Taking on the McMalls

Q&A -- George Ritzer


George Ritzer can still remember the first time. It was 1959. He was driving from his native New York, where he was a student at the City College of New York, to visit a friend at Amherst College.

Looming next to the road somewhere in Massachusetts was a pair of golden arches, the first McDonald's restaurant he had seen.

Little did Ritzer, now a University of Maryland professor, know that he was gazing on the symbol that would help establish his imprint on the field of sociology.

The English version of his 1993 book The McDonaldization of Society, is a popular textbook that has sold more than 175,000 copies. The book - a new edition came out last year - has been translated into 15 languages, versions that are often a favorite among those who see the arrival of American icons like the golden arches as a threat to local cultures and economies.

"In other cultures, a McDonald's is a very blatant, in-your-face kind of thing," he says. "There is no doubt many people are attracted to it, but many are also critical of the McDonaldization process."

"This can lead to discomfort when I am talking overseas, especially when someone tries to associate me with some radical, anti-American ideas," Ritzer says. "I have to go into this long rap about what is good about America."

The point is that Americans have long gotten used to those golden arches and their many permutations that seemed so startling in the Massachusetts countryside in 1959.

"We are not sensitive to it," Ritzer says. "Whereas in the rest of the world this is imposed on their culture, and many people react negatively to that."

Ritzer, 65, has been at Maryland since 1975. After City College of New York, he received an M.B.A. from the University of Michigan and his Ph.D. from Cornell University. His latest book, expanding on the McDonaldization idea, is called The Globalization of Nothing.

What do you mean by the McDonaldization of society?

It is the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant - efficiency, predictability, calculability and control - are coming to dominate more and more sectors of society and more and more parts of the world. It's not just fast-food restaurants; there is now a book or article about the McDonaldization of almost any social institution: churches, universities, agriculture, newspapers.

The idea is that the principles of the fast-food restaurant can work anywhere. Of course, this goes back long before fast food, to Henry Ford and the assembly line. What was revolutionary about what Ray Kroc did with McDonald's in 1955 was his application of this to a service industry, applying the ideas not just to production but also to consumption. Those principles were then extended to many other sectors of society and many other parts of the world.

But couldn't it be argued that this is a good thing? That not only do these systems bring efficiency but also predictability, so that when you pull off the highway and see a chain restaurant or a chain motel, you know what you are getting - while you would be taking a chance with an unknown local establishment?

I don't need to underscore those sorts of things; McDonald's and all the corporations underscore the advantages. My task as a social critic is to point out the problems associated with it. That gets dealt with under the heading of the irrationality of rationality.

McDonaldized systems are "rationalized" systems, but they produce all sorts of irrationality, whether it is the health problems associated with fast food, adverse effects on the environment, or the many dehumanized places to work. Fast-food restaurants have enormous turnover, something like 300 to 400 percent a year. And they are dehumanized places to eat. Then there is the homogenization within the United States, as the differences among and between regions and cities is disappearing. That is now spreading around the globe.

McDonaldization is spreading into all sorts of work, de-skilling it, leeching out its creativity. A $100 meal may now actually be cooked in an industrial kitchen - this company called Sysco operates them all over the country and delivers the meals to restaurants - so the restaurant cook needs less skill. Or, take sentencing guidelines that judges now have to follow. That takes discretion out of the hands of judges, so they need less skill. In both of these cases, the skill is extracted from people and built into the system, then those systems are used to control people.

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