The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and Extensions. George Ritzer. London: SAGE Publications, 1998. 212pp.
Virginia Visconti (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The McDonaldization Thesis presupposes some familiarity with Ritzer's earlier work, The McDonaldization of Society (1993), in which he defines McDonaldization as "the process by 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" (1). These principles include efficiency, predictability, calculability (or an emphasis on quantification), and control (especially via non-human technologies). Taken together, they constitute the formal (functional or instrumental) rationality that undergirds McDonaldization. In the present work, Ritzer continues to sound the alarm by depicting McDonaldization as "a largely one-way process in which a series of American innovations are being aggressively exported to much of the rest of the world" (8).
Although the author acknowledges that the McDonaldization thesis is rooted in Weber's reflections on rationality, specifically the notion of the "iron cage of rationality," he prefers the "simplicity" of Mannheim's thinking on the subject. The latter, for example, locates the fundamental irrationality of highly rationalized systems, such as McDonaldized ones, in threats to the ability to think; whereas, the former emphasizes threats to human values, an area the author deems unnecessarily messy for the purposes of his theoretical analysis. The author further justifies this position by noting the cognitive demands of the present post-industrial system in which human beings live. Indeed, it is the dehumanization resulting from the simultaneous increase in functional rationality and decrease in substantive rationality, which rationalized systems demand and perpetuate, that animates the author.
The author introduces the concept of the "new means of consumption" to illustrate the ways in which not only business, but cultural, practices are threatened by McDonaldization. Defined as "those things owned by capitalists and rendered by them as necessary to customers in order for them to consume" (91), examples of the new means of consumption include fast-food restaurants, credit cards, mega-malls, home shopping television networks, and cybermalls. The critical point for the author is that each changes the ways individuals consume. For example, the exportation of fast-food restaurants and American eating habits, with their emphasis on food as something to be consumed as quickly, efficiently, and inexpensively as possible, alters the way people eat and, thereby, "poses a profound threat to the entire cultural complex of many societies" (8).
There is a distinct normative dimension to the concept of the new means of consumption, which is evident in the author's insistence that they "constrain" individuals "to buy more than they need" and "to spend more than they should" (119). The easy availability of credit cards, for example, permits individuals to spend money they do not necessarily have. In the process, they lose the sense of, or interest in, the quality of commodities that accompanies the more judicious spending of limited funds. Drawing upon Mills distinction between "personal troubles" and "public issues," the author further argues that the policies of the credit card industry pose problems for all of society not just the single individual who is lost in debt.
The author's postmodern analysis of the new means of consumption relies heavily upon Baudrillard's notion of simulacra. Thus, much is said about the simulated and scripted interactions between customers and workers throughout the capitalist system. Not surprisingly, the objects associated with the new means of consumption are understood to be simulations as well. The spectacle-like quality of fast-food restaurants adds the intensity that is otherwise difficult to experience in the postmodern system. Moreover, the use of a particular means of consumption (e.g., paying with cash instead of a credit card) reveals something about the user. The consumption of signs, evident in eating habits, for instance, constitutes a text that others can read. Interestingly, the author takes great pains to explain his decision to supplement his previous modern analysis of McDonaldization with a postmodern one, seeking justification for his choice in the oft noted equation of postmodern society with a consumer society. Yet, he is not a convert and only reluctantly accepts the position that individuals are on their own in the postmodern social world and in their relationships with the new means of consumption. For him, postmodernism offers no "Archimedean point" from which simulations may be critiqued.
Further evidence for the spread of McDonaldization is sought in the current state (largely within the US) of sociology, the labor process, higher education, and tourism. Indeed, the chapters devoted to these areas are often as amusing as they are disturbing. For example, the author compares reading a typical American research article to eating a Big Mac: "The sociologist knows exactly what to expect and where each component of the article will be found, just as the consumer knows that the Big Mac will include a bun, burger, pickle, relish, and 'special sauce,' as well as where each item is to be found if one cared to deconstruct the burger" (40). Sociological theory and sociology textbooks have become equally rationalized, exhibiting little originality if any at all.
Similarly, McJobs, with their heavily routinized and tightly scripted procedures, are prevalent throughout the labor market. Typically, these jobs involve a series of simple tasks, which the worker is expected to perform efficiently and within a specified time period. The work is predictable and workers are controlled by non-human technologies, rendering them robot-like. Moreover, through McDonaldization, the distinction between the customer and employee is disappearing. Indeed, exclaims the author, the customers are the laborers, disposing of their own trash in fast-food restaurants and pumping their own gas at the gas station. (One is reminded of the recent ads in which Steak-n-Shake praises itself for being a restaurant instead of a "workaraunt.") The exploitation of customers exceeds that of employees in that customers are not simply paid less for the value they produce; they are paid nothing at all. If this were not troublesome enough, the author contends that both customers and employees willingly accept their places within the McDonaldized system because they have been "socialized into, and have internalized, the norms and values of working and living in a McDonaldized society" (62).
Higher education is subject to the demands for predictability, efficiency, calculability, and control as well. As a means of educational consumption, McUniversity seeks to eliminate as much negativity as possible through grade inflation and other efforts to retain students and make it possible for them to obtain degrees. It makes it easier for students to obtain educational services by establishing satellite campuses and offering distance education courses. Teaching posts at McUniversity resemble McJobs, with an emphasis on the reproduction of existing knowledge rather than the production of new knowledge. Like the customers in a fast-food restaurant, students do most of the work of educating themselves, interacting more often with a computer than a teacher. Even student unions have come to resemble shopping malls with their many dining options and handy ATM machines. (While this characterization is in part a forecast, Northern Arizona University receives the dubious honor of an up and coming McUniversity.)
Contrary to those who argue that tourism provides the means to the authentic through the consumption of novelty, the author maintains that "Many tourists today are in search of the inauthentic" (146). According to his thesis, people travel to other locales to experience much of what they could experience at home. Individuals want vacations that are efficient, predictable, calculable, and controllable. Of course, the author concedes that there are those who still seek the alternative, but they must be wary that once such alternatives become popular, and the enterprising sort deem them profitable, they will be subject to McDonaldization as well. Ever vigilant, the author warns, "nothing is safe from McDonaldization as long as there are material interests that push it and stand to benefit from its expansion" (6).
The author uses the aforementioned examples to rethink globalization theory and its emphases. First, he asserts that the nation-state remains an important unit of analysis. Observers ought to consider, for example, the role of the US in producing a great many of the new means of consumption. Second, Westernization and Americanization (not to be equated with McDonaldization) continue to warrant attention because the fast-food and credit card industries "are involved in a general effort to export American culture with the aim of gaining control over indigenous cultures" (87). Third, the author rejects the argument that Western products are raw materials available for appropriation. McHuevos and McLaks, for example, are hardly "significant variations on the homogenizing process of McDonaldization" (86). (Later in the text, however, the author insists that local variations such as these demonstrate that McDonaldization does not level cultural diversity.) Neither ethnicity, nationalism, race, nor gender can long resist neutralization and co-optation by McDonaldization and Americanization. At most, the author is willing to concede the possibility that homogenization and heterogenization can occur in different areas of life. Finally, as far as the author is concerned, social phenomena continue to be highly rationalized; therefore, modernization theory remains an appropriate analytical tool.
The author's theoretical electicis is welcome. He is both discriminating in his application of theoretical perspectives and sensitive to the inability of any one to provide a completely satisfactory response to McDonaldization. However, despite his familiarity with the theoretical discourse, one wonders why he makes so little use of critical theory, particularly given his critical stance (and tone of gloom and doom) toward McDonaldization. To be sure, a footnote here and there includes a reference to critical theory, but a rigorous application of it is absent from his argument. Indeed, one of the more disturbing elements of the piece is the author's willingness to surrender to the inevitability of the iron cage of rationality.
Numerous examples of the spread of McDonaldization and the "threats" it poses are identified and explored extensively (to the point of redundancy in some cases), yet rarely is there much in the way of any sort of recommendation for, or evidence of, transformation. The entertaining discussion of postmodern responses to McDonaldization (in the chapter on dealing with the new means of consumption) focus on combating the code by, for instance, intentionally overpaying for a Big Mac or asking that it be made rare. However, it is clear from the author's dismissive tone that he deems "scrambling the signs associated with the code" ineffective. Similarly, coping with McDonaldization is certainly not a matter of recognizing its advantages, which earlier in the text the author labeled as disadvantages (e.g., creation of jobs which are essentially McJobs or mothers being free to serve their families unhealthy food).
In some ways, the author's argument is contradictory. On the one hand, he maintains that McDonaldization is a matter of degree rather than an all-or-nothing process, which would suggest that there ought to be some room to maneuver. Yet, on the other, he claims that those who have either spent a good deal of time living or working within McDonaldized systems are incapable of challenging the system. They have been so thoroughly socialized to accept the norms and values of the system that they willingly conform to them. This deterministic view, which also reflects his notion of culture, denies individuals any sort of agency at all. Perhaps, there is little reason to lament this predicament. After all, life in a McDonaldized system does offer predictability, efficiency, calculability, and control, which will be valued differently by different people, assuming these concepts are salient in other contexts.
From an anthropological perspective, The McDonaldization Thesis would be greatly improved with a bit of ethnographic engagement. Even if McDonaldization and the new means of consumption are ubiquitous as the author claims, there is still a need to contextualize the discussion of them. Why not explore particular McDonald's employees' responses to their routinized tasks or consider the examples of appropriation of the exports of the McDonaldized system? Herein lies the evidence of transformation, resistance, and acceptance. Little is done in the way of exploring counter-trends to McDonaldization, although Starbuck's is praised for the high quality of its coffee. Moreover, while the author readily admits that his discussion of McDonaldization has an upper- and middle-class bias, he makes a weak attempt in the final pages of the text to explore issues of stratification, including race, gender, class, and age.
Still, he does not entertain the possibility that his thesis may be limited to the US context. Instead, he readily applies it to settings outside the US without considering how different groups experience McDonaldization or what it means to them, assuming it has any meaning at all. Its suitability is seemingly justified by the growing number of fast-food restaurants and Disneyland-like amusements world-wide. This is not to say that the McDonaldization thesis is without significance. It is thought provoking, amusing, and disturbing. However, for those who are interested in what is taking place on the ground, the theoretical output of The McDonaldization Thesis needs to be balanced with a good deal more empirical input.