Review: The McDonaldization of Society 5

The McDonaldization of Society 5

By By George Ritzer
2008
Los Angeles, CA: Pine Forge Press
(320 pages)

Reviewed by Reviewed by Melissa L. Caldwell
University of California, Santa Cruz

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The McDonaldization of Society 5 is the fifth edition of George Ritzer’s provocative analysis of the forces underlying the global success of McDonald’s. Engaging such diverse themes as space, consumer choice, advertising, and labor practices, Ritzer seeks to identify and explain the particular institutional logics of the company’s business model. The key, Ritzer suggests, is that the McDonald’s model is predicated on a particular set of rationalizing forces, which he identifies as McDonaldization. Specifically, Ritzer identifies such processes as homogeneity, predictability, efficiency, and calculability as the core elements of these McDonaldization processes. These elements endow McDonald’s with a reliability and familiarity that both enforces the iconic status of this brand and appeals to customers throughout the world. It is these qualities that have contributed to McDonald’s success as a global force in addition to the company’s association with Western or American culture.

Yet as much as this analysis foregrounds McDonald’s as a key concept, readers in search of a history or critique of McDonald’s will likely be disappointed, because this is, at heart, a critical analysis of Weberian social theory. Ritzer’s main interest is in rethinking Weber’s classic ideas of rationalization and disenchantment through the lens of McDonaldization. The McDonald’s phenomenon, as Ritzer suggests, provides an excellent contemporary example of the bureaucratic structures of rationalization that Weber identified in the nineteenth century: notably, standardization, routinization, homogenization, dehumanization, and anonymization. Hence, the scope of this book is much larger than simply McDonald’s, as McDonaldization becomes the lens through which many other contemporary social phenomena and other global corporations can be analyzed: American factory systems, housing patterns, shopping malls, health care, entertainment, travel, Ikea, Howard Johnsons, and Starbucks, among many others. In a new concluding discussion Ritzer examines the growth of Starbucks and carefully considers where Starbucks has now assumed the mantle of today’s ultimate symbol of rationalization. He concludes that it has not (at least not yet) but that there is an important convergence of Starbuckization and McDonaldization.

What Ritzer does so convincingly in this book is show the extent to which many of these most ordinary and fundamental aspects of contemporary American life are embedded within a McDonaldizing framework in which structure and system become more important than content. At the same time, Ritzer’s account of the rationalizing logics of the McDonaldization system are fruitful for thinking through the ways in which bureaucratic structures work (or not, in some cases) in today’s hypercommercialized, hyperglobalized world.

Drawing on Weberian ideas about disenchantment that he first broached in earlier work and elaborated more fully in The Globalization of Nothing (Pine Forge Press, 2004), Ritzer extends his analysis through discussion of two, interrelated themes: globalization versus localization, and something versus nothing. According to Ritzer, the homogenizing tendencies of globalization eliminate cultural distinctiveness, which he describes as a loss of meaningfulness or “nothing.” Localizing processes, by contrast, retain and celebrate distinct cultural traditions and values, and hence preserve meaningfulness or “something.” To pursue this line of reasoning, Ritzer sets up a series of contrasts between global/nothing and local/something. For instance, Ritzer juxtaposes McDonald’s and other global fast food chains (“nothing”) with small family diners (“something”), and Disney World (“nothing”) with museums (“something”), and souvenir shops (“nothing”) with shops that sell local handicrafts (“something”).

This discussion of global/local and nothing/something is perhaps the most important and provocative part of Ritzer’s discussion, although the persuasiveness of his analysis will depend on readers’ own perspectives on globalization. Ritzer critically engages with other theorists in global/local debates, especially anthropologists and other scholars who have argued for considering global/local interrelations in more subtle and nuanced ways, most notably with attention to the localness of global processes and the ways in which local actors may remake global entities into locally meaningful phenomena. Because Ritzer’s focus is primarily oriented to structures and processes, he largely overlooks the perspectives and practices of social actors who create their own classificatory systems, a dimension that might complicate his analysis, as his anthropologist interlocutors in particular have suggested. In addition, there is a sense in this analysis that Ritzer’s own personal sensibilities might be informing the otherwise objective analysis. Hence an unresolved question is the extent to which Ritzer’s classifications of “something” and “nothing” are representative of the views of other Americans or are representative of his views.

Yet another point of contention is the seeming rigidity of Ritzer’s binarisms. Although his model acknowledges transitional stages between global and local, and between something and nothing, these stages seem to be structural and not processual. Hence it is unclear the extent to which Ritzer’s model can accommodate dynamic processes of flexibility, uncertainty, and unpredictability. Certainly, Ritzer is suggesting strongly that McDonaldization is successful because it actively eliminates these qualities, but even the culture of McDonald’s itself contains internal paradoxes and ambiguities. At the same time, this approach rests on a particular temporality and directionality that presumes rationalization as its inevitable endpoint. Challenges to these modes are presented as resistance to the structures themselves. Consequently, it is unclear to what extent alternative models that are not directly counterpoised to McDonaldization would fit into this analysis, nor is it clear how the unpredictability of human agency might complicate these ideas. It is also worth considering whether this volume is itself the product of a particular historical intellectual moment and whether recent trends in scholarly theories of globalization have moved theoretical conversations beyond the particular issues contained in this analysis.

These criticisms aside, this is an insightful volume that productively redirects discussions of commercial food systems beyond the expected simplistic and often muck-raking critiques of capitalism and industrial agriculture, and into the realm of thoughtful social analysis. An additional strength is that Ritzer consistently provides clear outlines of the key debates and theorists that he is engaging. He also writes in a clear and compelling manner, making excellent use of rich examples drawn from current American social life. What Ritzer does so persuasively is not only remind readers of the continuing endurance of key issues in social theory, but he also demonstrates that social theory can be accessible and is applicable to the everyday lives of ordinary people. This is a volume that undergraduate students and general readers can engage, as well as scholars.

This volume has always been well-suited for classroom adoption because of its accessibility and engagement with key issues in current social analysis, but this most recent edition is further enriched by the inclusion of supplemental materials for teaching and future research. Pine Forge Press has created an on-line “student study site” where students and their instructors can access a wealth of related materials: discussion questions; an extensive bibliography and links to available published scholarly materials about McDonald’s, McDonaldization, and globalization; Ritzer’s tips for “Resisting McDonaldization”; interviews with the author; an exhaustive list of general web resources about McDonald’s; and a link to the MySpace page for the book, complete with links to the book’s celebrity “friends.” The book also comes with an Instructor’s Resource CD-ROM, although that disk was not available with the copy reviewed here. Collectively, these resources enhance the value of this volume for teaching undergraduates and directing them to materials to help them with their own research. Nevertheless, the inclusion of these materials do highlight a likely unintended irony as readers may ponder the extent to which the new technologies in which this fifth edition are situated make this book a McDonaldized version of itself.

Ultimately, this immensely readable, provocative, and stimulating book will continue to be of interest and importance for scholars of globalization, standardization, bureaucracies, technology, and food studies. It is suitable for undergraduates, graduate students, scholars, and general readers.

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