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What Is McDonaldization?

Efficiency Calculability Predictability Control


Woman munching on a hamburger McDonaldization is the term invented by George Ritzer to describe a sociological phenomenom that is happening in our society. You may think it started with Ray Kroc in the 1950's when he bought his first hamburger restaurant, but it's origins were actually much earlier than that. In fact, Henry Ford was the first McDonaldization pioneer with his vision of an assembly line for improving the production of automobiles. His revolutionary idea dramatically changed how many automobiles could be produced and was very efficient.

In essence, McDonaldization is the process of rationalization, albiet taken to extreme levels. Rationalization is a sociological term that simply means the substitution of logically consistent rules for traditional (or illogical) rules. One of the fundamental aspects of McDonaldization is that almost any task can (and should) be rationalized.

The process of McDonaldization takes a task and breaks it down into smaller tasks. This is repeated until all tasks have been broken down to the smallest possible level. The resulting tasks are then rationalized to find the single most efficient method for completing each task. All other methods are then deemed inefficient and discarded.

The result is an efficient, logical sequence of methods that can be completed the same way every time to produce the desired outcome. The outcome is predictable. All aspects of the process are easily controlled. Additionally, quantity (or calculability) becomes the measurement of good performance.

By now, you might be thinking that this all sounds pretty good. After all, being more efficient is a good thing. Controlled, consistent and measurable outcomes also sound good. So, what's the problem?

It turns out that over-rationalizing a process in this manner has an unexpected side effect. It's called irrationality. In a sociological context that simply means that a rationalized system may result in events or outcomes that were neither anticipated or desired, and in fact, may not be so good.

Take the example of the McDonald's chain of restaurants. Where is the irrationality? The premise of fast food often turns out to be just the opposite - long waits in lines. Fast food is not necessarily good food - in fact, McDonald's food is extremely unhealthy and the taste is average and bland. The system of efficiently producing and distributing their food has some other consequences, namely millions of tons of trash each year (disposability) and a food cultivation system of questionable ethics.

According to Ritzer, the four main dimensions of McDonaldization are:

  • Efficiency - The optimum method of completing a task. The rational determination of the best mode of production. Individuality is not allowed.
  • Calculability - Assessment of outcomes based on quantifiable rather than subjective criteria. In other words, quantity over quality. They sell the Big Mac, not the Good Mac.
  • Predictability - The production process is organized to guarantee uniformity of product and standardized outcomes. All shopping malls begin to look the same and all highway exits have the same assortment of businesses.
  • Control - The substitution of more predictable non-human labor for human labor, either through automation or the deskilling of the work force.

There are other dimensions of McDonaldization that Ritzer didn't include with the main four, but are worthy enough for prime attention. They are:

  • Irrationality - A side effect of over-rationalized systems. Ritzer himself hints that this is the fifth dimension of McDonaldization. An example of this could be workers on an assembly line that are hired and trained to perform a single highly rationalized task. Although this may be a very efficient method of operating a business, an irrationality that is spawned can be worker burnout.
  • Deskilling - A work force with the minimum abilities possible to complete simple focused tasks. This means that they can be quickly and cheaply trained and are easily replaceable.
  • Consumer Workers - One of the sneakiest things about McDonaldization is how consumers get tricked into becoming unpaid employees. They do the work that was traditionally performed by the company. The prime example of this is diners who bus their own tables at the fast food restaurant. They dutifully carry their trash to friendly receptacles marked "thank you." (The extreme rationalization of this is the drive-thru; consumers take their trash with them!) Other examples are many and include: ATM's, salad bars, automated telephone menus, and pumping gas.

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