empty feeling inside, we now know it's because you've exhausted yourself carrying home a collection of designer bags filled with nothing.

And if Ritzer's theory is right, and you are in search of a more satisfying consumer fix, you'd better leave the cathedrals of consumption behind and get yourself down to the farmers' market, where you can be guaranteed something (probably still with some highly local and content-rich mud on it) in the face of a world filled with nothing.

Jenny Sanders is a freelance writer with a background in social science

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