A response to Lyon, Taylor and Smith: the Ritzer debate continued.

Rob Silverstone

Deparment of Service Sector Management
University of Brighton
BN20 7 UR


The article by Phil Lyon, Stephen Taylor and Sheena Smith was an appropriate choice for this section of the Journal, designed as it is to provoke discussion and debate. The authors make a critique of George Ritzer's book, The McDonaldization of Society, which interprets the impact of McDonald's on society as an undoubtedly 'bad thing'. They consider Ritzer's analysis to offer a biased perspective, yet their own account does not always reflect absolute impartiality. Fast food restaurant,-, are described as serving'a useful role on the High Street' and McDonald's is seen as 'synonymous with slick satisfaction of customer needs'. Suffice it to say, these are not statements which meet with universal acceptance. But no matter, hopefully the purpose of the Section is to allow free discussion of contentious issues without the total commitment to objectivity, which renders so much academic research terminally dull.

The impact of highly systemised catering operations is a subject that has provoked much controversy, as exemplified by the animated dialogue between Macfarlane and Gamble in the first two issues of this Journal (Gamble, 1992a; Gamble, 1992b; Maefarlane, 1982b). So let us remove the veneer of measured objectivity and state opinions clearly. The contribution of McDonald's to society is a reprehensible one. Much could be written about the association with junk food, both in terms of nutritional quality and ecological sustainability (Ball, 1992: Cottrell, 1987; Silverstojie, 1993). However, this response will first concentrate upon the impact of McDonald's on the nature of work.


It would be wrong to harbour an idealized version of work, before the advent of systemised catering operations. In 1956, at about the time McDonald's was getting under way in the U.S., the playwright Arnold Wesker recorded his impressions of work in a French kitchen:
'it is like working in a large room with an enormous blast of hot air buffeting you about. Five flames thrusting themselves with venom among the stones in iron ovens. Sometimes I feel they must explode. Force and fire cannot happen like that without something giving way. And eight of us stand among it serving 2,000 customers a day'. (Wesker, 1994)

Since that diary extract was written, there have been enormous advances in food technology which could have been harnessed towards improving the quality of the working environment. For example the heat could literally now be taken out of Weskers'kitchen by the use of induction cookers. Repetitive tasks could be automated, leaving workers and managers with more time to develop their skills creatively and imaginatively. Instead, McDonald's have applied technology in ways that disregard the intelligent potential of the workforce. The individual and human aspects of service delivery are, in fact, seen as weaknesses allowing inconsistency, errors and ultimately reduced profitability. Conse- quently, intelligence is taken away from the workforce and built into the system.

This 'production line approach to service', extolled by Levitt (Sasser, Olsen, Wyckoff, 1978) and exemplified by McDonald's, is increasingly taking hold across the hospitality industry. Riley identified how this process results in the phenomenon of 'trading down', with a consequent loss of traditional services and skills (Riley, 1987). As a result, the modern hospitality workforce in the U. K. is relatively unskilled; 34.6% have absolutely no qualification as against 24% for the national industry average. Just 2.6% posses a degree qualification compared with the national figure of 11.6% (Hotel and Catering Training Company 1994). In a survey of 204 workers across a range of hospitality operations in Sussex, 23% felt they could learn their jobs in a matter of hours or days, and a similar number in less than four weeks. (Brighton University, 1994). De-skilling the production process may create tabour savings, but at a cost in terms of job satisfaction, career advancement and staff turnover (Clavey, 1992). Mars and Mitchell bave reflected how this creates a workforce that is essentially 'peripheral' to the central thrust of an organisation, receiving limited rewards in terms of remuneration and craft status (Mars and Mitchell, 1977).

Such an environment provides little basis for the establishment of loyalty, allegiance or trust. "We will make conformists out of them ... the organisation cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organisation." This might read like an extract from an Orwellian vision of absolute totalitarianism, but in fact it is a statement by Ray Kroc, founder of the McDonald's corporation. His production line approach to service has helped create a transient, marginalized labour force that is de-skilled, untrustworthy and peripheral to society.

Strategies to create demand

Lyon et al claim that McDonald's is not ubiquitous, that there is plenty of scope for diversity and choice. Yet the size and extent of the organisation lead one to conclude that it is indeed ubiquitous. As demand for fast food levels off in the United States, McDonald's have concentrated on exporting the concept abroad. Annual worldwide sales have achieved a level of 24 billion dollars. With an advertising budget of $1 billion, McDonald's are in a position to create demand, rather than merely respond to the free play of market forces. A company authorised publication, 'Behind the Arches', reveals how marketing operations in Japan and Australia directed advertising at children, in order to change national eating habits and "teach the children that the hamburger was something good." (McLibel Support Campaign, 1994). Den Fujita, the company President in Japan, stated that;
'the reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is that they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for 2000 years ... if we eat McDonald's hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years, we will become taller, our skin will become white and our hair blonde.' (McLibel Support Campaign, 1994).

This quest for aryan identity is disturbing, to say the least, as is the pursuit of psycbological control. Alastair Fairgrieve, McDonald's U. K. Marketing Services manager, has said, 'It is our objective to dominate the communications area... because we are competing for a share of the customers' mind'. (McLibel Support Campaign, 1994). In the light of these statements, Lyon et al. might feel less confident in their belief that consumers I are not rendered uncritical by advertising'.

McDonald's is ubiquitous, the brand is everywhere in both a psychological and physical sense. During 1992/3, McDonald's in the U.K. expanded to encompass 441 outlets with a turnover of L533 million; the franchised sector contributing a further f55 million (Price, 1993). Fifty new stores opened including four at Tesco supermarkets and one at Guys Hospital. There are plans for penetration of cross channel ferries. The McDonald's experience is not unique. Comparable chain operators are taking a larger share of the catering market (Walsh, 1992), leading to a limitation of real choice. In recent years, the burger sector may have introduced a degree of menu extensification, but in effect, each operator offers limited variations on a similar theme. Alternatives include a chicken dish and a nod towards the health conscious with a veggie burger, but overwhelmingly the menu on offer is one of uniformity. Car6me, the father of modern cuisine, said, 'The chef who is a man of routine lacks courage. His life drips away in mediocrity'. In the creation of uniform, standardised products, McDonald's and their ilk have created awesomely mediocre menus which threaten to drain away the diversity and skills of our culinary heritage.

The future

Lyon et al. state that there is no inevitability about the progress of McDonald's, and therein lies cause for hope. History is littered with the collapse of empires, economic or otherwise, and it may be that certain social trends will increasingly reveal McDonald's as inappropriate to the needs of the 21 st century. Primarily, these trends relate to health and ecology which McDonald's have tried to address by, for example, reduction in packaging and waste disposal. (Cummings, 1992) However, critics tend to dismiss these efforts as window dressing, and in the U.S. the 'Pure Food Campaign' have been issuing McDo- nald's customers with 'alternative till receipts', listing the environmental, human and animal health costs of the food just purchased (Watts, 1992). Comparable material issued in London, has promoted McDonald's to take High Court libel action against two Greenpeace activists. The two defendants would appear hopelessly placed, being unem- ployed and denied legal aid. However, they have issued a counterclaim for libel, and the progress of the case so far might indicate some kind of nemesis for McDonald's. Hitherto, the company had strenuously denied obtaining supplies of beef from rain forest countries, but in Court it transpired that McDonald's have actually imported beef from de-forested areas of Costa Rica and Brazil. (McLibel Support Campaign, 1994). Similarly, the company have always denied the charge of providing unhealthy food. They claim their products form part of an overall'balanced diet', and publish'McDonald's food: the facts', in order to underline this claim. (McDonald's, 1989) However, analysis of the pamphlet actually reveals a menu high in fat and low in fibre. Al the trial, Professor Michael Crawford, consultant to the World Health Organisation, stated: (McLibel Support Campaign, 1994)
'not only are McDonatd's encouraging the use of a style of food which is cto%ely as%ociated with risk of cancer and heart disease, whilst health professionals are trying to reduce the risks to Western populations, but they are actively promoting the same cultures where at present these diseases are not a problem'.

In summary, McDonald's must bear some responsibility for degrading the nations diet, the culinary repertoire and the skills of the hospitality industry. This last factor has widespread implications in terms of an individual's self esteem and the values of society.

About the Author

Rob Silverstone is senior lecturer in food and nutrition at BTighton University, and proprietor of 'The Cook and Fiddle' on Brighton seafront.


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