McDonald’s, or the irrationality of rationality


For anyone interested in the intricacies of contemporary society from the perspective of such an ubiquitous  institution as the fast food outlet McDonald’s, George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society (Pine Forge Press, 2000) is a must read. This is not a treatise against fast food outlets, nor is it a simple acceptance of them. The book  endeavours to account for the hold fast food outlets (and other institutions) have on society as well as provide possible ways out of this hold. The slender volume fulfills the former aim more successfully than the latter.

Ritzer suggests that there are four main dimensions which underpin McDonald’s business acumen: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology. Efficiency basically means “the optimum method for getting from one point to another” (p. 12). Calculability subsumes such notions as “the quantitative aspects of … portion size, cost… and services”, where “quantity has become equivalent to quality” (p. 12). Predictability is “the assurance that products and services will be the same over time and in all locales” for both clients and workers (p. 13).  Control through nonhuman technology includes, among others, quickly moving customer lines at the counter, limited menus, few options, uncomfortable seats, in addition to precise directives for the workers to behave and to accomplish their roles. The four dimensions then form what Ritzer termed McDonaldization, a process found in all human for-profit institutions. He gives specific examples as this process relates to universities, hospitals, sports and other recreational activities,

Clearly, and very generally, there are advantages and disadvantages to these four dimensions: advantages point to profit-making and customer satisfaction to a certain extent; disadvantages to workers’ and customers’ personal preferences, food safety and quality. Ritzer’s critique is based on the fact that it is impossible to go back to “the world, if it ever existed, of home-cooked meals, traditional restaurant dinners, high-quality foods, meals loaded with surprises, and restaurants run by chefs free to express their creativity.” (p. 18). For him, it is more valid to critically analyze McDonaldization from the perspective of the future. Although he admits that McDonaldization is both enabling and constraining, his stance in the book focuses on the constraints this type of business system brings to human society.

Ritzer uses Max Weber’s theory of rationalization, claiming that McDonaldization is an amplification and an extension of this theory. (p. 23) According to Weber, formal rationality is a process by which optimum means to a given end are shaped by rules, regulations, and larger social structures, often resulting in irrational outcomes (among the examples given are ClubMed and the Holocaust). The means constrain humans to act according to a predetermined set of procedures and allow for little or no choice. However, humans are rarely content with being constrained: they prefer to make their own choices, so the irrationality of rationality closes them in an iron cage of scientific management. Ritzer describes McDonaldization in detail as it is clearly followed in automotive assembly lines, Levittown type of construction, shopping centers, and McDonald’s. The bulk of the bulk is devoted to an exemplification and critique of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology., especially focusing on the following settings: higher education, entertainment industry (amusement parks, sport TV programs, etc.), health care, fast food industry, food industry. Chapter 7, “The Irrationality of Rationality”, evaluates the design flaws of rationality from the perspective of the loss of magic and mystery, inefficiency, illusion of good value at a good price, false friendliness, environmental hazards, homogeneization, dehumanization. The next chapter goes beyond present-day practices and looks toward the future by giving McDonaldization  “an inexorable quality, multiplying and extending continuously” (p. 146), from birth of an individual to death and beyond.  The last two chapters show the driving forces pushing McDonaldization along: “It pays, we value it, it fits” (p. 168) and a practical guide to dealing with this inexorable process, listing some of the suggestions for breaking the imposed “rules”, such as valuing quality (not quantity), B&Bs (rather than hotel chains), slow food, local produce and products, avoiding routines, do things for yourself, never buy artificial products, etc. In one of the last paragraphs, Ritzer justifies the writing of this book as follows:

      Although I have emphasized the irresistibility of McDonaldization throughout this       book, my fondest hope is that I am wrong. Indeed, a major motivation behind this book is to alert readers to the dangers of McDonaldization and to motivate them to act to stem its tide. I hope that people can resist McDonaldization and create instead a more reasonable, more human world. (p. 232)

In conclusion, Ritzer’s account and critique of McDonaldization point to the cage of every “modern” human being. His attempt to stem the tide of rationalization may work for a while, but then it is inevitable that profit wins over any other consideration. What is more disheartening is the fact that both McDonaldization (the irrationality of rationality) in conjunction with the absurd  rush for technological innovation at all cost deny a less forceful development of the future human being. The book evaluates the notions that many have had about the modern world, such as fear of unpredictability (and the concomitant drive to organization: ClubMed web site claims that it “organizes unforgettable events”), the burden is on the user (customers, patients, students do work formerly done by paid employees as part of efficiency). While Ritzer delves into activities and institutions such as home cooking, shopping, higher education, health care, entertainment (all-inclusive trips, TV programs, sports, political debates),  his analysis does not touch upon the workings of politics (exemplified by state/national governments – although he analyzes the irrational dealings of the tax offices), nor the advances in the military. It seems that governments and the military complex are either immune to McDonaldization and/or support it wholeheartedly for the citizens of the world. Another question which remains unanswered for me is this: Can search for a more equitable, peaceful and tranquil human life be McDonaldized? If the answer is yes, there is no escaping the rationality cage; if not, whose duty is to keep searching?




In May of 1994 I was invited to present a workshop during the “Springtime Teaching Refresher” at York University; i.e. the workshop was geared to my colleagues, members of the teaching complement of the university. My memories of this experience bring up murky ideas of the positives and negatives group work brings to language teaching, but just recently, while clearing out my university office, I found the letter of thanks from the Academic Director of the Center for the support of Teaching, which included the summary of my session’s evaluations (see these below the post). As usual, participants were asked to list two things which they liked (among which these make me proud: variety of actual techniques presented, generation of discussion and sharing, well organized and presented). They were also asked to describe two things which could be added or improved. And here matters start to be interesting. Let’s concentrate on the following, i.e. some of those things the participants felt could be improved or added:
• handout with outline of group activities,
• instructions need to be clear,
• reading exercise probably did not reflect the students’ experience.
As for the first suggestion for improvement, there is something amiss when my colleagues need a “handout with outline of group activities”. Either they do not know how to follow an organized talk without some type of written outline, or they do not think any workshop presentation is worth its salt if it does not include some type of a handout. This attitude of “must see things written down” is troubling, since instructors themselves give students predigested chunks which the students follow during a lecture (and, predictably, their cognitive world crumbles if the instructor strays from this outlined material). Needless to say, there is no meeting, no conference (no matter how learned), no presentation, where handouts are not present. What does it say about our culture? Cannot we rely on our memory any longer? Perhaps: perhaps I would remember more of my presentation if I had made and kept a handout for it… But this reliance on written bits reflects the fragmented chunks of information we are surrounded with. It is not that we no longer read, it is that we read bits without context, that troublesome and time-consuming framework which helps us make sense of the world. And, in any handout, the context is sorely missing. What is the upshot of this lack of context? As my experience in the past 35 years of teaching has showed me, individuals (especially those between 18-30) do not have the skills, patience, willingness to read anything that has been written/published more than 30 years ago – let alone before and during the Roman Classical Period, Middle Ages, Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Culture is therefore moving in the direction of a two-tier system where some people will be able to learn from and enjoy imagining the past and other will not. As one of my ex-colleagues tends to repeat, “We live in the new Dark Ages.”
The second suggestion surely conflicts with the approval the presentation received (well organized and presented) and reaffirms yet again the uselessness of session/course/workshop evaluations. Granted, the manner in which presentations of any kind are received by the audience transcends any quick-reply to questions on the evaluation sheet. Back to the fragmentation again, this time with a false sense of pride and security for the organizers: “We have written proof of the participants’ evaluative thoughts!”, which in the great majority of cases resemble the “like” button of Facebook. However, it is not always a question of the lack of time for the respondents to muse about the just transpired experience during a workshop.
The third suggestion for improvement of my presentation cuts to the core of what it means to teach at the university level, and what it means to teach nowadays. Teaching materials should “reflect the students’ experience”: that’s the slogan now. My question is why should they? Let me back up a bit, and say that any good (no need to be great) instructor can make anything he/she teaches, shows, relates, explains, demonstrates, etc. reflect the students’ experience. However, reflecting the students’ experience is not the purpose of teaching: that is simply an aid/trick used for the benefit of some students to help them grasp concepts better. One of the fundamental problems with university teaching now is due to this constant need to reaffirm the students’ experiences. And yet, that is not learning, that is simply helping students stay within their own individual bubbles, it supports their navel-gazing, endorsing the me generation’s understanding of the world. Teaching must be able to burst the individual bubble, to help lift the gaze outside of oneself, to learn about something brand new which is totally unlike oneself, unpredictable, amazingly and wondrously albeit dangerously different.
This is true for all types of courses, “Competency-based degree programs” included: these let students “breeze through courses” because they have a practical knowledge of the areas taught in those courses. The opinion that “[Competency-based courses] challenge the traditional belief that the professor holds all of the knowledge and that I must be disseminated in the classroom.” (from University Affairs 06/14, p. 31) shows a myopic, dim-witted and hollywoodian perspective on what professors really do.
How to stop this inopportunely unintelligent stance? First, by not using hand-outs. Second, by permitting students to make mistakes. Third, by forcing the students’ gaze outside of their bubble, outward. All of this with only a judicious use of materials that “reflect the students’ experiences”. Hopefully, this will aid in preparing a citizenry who can think on their own, who do not need (movie/sports) stars to lead them on the way to more consumerism. In other words, who look deeper into everything.

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