The McDonaldization of Society

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According to Ritzer, the Mcdonaldization of society has standardized the consumer experience. Critically discuss.

'The McDonaldization of society' was originally published in 1993 and has since been revised and republished several times. In this text Ritzer argues that a process of 'McDonaldization' has taken place in 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, 2004, pg 1). This process has revolutionized the principles of business and transformed our experiences of production and consumption.  Ritzer's concept is based on the work of Weber and his theory of rationalization (Weber, 1964). Weber argues that modernity is characterised by instrumental reason, with an increased emphasis on efficiency, control and the use of technology. This was initiated by a decline in traditional authority and the influence of charismatic leaders. The authority of rationality is based on rules and the application of science, logic and reason.  These rules are carried out by bureaucratic structures in which groups of peoples are organised into hierarchies, each having individual responsibilities. They must follow the rules and regulations set by those who occupy a higher level in the hierarchy (Ritzer, 2004). Ritzer uses his McDonaldization model to demonstrate this rationalization process. The bureaucratic characteristics of the fast food restaurant include a complex division of labour in which food is prepared elsewhere and delivered frozen. A crew of labourers then perform a specific role repeatedly, such as cooking food and serving customers. For Ritzer, the fast food restaurant has come to represent the growth of rationalization in the twentieth century and its increasing influence on everyday human interaction and personal identities.

Ritzer identifies four aspects of McDonaldization, one of which is 'predictability' and relates most closely with this essay title. This aspect of McDonaldization implies that all products and services are standardized, that is they are identical at any time and in any place (Aldridge, 2003). To standardize means it is free from any irregularities, all the products are made to conform to one another. Shlosser (2001) refers to this characteristic as 'uniformity' (pg. 5). This is the key to the success of any business franchise he argues. 'Customers are drawn to familiar brands by an instinct to avoid the unknown. A brand offers a feeling of reassurance when its products are always and everywhere the same' (Schlosser, 2001, pg 5). Both Schlosser and Ritzer argue that the success of the fast food industry, through the production and consumption of standardized products, have encouraged other types of industry to adopt these methods of business.  This has meant that identical copies of various stores are now spread across the world, leaving smaller businesses unable to compete (Schlosser, 2001 and Ritzer, 2004). For example, Subway now has 27,000 outlets in 85 countries and Starbucks opens an average of 6 new coffee shops per day (Ritzer, 2004). Standardization has made its roads in areas like education, healthcare, shopping, leisure and sport.

It is worth concluding my introduction by outlining the other three characteristics of Ritzer's McDonaldization theory. Then I will proceed to discuss the question of whether the McDonaldization of society has standardized the consumer experience. The first dimension is efficiency 'the optimum method for getting from one point to another' (Ritzer, 2004, pg 13). By following predetermined steps, businesses can function efficiently as every stage is carried out quickly and easily. This idea of efficiency is promoted by businesses as beneficial to consumers, but in reality serves their business interests as customers are increasingly providing their own labour while paying additional charges for the privilege. Ritzer offers many examples, such as salad bars, ATM machines and drive throughs.  'A few years ago, the fast food chain McDonalds came up with the slogan "We do it all for you." In reality, at McDonalds, we do it all for them. We stand in line, take the food to the table, dispose of the waste, and stack our trays. As labour costs rise and technology develops, the consumer often does more and more of the work' (Ide and Cordell cited in Ritzer, 2004, pg 61).  The second aspect is calculability, Ritzer argues that McDonaldization involves 'calculating, quantifying. Quality tends to become a surrogate for quality' (Ritzer, 2004, pg 66). Mcdonaldized products and services are quantified, tasks are done within a certain time and products are a specific size, numerical standards are applied to almost everything. The size of a Big Mac never changes (Aldridge, 2003). Microwaves in the home mean that meals can now be prepared in minutes, saving time for other activities. News broadcasts are condensed into minute snippets of information so we are not bogged down with detail and useless information. Ritzer argues that although an emphasis on calculability means that we can pay very little for large sizes, the quality of these goods are becoming ever more substandard. The final dimension of the McDonaldization paradigm is 'control'. This involves the use of nonhuman technology to remove the uncertainties caused by human agency and to ensure that both employees and customers are 'pliant participants in the McDonaldizing process' (Ritzer, 2004, pg 132).  Employees are not required to think for themselves or apply human logic to their work. They must follow instructions, push buttons on tills and scan barcodes. The skill and potential of human actors has become insignificant in a McDonaldizing world. Our everyday interactions are now based on the use of machines. Ritzer's critique of these four dimensions is discussed in his chapter on the 'irrationality of rationality' where he acknowledges the benefits of the McDonaldization of society, such as increased variety, the availability of 24 hour shopping and increased speed of service.  But despite the obvious benefits he argues that rationalization produces unreasonable systems in which human reason is undermined. His arguments mirror those of Marx and his discussion of alienation (1844).

Ritzer's analysis of McDonaldiztion can be extended to many fields of consumption which have become increasingly standardized. For example, many argue that higher education has become McDonaldized. Previously, academics who teach in higher education were able to control their methods of teaching and dictate the nature of its content. This diversity in teaching styles and approaches has been reduced to a homogenized, product orientated system in which the student is now thought of as a customer. The quality of education is now highly controlled and regulated, teaching and research is bureaucratic and rationalized to serve economic interests.  Evidence of this can be found in the emphasis on skills and employability placed on students as well as the use of postgraduate students and other low wage teaching assistants to lead classes. Higher education institutions are forced to compete with one another for funding and rank positions for the quality of teaching and research. Students opinions are now recorded by way of course evaluations which amount to surveys on customer satisfaction (Poynter, 2002).  Lecturers and tutors are often required to develop and update new skills in technology in their teaching, this includes the use of power point and blackboard. Students also use technology in their studies in order to prepare them for their careers and the world of business. Although there is no national curriculum in place for higher education, this may change in the future and a national standard may be put in place (Hartley, 1993). This mass production of education is likely to cause a decline in its quality. Ritzer argues that we have seen 'the ultimate step in the dehumanization of education, the elimination of a human teacher and of human interaction between teacher and student' (Ritzer, 2004, pg 155). It is interesting that Ritzer suggests not only that university education has become McDonaldized, but that  the subject of sociology has too.  He discusses the McDonaldization of sociology textbooks and sociological theory or 'standardized theory' (Ritzer, 1998, pg 37) but does not consider his own contribution to this phenomenon in writing the McDonaldization thesis. Many argue that his books have made social theory more palatable for students (Smart, 2006).

There are many other examples of standardized consumer experiences. Ritzer identifies fie aspects of this standardization or 'predictability'. Each can be related to specific areas of consumption. Hotel chains are  a perfect example of 'predictable settings' the growth of these chains has changed the way we experience hotel stays, while previously they were very diverse and owned by individuals who ran them in different ways and offered varying services and amenities. Now customers know what to expect from well known chains as each establishment is identical to the next (Ritzer, 2004,). The existence of individually run guesthouses and bed and breakfast is not a thing of the past as Ritzer seems to imply. These types of hotels are still hugely popular by consumers who wish for a more traditional, less standardized experience.

The use of 'scripted interaction' has created a more routinized experience for the consumer, we encounter this form of pseudo-interaction on almost a daily basis in fast food restaurants and  supermarkets as well as other places. Many supermarkets require their staff to follow a number of compulsory 'steps' when serving customers, such as great the customer, offer to pack, promote certain products, say goodbye etc.  Ritzer argues that consumers are subjected to inauthentic, insincere, treatment. I would argue however that although workers are required to ask certain questions, it is not as scripted as Ritzer claims, many businesses encourage their staff to engage in natural conversation with them.

Ritzer highlights that employee behaviour has become set to a specific standard. Workers must dress and act in a certain way. Detailed employee manuals are often distributed containing the do's and don'ts of the job. Disney is a  good illustration of this, Bryman (2004) discusses the emotional labour of employees working in Disney theme parks in which they must act as characters when delivering service, they are required to present the idea that they are taking part in the fun and not simply working. They internalise the culture of Disney by using a specific vocabulary and adopting a Disneyized persona in their work.

The standardized nature of products, as well as the processes involved in their production, is another aspect of Ritzer's 'predictability' theory. In McDonalds, the food is easy to prepare and pre-cut to look identical to one another. The methods of preparation are the same in every restaurant, as is the packaging in which it is served. Ritzer argues that simple menus ensure predictability and uncomfortable seating (which is often in short supply) ensures that customers eat and leave quickly. It is important to note however, that McDonald's restaurant has changed in recent times, the menu has grown and now includes more healthy options and alternatives to the classic items like hamburgers and milkshakes. The decor and seating have also changed and is now much more vibrant, creating a dining experience in which customers are not forced to leave quickly but relax and take their time. This is something Ritzer may have to factor into the next edition of his book. He also argues that 'regional and ethnic distinctions are disappearing from American cooking' (Ritzer, 2004, pg 99). The predictability of food in a McDonaldized society means that the food consumed in one city, is the same as any other. The standardized nature of the food served in fast food restaurants means that we can purchase the very same product in most parts of the world he argues. This can be disputed in that there are always cultural variations in the food served in different countries, such as the meat used and sauces supplied the restaurant. Religious and cultural beliefs have an impact on the type of food on offer.  The menus are certainly not as standardized and uniform as Ritzer claims. Turner (2006) identifies this as a major criticism of Ritzer and argues that 'the extent and uniformity of McDonalds is not an illustration of cultural standardization' (pg 82). He goes on to cite ethnographic studies which prove that McDonaldization is not a straight forward process.

Standardized consumer experiences also involve keenness by businesses to 'minimize danger and unpleasantness' (pg 102). Again, Disney theme parks are  a useful illustration  of this as they are extremely controlled environments free from crime and disorder. Shopping malls are another good example as they protect the shopper from the dangers of the outside world and provide a relaxed, upbeat environment.

Ritzer discusses and documents an extensive number of areas of consumption which are characteristically rationalized and standardized. At this point, the argument that McDonaldization of society has standardized the consumer experience' is quite convincing. However, many writers have criticised Ritzer's McDonaldization thesis and I would like now to outline a few of the critiques that have been put forward, some have already been mentioned. I will then summarise and conclude the essay.

Kellner (1999) points out firstly that Ritzer manages to cover a diverse number of areas simply because his thesis is 'so broad as to conceptually grasp and interpret a wealth of data' (pg. 186). Kellner argues that Ritzer's theory relies too heavily on Weber's work on rationalization. This generates a one-sided and limited optic that needs to be expanded by further critical perspectives ' (pg. 187). Ritzer's methods of research are also quite limiting and can be described simply as journalistic, he uses every day, observable illustrations which are easy to relate to and discuss. Therefore he is heavily reliant on media articles to exemplify his arguments. Absent from his theory is a consideration of the subjective aspects of McDonaldization and the role of human agents. How do we as individuals view the McDonaldization process and how does it serve our interests? There seems to be too much focus on production, with a disregard for the diverse experiences and practices of consumption. Kellner suggests that cultural studies be included in the McDonaldiztion thesis. The McDonalds experience today for example, has arguably entered the post-modern realm, where McDonalds advertising has come to represent ' a quasi- mythical, hyper real world of Americana, family fun and good times' (Kellner, 1999, pg 191). Kellner proposes that a multiperspective approach would be more valuable and the incorporation of the work of theorists such as Marx and Baudrillard would be useful.

O'Neill (1999) is also extremely critical of Ritzer and questions whether 'McDonaldization' is a sufficient theory to explain the changes to our experiences of consumption in recent times. He describes Ritzer's books as 'theory burgers'  only suitable for the 'lay population' (O'Neill, 1999, pg 53).he concludes his chapter with the statement 'only you can stop teaching/reading Ritzer!' (pg. 55).

To conclude, Ritzer has claimed that the fast food restaurant has standardized everything related to the production and consumption of goods. From the shape and size of fries to the scripting of human interaction. This revolutionary system is indicative of changes in other areas of social life today, and  marks the beginning of future changes to come. Ritzer convincingly backs up his claims with an analysis of other phenomena such as education and leisure. By utilizing Weber's classic work on rationalization and the iron cage of bureaucracy (1964) Ritzer applies and extends it to present day experiences of production and consumption. It is probably reasonable to say that the McDonaldization of society has standardized the consumer experience. But with his overly pessimistic analysis, Ritzer fails to offer any insight into the deeper social and cultural reasons and ramifications for this process. His theory is overly descriptive and presents a simplistic view of contemporary consumer culture. What is needed is, as Kellner argues, a theory which offers more than a one dimensional perspective and takes into account the subjective experiences and symbolic value of our practices.


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