Rationality McDonaldization Society

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Critical Thinking: McDonalization

George Ritzer, drawing upon Weber, calls it the McDonaldization of Society,

“a society in which 'people would move from rationalized educational institutions to rationalized workplaces and from rationalized recreational settings to rationalized homes.” (Ritzer, 2003)

Not all would agree with Ritzer. It is said by some that we have seen the back of bureaucratic rationality, for it is a structural arrangement born of the Enlightenment, ill-suited to the post-modern age. The position taken here is that the 'iron cage' of bureaucratic rationality is much to the fore, but at times has a softer appearance. Ritzer allows for this in his analysis. Yet, despite all these rationalizing practices, irrationalities will emerge, for two reasons: first, the ordered structures of bureaucratic rationality may clash with the emerging disorder of post-modernist culture; and second, these means may subvert some of the very ends which they purport to achieve. Much of this is not new. Nevertheless, the architectural symbolism of McDonalds' golden arches provides considerable food for thought about the form and content of modem systems of higher education. As stated, the principal 'dimensions' at the heart of 'McDonaldization' are fourfold:

“Efficiency; quantification and calculability; predictability, and the substitution of non-human technology for human technology or control.” (Ritzer, 2003)

Time, space and people are all managed. In particular, the customer is co-opted into the production process: by queuing to order food; by cleaning up after the meal; by eating with fingers, not utensils; and so on. The drive-in restaurant ensures the maximum degree of impersonality and speed of throughput; and, by getting customers to utilize their own space (the car) on behalf of the restaurant, overheads are reduced. Ritzer gives further examples. In medicine, he points to the development of specialized medical teams who operate on patients, conveyor-belt fashion (Ritzer, 2003). In education, assessment can be done by computers, which mark multiple-choice examinations (Ritzer, 2003). Implicit in the notion of efficiency, therefore, is the optimization of resources, but this in turn implies that the product itself is definable, precisely, without ambiguity, for only then can the 'best practice' or treatment be specified.

Quantification and calculability comprise the second dimension of 'McDonaldization'. Everything is measured and costed. Spatial arrangements are also closely delineated. There is a constant quest to render objective that which is subjective, to remove ambiguity and to save the time taken which would otherwise be 'wasted' in the settlement of disputes about process or product. This is achieved by placing an emphasis on:

“Discipline, order, systematization, formalization, routine, consistency, and methodical operation.” (Ritzer, 2003)

This develops the ideas of Henry Ford who realized that control over workers could be built in to the actual technology itself, the assembly-line. The workers' discretion was thereby minimized, their skills and judgment increasingly set aside. Hands, not 'heads', did the work. We may soon see, Ritzer argues, the

“Ultimate step in the dehumanization of education, the elimination of a human teacher and of human interaction between teacher and student.” (Ritzer, 2003)

Nevertheless, there are limits to which a so-called people-processing organization can eliminate the unfortunate tendency of humans to act irrationally. The cold calculation of the bureaucratic order needs to be rendered amenable to people. Thus far, it has been argued that Ritzer's concept of 'McDonaldization' provides a useful heuristic device with which to consider change in education. The dimensions of 'McDonaldization'--efficiency, calculability, predictability and control (through means both formally technocratic and informally 'fraternizing')--are now in place. Although these dimensions are presented here as being discrete, for analytical convenience, they nevertheless clearly overlap. Furthermore, of itself, the concept of 'McDonaldization' is to some extent a classificatory device, not an explanation. (Ritzer, 2003)

As with the schools, so with the universities: league tables based on national standards, subject by subject, module by module, may emerge. Systemic articulation with regional networks of schools and colleges may ensue. Such is the logic of the case for 'McDonaldization'. Thus far, much remains speculation, but the pressures for change are considerable. Government today is faced with having to deal with two profound, long-term changes: first, the fiscal overload of the welfare state; and second, the emerging culture of post-modernism. The McDonaldisation of higher education attempts to address both. The economic imperative is to do more with less. Whatever is to be spent must meet the priorities of government. Accordingly, a solution rooted in Weberian bureaucratic rationality has been sought, with clear specification of the strategic ends of higher education coming to the fore. It is, so to say, back to organizational basics--to the 'structure'. We should not be surprised by this: those who make education policy were themselves schooled in and for the modem order.


Ritzer, George. 2003. McDonaldization of Society. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.