McDonaldization Defined

An Overview of the Concept

A Chinese woman serving food at a McDonald's drive-thru in Beijing is a classic example of George Ritzer concept of the McDonaldization of society.
A McDonald's employee hands out food as she waits on customers at their new drive-thru facility on January 19, 2007 in Beijing, China. McDonald's opened its first restaurant in mainland China in 1990, in Shenzhen, Guangdong province and now operates 760 restaurants countrywide, which employ over 50,000 people. Guang Niu/Getty Images

McDonaldization is a concept developed by American sociologist George Ritzer which refers to the particular kind of rationalization of production, work, and consumption that rose to prominence in the late twentieth century. The basic idea is that these elements have been adapted based on the characteristics of a fast-food restaurant—efficiency, calculability, predictability and standardization, and control—and that this adaptation has ripple effects throughout all aspects of society.

The McDonaldization of Society

George Ritzer introduced the concept of McDonaldization with his 1993 book, The McDonaldization of Society. Since that time the concept has become central within the field of sociology and especially within the sociology of globalization. The sixth edition of the book, published in 2011, has been cited nearly 7,000 times.

According to Ritzer, the McDonaldization of society is a phenomenon that occurs when society, its institutions, and its organizations are adapted to have the same characteristics that are found in fast food chains. These include efficiency, calculability, predictability and standardization, and control.

Ritzer's theory of McDonaldization is an update on classical sociologist Max Weber's theory of how scientific rationality produced bureaucracy, which became the central organizing force of modern societies through much of the twentieth century.

According to Weber, modern bureaucracy was defined by hierarchical roles, compartmentalized knowledge and roles, a perceived merit-based system of employment and advancement, and the legal-rationality authority of the rule of law. These characteristics could be observed (and still can be) throughout many aspects of societies around the world.

According to Ritzer, changes within science, economy, and culture have shifted societies away from Weber's bureaucracy to a new social structure and order that he calls McDonaldization. As he explains in his book of the same name, this new economic and social order is defined by four key aspects.

  1. Efficiency entails a managerial focus on minimizing the time required to complete individual tasks as well as that required to complete the whole operation or process of production and distribution.
  2. Calculability is a focus on quantifiable objectives (counting things) rather than subjective ones (evaluation of quality).
  3. Predictability and standardization are found in repetitive and routinized production or service delivery processes, and in the consistent output of products or experiences that are identical or close to it (predictability of the consumer experience).
  4. Finally, control within McDonaldization is wielded by the management to ensure that workers appear and act the same on a moment-to-moment and daily basis. It also refers to the use of robots and technology to reduce or replace human employees wherever possible.

Ritzer asserts that these characteristics are not only observable in production, work, and in the consumer experience, but that their defining presence in these areas extends as ripple effects through all aspects of social life.

McDonaldization affects our values, preferences, goals, and worldviews, our identities, and our social relationships. Further, sociologists recognize that McDonaldization is a global phenomenon, driven by Western corporations, the economic power and cultural dominance of the West, and as such it leads to a global homogenization of economic and social life.

The Downside of McDonaldization

After laying out how McDonaldization works in the book, Ritzer explains that this narrow focus on rationality actually produces irrationality. He observed, "Most specifically, irrationality means that rational systems are unreasonable systems. By that, I mean that they deny the basic humanity, the human reason, of the people who work within or are served by them." Many have no doubt encountered what Ritzer describes here when the human capability for reason seems to be not at all present in transactions or experiences that are marred by a rigid adherence to the rules and policies of an organization.

Those that work under these conditions often experience them as dehumanizing as well.

This is because McDonaldization does not require a skilled workforce. Focusing on the four key characteristics that produce McDonaldization has eliminated the need for skilled workers. Workers in these conditions engage in repetitive, routinized, highly focused and compartmentalized tasks that are quickly and cheaply taught, and thus easy to replace. This kind of work devalues labor and takes away workers' bargaining power. Sociologists observe that this kind of work has reduced workers' rights and wages in the U.S. and around the world, which is exactly why workers at places like McDonald's and Walmart are leading the fight for a living wage in the U.S. Meanwhile in China, workers who produced iPhones and iPads face similar conditions and struggles.

The characteristics of McDonaldization have crept into the consumer experience too, with free consumer labor folded into the production process. Ever bus your own table at a restaurant or café? Dutifully follow the instructions to assemble Ikea furniture? Pick your own apples, pumpkins, or blueberries? Check yourself out at the grocery store? Then you have been socialized to complete the production or distribution process for free, thus aiding a company in achieving efficiency and control.

Sociologists observe the characteristics of McDonaldization in other areas of life, like education and media too, with a clear shift from quality to quantifiable measures over time, standardization and efficiency playing significant roles in both, and control too.

Look around, and you will be surprised to find that you will notice the impacts of McDonaldization throughout your life.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

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Crossman, Ashley. "McDonaldization Defined." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/mcdonaldization-of-society-3026751. Crossman, Ashley. (2017, March 2). McDonaldization Defined. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/mcdonaldization-of-society-3026751 Crossman, Ashley. "McDonaldization Defined." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/mcdonaldization-of-society-3026751 (accessed December 17, 2017).