American Culture

The McDonaldization of pretty much everything…part 4

Part 4 of a series

The enormous success and wealth McDonald’s achieved through its methodology has produced a mantra embraced by disciples of its core principles, who now apply them to any type of institutional system – whether that system’s primary function was retail or not.

“McDonaldization affects not only the restaurant business, but also, education, work, healthcare, travel, leisure, dieting, politics, the family and virtually every other aspect of life.” – George Ritzer

McDonaldization’s Principles (image courtesy Thalia Torres Sociology Blog)

The success of Ray Kroc’s methodology, named McDonaldization after the restaurant chain Kroc built into the most powerful and successful food service company in the world, impressed: first McDonald’s competitors, then those in charge of other spheres – not just industries, but other areas of human endeavor.

Wanting to be more efficient – and, hopefully, more effective – is not a bad goal in and of itself. Where this can go awry – and go awry it has – is when, as has happened in proof of Robert Merton’s law of unintended consequences, this principle is applied in cultural situations where its application makes no sense. And those other elements of McDonaldization – predictablility, calculability, and control – also play roles in moves toward efficiency. It is almost impossible – at least in a culture besotted with the ideas (and ideals) of capitalism – for these unintended consequences not to occur.

When one enters a McDonald’s restaurant and orders a cheeseburger, a McDonald’s employee has been trained to know exactly how quickly that cheeseburger should be prepared and served and how much to charge the customer. The employee’s sole task becomes repeating the process that produced that cheeseburger and got it into the customer’s hands after getting the customer’s money – again and again and again and again and again.

If this sounds like it would be mind and soul numbing, that’s because it is. But it is also efficient, calculable, predictable, and easy to control. And it has brought McDonald’s enormous success and wealth.

mcdonaldization

That enormous success and wealth McDonald’s achieved through its efficiency/calculability/predictability/control methodology became first an demonstrable example, then an influential model, finally a mantra embraced by disciples of its core principles – who then, however wrongheadedly, decided that its methods could be applied not just to fast food or other retail enterprises but to any type of institutional system whether that system’s primary function was retail or not. Every human activity, it has been concluded, should be about money – no matter how nonsensical that might seem.

And that decision, the decision to McDonaldize every institution – medicine, education, journalism, even religion – has had far reaching consequences for us culturally. Here are some brief examples:

  • The rise of chains where the application McDonald’s operating principles guarantees the shopper the same experience in every outlet of not just fast food restaurants but in every form of retail shopping from clothing (Gap, Banana Republic) to electronics (Best Buy, Circuit City) to department store (Walmart, Target) to book stores (Barnes and Noble, B. Dalton). Perhaps the most frightening development of this has been the rise of a company like Amazon, which has used the power of the Internet to expand the McDonaldization of shopping to almost all (perhaps all) shopping experiences.
  • The rise of “health management” companies such as Anthem, Kaiser Permanente, and United Healthcare, whose avowed purpose is the McDonaldization of medical care. From rigidly limiting doctor appointment time lengths to limiting access to important health procedures to the use of nurse practitioners and physician assistants in place of doctors, HMOs have reduced a key element of medicine – the human interaction between physician and patient – to calculable, efficient, predictable, and controlled sets of interactions, with the result that doctors have often been reduced to “procedure performers” doing the same tasks, such as colonoscopies, over and over and over day after day after day. See description above of the effect of this on a person.
  • The rise of the “administrative” class in education, whose application of the principles of McDonaldization to the institution of education has redefined students as “customers” and reduced faculty to fonctionnaires forced to use standardized curricula, and in online education standardized classrooms, so that every student receives the “same educational experience” while making every effort to eliminate the humane, often inspiring, aspects of educational experience that have characterized education since the days of Socrates.
  • The rise of corporate controlled news, whose application of McDonald’s operating principles treats information as product and selects which events are “newsworthy” based more on how well such information will attract advertising rather than on any concern for the need to serve as the eyes and ears of the citizenry. The need for viewers (i.e. news “consumers”) trumps any civic responsibility.
  • The rise of corporatized churches (which often have the word “community” in their names) who use McDonaldized preaching/teaching materials to guarantee that attendees are kept “on message” and which have primarily become devoted to creating mega-congregations through messages crafted to comfort those congregations no matter how far those messages stray from the chief tenets of traditional Christianity (which might often make those congregations uncomfortable by forcing them to confront their own behavior).

It should be obvious by now that McDonaldization’s tentacles have latched onto nearly every aspect of our lives. In the final installment of this series, we’ll discuss how this hyper rational standardization of human experience has led us into a culture that is in truth hyper-irrational.

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