McDonaldization: Definition and Overview of the Concept

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Feb 23, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • McDonaldization is a term used to describe the penetration of American cultural and economic products throughout the world. It is used symbolically and is drawn from the market and ideological success of the McDonalds fast-food franchises all over the world.
  • McDonaldization is a process through which certain principles of fast food management, such as efficiency, come to dominate the ethos of various sectors in society. It was developed by sociologist George Ritzer in his 1995 book The McDonaldization of Society
  • McDonaldization is an updated version of Max Weber's rationalization, which argues that the traditions, values, and emotions as motivators for behavior in society are being replaced with rational and calculated ones.
  • The four characteristics of McDonaldized systems are efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. In essence, McDonaldized systems are built to provide consistent services to many customers in a way that is often quick and low-cost.
  • Critics have argued that McDonaldization spurs on effects contrary to its principles, in some cases decreasing efficiency, introducing costs that cannot be seen until far after the fact, and reducing the rights and wages of workers.

History and Overview

McDonaldization is the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant — efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control — come to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world (Ritzer, 2018). 

McDonaldization, as described by Ritzer (2013), is a reconceptualization of rationalization and scientific management. Rationalization refers to the replacement of traditions, values, and emotions as motivators for behavior in society with rational and calculated ones.

Whereas the sociologist Max Weber (2015) used the model of bureaucracy to represent the direction of his changing society, Ritzer sees the fast-food restaurant as being more representative of how contemporary societies are changing. 

What are the Four Principles of McDonaldization?

McDonaldization, according to George Ritzer (2018) has four key principles: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through non-human technology. These lie at the heart of the success of McDonald's, and, more generally, of all McDonaldized systems.

Ritzer argues that McDonald's and other McDonaldized systems have succeeded because they offer consumers, workers, and managers the advantages of these.

Efficiency

Efficiency involves finding and using the optimum method for getting from one point to another. McDonald's drive-through, for example, provides one of the fastest possible ways to get from being hungry to being full. The fast-food model also offers other methods for satisfying needs.

A business fashioned on the McDonald's model may offer, or claim to offer, efficiency in, say, exercising, losing weight, lubricating cars, getting new glasses, completing taxes, making online purchases, or ride-hailing.

The workers in a McDonaldized system function by following steps in a predesigned and generally well-choreographed process (Ritzer, 2018).

Calculability

Calculability emphasizes the quantitative aspects of the products sold — such as their portion size or price — and services offered (how quickly someone can get the product).

In McDonaldized systems, quantity is equivalent to quantity — services that provide a lot of something, or are inexpensive or very fast are automatically better.

For example, the McDonald's "Dollar Menu" quantifies both a low cost and the feeling that people are getting a lot of food for a small sum of money (Ritzer, 2018). 

Consumers can also make calculations in terms of time. They may calculate, consciously or not, how much time it would take to go to a McDonald's, be served food, eat it, and return home in comparison to the time required to prepare food at home.

Ritzer argues that this is important to other food delivery chains — say, pizza restaurants — as well as brands that emphasize obtaining any good or service quickly, such as fast fashion. 

Workers within McDonaldized systems emphasize the quantitative, rather than the qualitative aspects of their work. Because the quality of work must be uniform, workers focus on how quickly tasks can be accomplished. 

Ritzer (2018) argued that digital services such as Facebook and Amazon are heavily McDonalized, and that the calculability aspect of McDonaldization has been enhanced by "big data."

Predictability

McDonaldization is also built on predictability, meaning that the products and services will be more or less the same over time and in all locations.

McDonald's hamburgers should be virtually identical today in New York as they will be next week in London. Consumers, according to Ritzer, take comfort in knowing that McDonald's offers no surprises. 

The workers in McDonaldized systems also behave in predictable ways, by following corporate roles and the demands of the systems in which they work. What workers do and even say is highly predictable (Ritzer, 2018).

Control

The fourth element of McDonaldization, control, is exerted over the people who enter a McDonald's. The lines, limited options, and uncomfortable seats of a McDonald's encourage its customers to eat quickly and leave. 

Workers in McDonaldized organizations are also controlled, often in a more blatant way. These employees are trained to do a limited number of tasks in exactly the way they are told to do them.

This control is reinforced by both the technologies used by the company and the way the organization is set up (Ritzer, 2018). 

Advantages of McDonaldization

McDonaldization has numerous advantages, both for consumers and businesses. According to Ritzer (2018), these include:

  • A wider range of goods and services available to a larger proportion of the population

  • Availability of goods and services depends less on time or geographic location.

  • People can acquire what they want or need near-instantaneously

  • Goods and services of more uniform quality

  • Widely-available and economical alternatives to high-priced, customized goods and services

  • Services for a population that has less time due to longer working hours

  • The comfort of stable, familiar, and safe products

  • Consumers can more easily compare competing products due to quantification

  • Some products, such as exercise and diet programs, become safer in a carefully regulated and controlled system

  • People are more likely to be treated similarly despite their race, sex, social class, and so on

  • Organizational and technological innovations can be diffused quickly and easily through networks of identical businesses

  • The most popular products and services of one society can be more easily disseminated to others.

Downsides of McDonaldization

Although McDonaldized systems can enable people to do many things they were not able to do in the past, these systems also keep them from doing things they otherwise could do. 

Ritzer notes that McDonaldization brings with it a number of seemingly contradictory inconsistencies, such as:

  • Inefficiency (rather than efficiency);

  • High cost (despite the promise the McDonalized goods and services are inexpensive);

  • falseness in the way employees relate to consumers;

  • disenchantment;

  • health and environmental dangers;

  • homogenization;

  • dehumanization. 

Ritzer argues that, Although there have  been many benefits that have resulted from McDonaldization such as variety, round-the-clock banking and shopping, and often speedier service, these rationally built services can lead to irrational outcomes.

By this, Ritzer means that they "deny the basic humanity, the human reason, of the people who work within or are served by them" (Ritzer, 1996). 

For instance, the lines at a fast-food restaurant can be very long, and waiting to get through the drive-through can take longer than going inside. This rational system does not save people money: while people may spend less, they may do more work in the form of waiting for food.

Additionally, the food that people eat at restaurants is often less nourishing and contains high levels of flavor enhancers, fats, salt, and sugar. This contributes to the downstream health problems of society, such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, ultimately costing more than was saved by the convenience of this fast food.

As children grow up within these systems, they can develop habits that ensure their increasing dependency upon the systems.

The packaging used in the fast food industry pollutes the environment. And the ritual of fast food may take the place of that of the communal meal, reducing quality social time (Ritzer, 1996). 

Examples of McDonaldization

Worker's Rights and Wages

One notable criticism of McDonaldization is that it has, in many ways, replaced skilled work with workers who must engage in repetitive, routinized, highly focused, and compartmentalized tasks.

This, sociologists have observed, has reduced workers' rights and wages throughout the world, as workers have become easier to replace and in higher supply due to the lack of skill required to do McDonalized jobs (Ritzer, 2013).

Amazon

McDonaldization occurs when any institution follows its four principles: control, predictability, calculability, and efficiency. Amazon has a large database of items that they work with and sell. This includes groceries, electronics, and digital content.

With Amazon, consumers can order virtually any item online and these products will be delivered quickly and inspected carefully. This embodies the principle of efficiency. 

Amazon also exhibits calculability — an emphasis on the quantitative aspects of products served and services offered. Amazon's price listings provide the perception that one can seek out the best deal. 

Amazon has also trained its employees to behave predictably. Customer service agents follow scripts when dealing with inquiries, and Amazon moderates what sellers can sell on their website. As a result, customers can make purchases, in theory, without worrying about whether or not sellers are trustworthy.

Finally, Amazon exerts control on both its consumers and employees. The company — albeit not without ethical criticism — emphasizes timing their workers when packaging goods to ensure that these are delivered within a specific amount of time.

Robots also automate the picking of some products from warehouses. In all, this allows the company to provide a reliable and uniform experience to customers throughout the world (Ritzer & Miles, 2019).

Essay Question

In a culture built on the diverse contributions of various immigrant groups over time and the development of innovative technology, what will be the long-term effect of increased McDonaldization?

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Feb 23). McDonaldization: Definition and Overview of the Concept. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/mcdonaldization-of-society.html

References

Hartley, David. "The ‘McDonaldization’of higher education: food for thought?." Oxford Review of Education 21.4 (1995): 409-423.

Ritzer, George. "An introduction to McDonaldization." McDonaldization: The Reader 2 (2002): 4-25.

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of society: Into the digital age. Sage publications, 2018.

Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of society. Sage, 2013.

Ritzer, George. "The McDonaldization thesis: Is expansion inevitable?." International sociology 11.3 (1996): 291-308.

Ritzer, George, and Steven Miles. "The changing nature of consumption and the intensification of McDonaldization in the digital age." Journal of Consumer Culture 19.1 (2019): 3-20.

Weber, Max. "Bureaucracy." Working in America. Routledge, 2015. 29-34.