sociologist George Ritzer argues that the relationship between McDonald’s and our society runs even deeper. Beyond its commercial propaganda and symbolism, Ritzer says, McDonald’s is a potent manifestation of the rational processes that define modern society. Ritzer warns that the spread of such ‘rationalized systems’ has had irrational consequences, not least of which is the ‘disenchantment of the world,’ a situation in which rationality takes over, leaving no room for the mysterious, unpredictable qualities that make us human. Ritzer’s scholarly work has been heavily influenced by German sociologist Max Weber, who feared that bureaucracy would spread until society became a seamless web of rationalized institutions from which there would be no escape. At the time when Weber wrote, in the early twentieth century, totalitarianism was the biggest threat to individual freedom. In the 1980 s, Ritzer thought to apply Weber’s theories about rational systems to a very different threat: the proliferation of fast-food chains.
When Ritzer began writing and talking about the dangers of ‘McDonaldization,’ he struck a nerve: some agreed with him, but many others rushed to defend the pop-culture institution. He went on to write a social critique on the subject, applying sociological theories to the culture in a way that lay readers would understand. The McDonaldization of Society (Pine Forge/Sage Publications) was successful enough that he wrote several follow-ups, including The McDonaldization Thesis and Enchanting a Disenchanted World (both Sage Publications).
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Ritzer’s most recent book is Explorations in the Sociology of Consumption: Fast Food, Credit Cards, and Casinos (Sage Ltd. ).
In addition to writing about sociology for a general audience, he teaches at the University of Maryland, where he is a distinguished professor with numerous academic awards and volumes to his credit.
We met for this interview on a beautiful fall day at Ritzer’s home in Maryland. A breeze blew outside, picking up red and yellow leaves and twirling them across the grass while we sat inside discussing the disenchantment of the world. Jensen: What is ‘McDonaldization’? Ritzer: It’s the process by which the principles of the fast-food industry — efficiency, predictability, , and control through technology — are being applied to more and more sectors of society in more and more parts of the world. Predictability: An Egg McMuffin in New York will be the same as an Egg McMuffin in Chicago. Customers can expect no surprises, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Workers, too, behave in predictable ways.
Those who interact with customers have actual scripts to follow. Customers end up behaving predictably in return. Calcul ability: The emphasis is on quantifiable aspects of the food and service — size of portions, cost, time of delivery — as opposed to quality. Workers are generally judged on how quickly they accomplish specific tasks, and not on the quality of their work. Control through technology: Because the greatest source of uncertainty, unpredictability, and inefficiency in any rationalized system is the people who work in it or are served by it, technology is used to control both customers and employees. For example, customers are controlled through uncomfortable seats, which lead diners to do what management wants them to do: eat quickly and leave.
And, of course, wherever possible, workers are restricted — or replaced — by technology: a worker might overcook the hamburger or put on too much special sauce. It’s much better to get a machine to do it. These rationalizing principles have been employed widely for many decades, even centuries. Some of them can be traced to early capitalism.
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Certainly Henry Ford’s assembly line was an effort to produce automobiles in a highly rational way: efficiently, predictably, and using technology to replace human workers.