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?



3 wicked bits about gastronomy


The following are three striking morsels of information related to food:

  1. Cooking made science possible
  2. Cookbooks are the result of people not knowing how to cook at all
  3. There is an American “wartime cookbook”.

1. Empirical knowledge about production, preparation, consumption of food apparently made the rise and growth of science possible. This was suggested in Poulain’s work (Jean-Pierre Poulain, Alimentazione, cultura e società, il Mulino, 2008, trad. Aldo Pasquali, p. 88; he quotes this idea from someone else).

Let’s try to untangle this suggestion. It would seem logical that careful observation of what is edible, how it grows, when it is mature, how it behaves when cooked, etc. can become the basis of what we call now scientific thinking. But it would also suggest that the type of science gleaned from the observation then is specific to that observation and therefore localized, based on climatic conditions, ethnic considerations, religious parameters, social norms, and other limits. But science as we know it is free from these restrictions, so the question is not how science was borne out of food preparation but when, and why did science free itself from all the impositions (natural and cultural), or did it? Furthermore, is the connection between food preparation and scientific thinking still possible? Is food observation to gather new empirical knowledge still possible? In other words,  what scientific knowledge can grow from the observation of food served in fast-food joints, latest food craze and, beyond that,  offered by the corner market or local supermarket? The answer is clear: none. Could this explain in part the modern culinary crisis?


2. Another of Poulain’s citations from different sources indicates that cookbooks as we know them were a really needed commodity since people did not know how to prepare foods at all. This idea seems reasonable once we are put in the position to remember “How did my (grand)mother cook this?” and concluding that since she did not measure, and we don’t recall her procedures, we really don’t know and therefore bit of culinary pearl is lost. But cookbooks assume literacy, willingness to learn, time to read and experiment, as well as access to all the ingredients and tools mentioned. He mechanization and technologization of everything is upon us, so it is great that cookbooks specify grams now and not pinches of this and that.


3. Cookbooks ad hoc abound: from rice cookery to vegan cooking to the Longevity cookbook and more; all you need to do is to identify the purpose and you will find someone has written a cookbook for that. But a wartime cookbook? It is perhaps too easily understood that during wartime, you eat what you lay your hands on (if you are a soldier, you even eat grass and tree bark, even though you know there is no nutrition there, as my grandfather did in the First World War during the winter-time front close to Palmanova). However, MFK Fisher’s 1942 book How to Cook a Wolf (revised in 1951, The World Publishing Company: Cleveland and New York) takes the perspective of an individual food provider during the shortages in the US brought on by the Second World War.  She was all too aware of the fact that her ideas might quickly become “quaint” (her word), and susceptible to double ridicule (her assessment). It is instructive to note that shortages made her think outside of the box and that some of her suggestions would be welcome even in the XXI century. Her matter-of-fact, sometimes amusing, other times scathing, criticism of conventional thinking exemplifies an attitude that is lost in the present whirlpool of politically-correct thinking. What were her complaints? What does she find wrong in the realm of cooking? It would be too long to enumerate all of the grievances, but let’s look at two: (1) “One of the most obvious fallacies is that of what we should eat.” And (2) “One of the stupidest things in an earnest but stupid school of culinary thought is that each of the three daily meals should be <balanced>”. Her descriptions and suggestions to counter these fallacies and stupidities form the heart of the book, and as such, offer much more than some “wartime” recipes.

In conclusion, the wickedness of these three morsels lies in the possibility of letting us into realms never thought of before and in dire need of explanation since they may yet prove their usefulness.

Apology for Saussure’s silence


For those scholars whose preoccupation is the analysis, teaching, observation of all aspects of language, it is only natural to keep asking: “Whatever happened to Ferdinand de Saussure?” In other words, whatever happened to his ideas, his fresh outlook on language, his standing as  “father of an academic, scientific discipline”? These questions receive significant answers in the slender publication entitled Ferdinand de Saussure, il linguista senza qualità (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2013, pp. 5-26) written by Nunzio La Fauci.

Let us examine a number of threads which weave through the booklet, making specific points not only about Saussure himself but also noting how these threads contribute to a possible profound re-examination of  “Saussure’s” Cours de linguistique générale,  as well as the science called linguistics. The whole portrait painted by La Fauci rests on the premise that Saussure embodies what Musil described as “man without qualities”, and, I add, that is to say, perhaps, a man of post-modern qualities.


Whatever Saussure was or has become, firstly and foremost he was a teacher. La Fauci underlines the fact that Saussure, not really so sure of his ideas that he would put them to print, had the chance to present his musings about general linguistics to students in three courses. It is a well-known fact that without Bally and Sechehaye (who did not attend these lectures but who, with the collaboration of Riedlinger, assembled notes made by students), Saussure’s ideas about language would not have seen the light of day. Although La Fauci does not analyze this aspect of Saussure’s life, it is clear that without the courses themselves and without the  student notes, there would not be the book which so transformed many social disciplines. But what is more important is the fact that Saussure had the possibility to verbalize his ideas about language in a non-threatening environment, clearly attempting to rationalize and justify in some way the direction of his thoughts. However, this is also Saussure’s damnation, so to speak, since whatever the Cours de linguistique générale offers, cannot be undone, cannot be defended, explained, elaborated on, it can only be attacked.


“Linguistics is a science”. This is a claim put forth by all the definitions of linguistics, but which very few look at from another perspective, that of social science. The science in the definition deals with concepts, in Saussure’s case, to put it crudely, of notions of relationships among and differences between forms: syntagmatic and associative/paradigmatic. The social in this instance must furnish the role of forms for the expression of ideas. Is it possible (but La Fauci does not deal with this) that Saussure was uncertain about his ideas regarding language precisely because he did not want to be stuck in a formalistic straight-jacket but did not know how to get out of it? I have always found problematic Saussure’s use the image of chess pieces for explaining synchrony and diachrony. This picture does not include the players, i.e. speakers. (An analysis of the use of chess for scientific explanations is reserved for another post.) Clearly, the conceptual bases change with time, but the danger of linguistics having self-absorbed notions is ever present.

Ipsi dixerunt

Historical chances underscore the vagaries of being in the right place at the right time supported by the “right” people. In fact, La Fauci describes the manner in which the attitudes toward the Cours expressed first by Meillet and then by the three points of the “structuralist diamond” (p.14)  Hjelmslev, Trubeckoy and Jakobson, shaped Saussure’s reputation in scientific circles. The Cours, read in a structuralist perspective, helped to elaborate other fields, such as anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, etc. Saussure becomes “an emblem” of the first Forty or so years of the Twentieth Century (p. 16). La Fauci asks: What is left of Saussure in a world where linguistic Parnassus now swells with new names and then deflates? His answer: two things remain of Saussure. The first idea makes of Saussure a promoter of novel thinking, which nonetheless nowadays is perceived as irreparably old and out of fashion. The second opinion regarding Saussure brings to the fore a group of admirers and specialists who keep the interest/cult of Saussure alive, especially those who work on unearthing Saussure’s thought from the mountain of private writings and other sources which need to be analyzed and published. The destiny of Saussure therefore rests on the good will of those who cavilously seek to discover what Saussure said (or worse, thought) (p. 18). Furthermore, as Jakobson so clearly communicated, Saussure was not able to bring new ideas to the study of historical linguistics/Indo-European; but Saussure’s attitude of dignified prudery did not allow him the publishable expression of his innermost thoughts (La Fauci , p. 21). And, I add, interestingly enough, if the scholar from Geneva  lived today, perhaps he would be less reticent to consign his thoughts to electronic technology…

Before concluding with a quote from Musil’s Man without qualities, La Fauci makes the point that Saussure’s though is worth much more deeper analysis and use than simple mention and celebration of his existence.

Ambivalent attitudes to interesting historical figures make for learned disquisitions or one-sided decisions, when they ought to be presented as bases for a really profound re-examination of many of accepted versions of “the truth”. La Fauci’s work is a step in this direction.