Sociologists at Work

The Sociologists at Work feature exposes students to the importance and application of social science research.

George Ritzer

The McDonaldization of Society

Sociologist George Ritzer (2008) uses the McDonald’s restaurant chain as a metaphor for bureaucratization. In 2014, revenues from McDonald’s restaurants exceeded $27 billion (McDonald’s Corporation, 2015). The 36,000 McDonald’s restaurants worldwide can be found in nearly every significant town and city across the United States and on the main thoroughfares in most major foreign locales. Sixty-nine million people eat at a McDonald’s restaurant somewhere in the world each day.

For Ritzer (2008), McDonaldization is “the process by which the principles of the fast food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world” (p. 1). Indeed, the phenomenal success of McDonald’s has spawned countless other fast food chains that emulate its model. Its formula has also influenced many other types of businesses, among them Toys “R” Us, Starbucks, Great Clips, Jiffy Lube, Panera Bread, PetSmart, and the Gap. The model is so powerful that nicknames reflecting McDonald’s influence have become ubiquitous: Newly constructed houses in expensive subdivisions are called “McMansions,” drive-in medical facilities are called “McHospitals,” huge houses of worship with enormous congregations are called “McChurches,” and low-paying positions in which a worker serves as a faceless cog in a corporate machine are called “McJobs.”

The success of McDonald’s is more than just McDonaldization. McDonald’s has become a sacred institution, occupying a central place in popular culture. The “golden arches” of McDonald’s are among the most identifiable symbols in society today.

McDonald’s appeals to us in a variety of ways:

The restaurants themselves are depicted as spick-and-span, the food is said to be fresh and nutritious, the employees are shown to be young and eager, the managers appear gentle and caring, and the dining experience itself seems to be fun-filled. Through their purchases, people contribute, at least indirectly, to charities such as the Ronald McDonald House for sick children. (Ritzer, 2008, pp. 8-9)

According to Ritzer (2008), McDonald’s (and every company that imitates it) has been so successful primarily because it fits Weber’s model of the classic bureaucracy. It has a clear division of labor and a uniform system of rules that make it highly efficient and predictable. No matter where you are, you know what to expect when you go into a McDonald’s. Even without looking at the overhead menu, you know what your choices will be; and once you’ve ordered your hamburger, you know that the ketchup will be in the same place on the sandwich as it always has been. The appeal of such predictability is unmistakable. As one observer put it, McDonald’s customers “are not in search of ‘the best burger I’ve ever had’ but rather ‘the same burger I’ve always had’” (Drucker, 1996, p. 47).

In addition, if you’ve ever watched the workers behind the counter, you know that each has specialized tasks that are narrowly defined:

The McDonald’s corporation has broken the jobs of griddleman, waitress, cashier and even manager down into small, simple steps. . . . The corporation has systematically extracted the decision-making elements from filling French fry boxes or scheduling staff. . . . They relentlessly weed out all variables that might make it necessary to make a decision at the store level, whether on pickles or on cleaning procedures. (Garson, 1988, p. 37)

McDonaldization is likely to continue, and even spread, for several reasons:

  • It is driven by economic interests: Profit-making enterprises will go on emulating the McDonald’s bureaucratic model because the increased use of nonhuman technology and the uniformity of its product reap greater efficiency and therefore higher profits.
  • It has become a culturally desirable process: Our need for efficiency, speed, predictability, and control often blinds us to the fact that fast foods (as well as their household equivalent, microwavable prepared foods) actually cost us more financially and nutritionally than meals we prepare ourselves from scratch. Moreover, most of us have soothing emotional memories of McDonald’s: It’s where we went after Little League games, hung out as teenagers, stopped on the way to the hospital for the birth of a first child, and so on.
  • It parallels other changes occurring in society: With the increasing number of dual-earner couples, families are less likely to have someone with the time or the desire to prepare a meal and clean up afterward. Furthermore, a society that emphasizes mobility is one in which the fast food mentality will thrive.

But McDonaldization does have a downside. Although the efficiency, speed, and predictability of this model may be appealing and comforting to some, the system as a whole has made social life more homogeneous, more rigid, and less personal. The smile on the face of the employee taking your order is a requirement of the position, not a sign of his or her sincere delight in serving you. To make matters worse, the routinization that characterizes this sort of bureaucratization sometimes turns consumers into unpaid employees who do the work traditionally performed by paid workers (McDonaldization, 2015). Think of the times you’ve had to bus your own table at a fast food restaurant, pump your own fuel at a gas station, bag your own groceries at a supermarket, or navigate your own way through an automated telephone menu.

The fast food model has robbed us of our spontaneity, creativity, and desire for uniqueness, trapping us in Weber’s “iron cage”—a bureaucratic culture that requires little thought about anything and leaves virtually nothing to chance.