George Ritzer, Author of
"The McDonaldization of Society"

[ george ritzer ]

George Ritzer is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, where he has been named Distinguished Scholar-Teacher. His other publications include Frontiers of Social-Theory (Colombia University Press) and Sociology: Experiencing Changing Societies (5th edition) with Kenneth Kammeyer and Norman Yetman.

George Ritzer was interviewed in 1997 by One-Off Productions for their TV documentary, McLibel: Two Worlds Collide.

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You have described the McDonaldised society as a system of "iron cages" in which all institutions come to be dominated by the same principle. So what sort of world would you like us to be living in ?

Well, obviously (laughter)...a far less caged one. I mean the fundamental problem with McDonaldised systems is that it's other people in the system structuring our lives for us, rather than us structuring our lives for ourselves. I mean, that's really what McDonald's is all about. You don't want a creative person clerk at the counter - that's why they are scripted. You don't want a creative hamburger cook - you want somebody who simply follows routines or follows scripts. So you take all creativity out of all activities and turn them into a series of routinised kinds of procedures that are imposed by some external force. So that's the reason why it is dehumanising.

Humanity is essentially creative and if you develop these systems that are constraining and controlling people they can't be creative, they can't be human. The idea is to turn humans into human robots. The next logical step is to replace human robots with mechanical robots. And I think we will see McDonaldised systems where it is economically feasible and technologically possible to replace human robots with non-human robots.

I'd like to see a society in which people are freed to be creative, rather than having their creativity constrained or eliminated.

To what extent do you think McDonald's threats of lawsuits and censorship are an attempt to control their public image?

Well, I think they are certainly not the first or alone in trying to control the public image that they have, and of course their public image has been very important to them. I suppose it could be related to the control idea, you are accustomed to controlling everything else so why not try to control that public image.

The [McLibel] trial does question that squeaky clean image that the company wants to foster, so they do their best to resist it and fight against it.

How important is McDonald's image in light of the fact that they are producing a very unremarkable product?

Well, the fact is of course that they are producing what everybody else produces - there is very little to distinguish the McDonald's hamburger from anybody else's hamburger, except maybe the special sauce or something like that. Basically they have to manufacture a sense of difference and a lot of that manufacture has to do with the fun and the colours the clowns and the toys and the squeaky clean image.

How much duplicity do you think there is going on here in terms of the image McDonald's presents?

I think there is a duplicitousness about McDonald's in the sense that it wants to portray an image of children and happy employees and one big joyous happy family and everyone having a good time. I think that American corporations in various ways try to create a duplicitous image, a false image. I mean that's what, in a sense, successful capitalism is about it's "WE ARE THE WORLD" and a number of major companies have tried to do essentially the same thing.

[ george ritzer ]

You say very rightly that it's not just McDonald's - but why do you think that you, and Helen and Dave, and other people keep choosing McDonald's as the one to pick on?

They are the icon and McDonald's is chosen by critics because it stands for a variety of things. I mean, from my point of view, it stands for efficiency and predictability. For other people it stands for America and America's influence throughout the world, so it gets picked up as a positive model. Although all of these things are virtues, the problem is that they are taken to such extraordinary lengths by McDonald's that they end up producing all kinds of irrational consequences so that the irrationalities outweigh the rationalities.

Do you go as far as to say that McDonald's represents capitalism?

Well it's a funny kind of capitalism that McDonald's represents because after all capitalism - American capitalism - for generations was the symbol of the huge smoke-stack industry, steel and automobiles ... but it is not the automobile industry that represents America around the world now it is McDonald's and Disney and Coca Cola.

Do you think going into McDonald's, particularly in other countries, is more like entering the Western Dream than just buying a product?

It's not just that you are buying a product - you are buying into a system. In the 1940s there was a big flap in France over what was called a Coca Colonisation. The French were very upset about the coming of Coca Cola to France. They felt it threatened the French wine industry, it threatened the French way of life. But that was just the influx of an American product - what we have here is the influx of an American way of life, which is to trivialise eating, to make it something that is fast, make it something that's to get done and over with.

But it's striking to me that the last time I was in Paris the Parisians appeared to have embraced this kind of fast food phenomenon . You have developments of fast food croissanteries where this model French way of life - the croissanterie - has been reduced to fast food. French bread is more and more treated on a fast basis rather than lots of local bakeries baking their own distinctive kind, so if the French succumb to this in the realm of food then it strikes me that there is little that is safe from the expansion of this process.

The significance here is not buying the big Mac, it's buying the system, buying the whole package and being part of America, that's the key.

[ george ritzer ]

If the university can be McDonaldised, if healthcare can be McDonaldised, if French eating can be McDonaldised - what can't be McDonaldised?

Do you think this process is ever going to be reversed?

Well the caged imagery suggests that there is an inevitability to it. Clearly, all the trends are in the direction of the greater spread of McDonald's or greater spread of the process of McDonaldisation. And there is certainly plenty of room for it to expand into other cultures, and there are still many cultures which are completely or relatively completely unaffected.

But there are also always counter-reactions, there are also always all sorts of things that are coming up from the people that represent innovations and creations. I mean you are not going to get innovations and creations from McDonaldised systems. Those innovations and creations - those non-McDonaldised ways of doing things - are going to well up from the people.

But what makes me most pessimistic is that anything that's any good, anything not successful, some entrepreneur or organisation is going to come along and make great to rationalise it, make great to McDonaldise it, trivialise it, they are going to turn it into a system - a cash counter - and generate money. There is nothing that seems to be immune to this process, no aspect of life that seems to be immune to it. It's difficult to think of things that can avoid the process.

Does it mean that it is appealing to some fundamental call of human nature?

Well, sociologists don't believe in human nature. You never say human nature to a sociologist because if it was human nature that really mattered, then sociologists would be out of business. I think that there are a variety of things that people need at some level, like some degree of efficiency in their lives and some degree of predictability. What McDonald's has done is pick up on those and transform them into a system. I don't think people need the level of efficiency that McDonald's provides for them or want that level of efficiency it's not something that is innate.

Another sort of pessimistic aspect to this is that you have children born into this McDonaldised world, you have people being trained, being lured into the system by the commercials and the toys and the clowns and the bright lights. They are trained that this is the way you eat, this is the way a hamburger should taste, this is how a French fry should taste, salty-sweet. These are the standards and so you if try to say to people of this generation "well look, this is not really how a hamburger should be, here is a home cooked hamburger" they will likely turn their nose up and say "well, that doesn't taste like..."

There are really, it seems to me, only two groups that historically have been critics of the process of McDonaldisation. They are the people who were born before the process and knew a different way of life and then were stunned by the development of McDonaldisation, or people from non-McDonaldised cultures who see this influx and are able to react. But once that generation that was born before McDonaldisation dies off, and once all these other cultures are McDonaldised, well where is the opposition going to come from .. from children who have been trained by McDonald's or gone to McDonald's schools and done everything that they had to do from one McDONALD'S SYSTEM AFTER ANOTHER?

Obviously McDonalds and related corporations are spending billions of dollars to socialise children into this system so that this becomes their standard.

[ george ritzer ]

One of the basic premises of McDonald's is to focus on quantity, low price (or what appears to be low price) and large quantities of things and inevitably what suffers when you emphasise quantity is quality so they are serving what is at best mediocre food.

But why do you think that Dave and Helen are able to criticise the process?

You see I don't think that England is as McDonaldised as the U.S.A. In Europe you have some degree of McDonaldisation but nothing to the degree that this process has proceeded in the U.S. So there would be examples of people in other cultures who, because of the nature of that culture and the large number of non-McDonaldised aspects of that culture, would be sensitised to it. I think fewer and fewer Americans are sensitised to it, question it. I mean they don't know anything else, you are going to go and eat you go to fast food restaurant and eat.

You mentioned the French cuisine and I think one of the trends in the future of McDonaldisation is the McDonaldisation of higher-up restaurants, of haute cuisine. You already see sort of middle range restaurants and restaurant chains in the U.S. now. Red Lobster or a chain like that is selling fairly upscale food but you now see signs that some elegant restaurants are trying to move in the direction of developing chains. So the challenge is going to be how do you McDonaldise a system by retaining quality because all McDonaldised systems have sacrificed quality.

It's the process that's the problem here.

Do you think that the issue should be broadened to include more than just the specific case of McDonald's?

Yeah, see for me it's that they've set in motion something which is so much bigger than they are, that this process is so much broader than what they are. In fact, McDonald's could disappear tomorrow, or could go out of business tomorrow and this process would continue on. You might have to give it a different name but the process would continue, I mean the process has a history long before McDonald's. In Weber's theory of rationalisation and in Weber's model was the bureaucracy, the German bureaucracy, and we're living in an extension, a massive extension of that process with a new model in the fast food restaurant. The fast food restaurant, or McDonald's could disappear but that process will be transformed into some new form.

Is there a 1984/Brave New World kind of element to this?

The Brave New World/1984 image is one of centralised control. What McDonaldisation means for me is kinds of microsystems of control or whole systems of microsystems of control. Actually Michelle Foucault, the French poststructural theorist, talked about these micropolitics of control, micromechanisms of control and I think that what's being set in place here is not an iron cage, but innumerable mini iron cages and there are so many of them and they're so widely spaced throughout society that the iron cages envisioned here is one where you simply have your choice of which cage to enter but there's nothing but cages to go to.

What effects does a McDonaldised society have on the people in the society?

[ george ritzer ] I think that McDonald's has a profound effect on the way people do a lot of things I mean it leads people to want everything fast, to have, you know, a limited attention span so that kind of thing spills over onto, let's say, television viewing or newspaper reading, and so you have a short attention span, you want everything fast, so you don't have patience to read the New York Times and so you read McPaper, you read USA today. You don't have patience to watch a lengthy newscast on a particular issue so you watch CNN News and their little news McNugget kinds of things so it creates a kind of mindset which seeks the same kind of thing in one setting after another.

I see it in education where you have, in a sense, a generation of students who've been raised in a McDonaldised society, they want things fast, they want idealic nuggets from Professors, they don't want sort of slow build up of ideas, you gotta keep them amused, you gotta come in with the Ronald McDonald costume and quip a series of brilliant theoretical points or else they're going to turn you off.

It's quite amazing what they've done, what they've undertaken here.

What do you think of what Helen and Dave are doing?

I think that clearly, from very small beginnings, they've created a worldwide movement here, worldwide attention, and have laid the basis for a real potential threat to McDonald's and the process of McDonaldisation. We talked about this earlier, the possibility of bringing together these disparate groups and I think that McDonald's has got to devote, I mean if they want to prevent this from occurring, they've got to devote some attention to how to diffuse and strategically keep apart these oppositional forces that seem likely to come together, to focus on it as a negative force. I mean if there really comes to be a time where McDonald's is viewed as this evil force in the world by a significant number of people, then that becomes a real threat to the organisation. But again I want to point out that even if McDonald's disappeared tomorrow, even if they closed their doors because of the McLibel trial the process would continue apace.

[ george ritzer ]

Do you eat at McDonald's

Only when I'm in the iron cage and it's the only alternative. I mean, you do find yourself in the United States in a situation especially when you're on the highways now where there is no place to go other than a fast food restaurant. One of the big developments on American highways is that virtually all of the rest stops have been taken over by the fast food chains and so if you're driving on the highway and you wanna eat you're gonna eat in a fast food restaurant.

There is no alternative unless you get off the highway and then all of the restaurants that are immediately off the highway are going to be fast food restaurants too, so you've got to search quite a bit to avoid eating in a fast food restaurant. So occasionally you just find yourself now in the States where that's your only alternative and of course again that's the ultimate iron cage. I mean, when the whole society's like that, where you just cannot find any kind of alternative, you just throw up your hands and say "ok, I'm gonna eat this way, I'm gonna do things this way".

That is so depressing.

See also:

  • Review of The McDonaldization of Society
  • A short excerpt from The McDonaldization of Society
  • The Ritzer Debate Continued