American Culture

The McDonaldization of pretty much everything…part 5

Part 5 of a series

Wall Street bankers discuss the housing market crash rationally (image courtesy Idle Log)

“The bureaucracy is a dehumanizing place in which to work and by which to be serviced. The main reason we think of McDonaldization as irrational, and ultimately unreasonable, is that it tends to become a dehumanizing system that may become anti-human or even destructive to human beings.” – George Ritzer

In part 4 of this series I discussed how the tentacles of McDonaldization have spread far beyond the fast food industry and attached themselves to almost every institution of American culture. This implementation of the hyper-rational methods developed by Ray Kroc for the McDonald’s food chain, however, when implemented, tend to foster irrational behavior and results.

As parts 1 and 2 of this series explained, McDonaldization is evolved from bureaucracy, a form of standardization that emphasizes chain of command, efficiency through strict limitation of individual duties and responsibilities, and above all, strict control over all operations. Kroc’s adaptation of this methodology for his hamburger stands distilled the rigidity of bureaucracy into four essential elements George Ritzer calls McDonaldization: efficiency, calculability, predictability, control. The application of these elements, as explained in part 3 of the series, was wildly successful – financially – and made McDonald’s the envy of first their direct competitors and then of the entire business world. Businesses of all sorts began to apply the McDonald’s methodology to their companies – with varying degrees of success. 

Undaunted by the uneven success of the widespread application of McDonaldization across various lines of business endeavor, institutions whose primary focus was not the production of product in the pursuit of profit fell under the sway of business types (who entered those institutions, institutions such as healthcare and education, as “administrators” in order to help those fields become more efficient and controlled – by calculating costs such as the costs of medical procedures or college tuition by making them more calculable and ultimately, predictable) but who instead have overseen runaway rises in costs for both these institutions.

As I have noted numerous times before, it is important in considering the irrationality that is an unintended consequence of the hyper-rationality that we remember how the elements of McDonaldization have to be applied for the system to produce “success” (which is always measured in financial terms):

  • Efficiency – The optimum method of completing a task. The rational determination of the best mode of production. Individuality is not allowed.
  • Calculability – Assessment of outcomes based on quantifiable rather than subjective criteria. In other words, quantity over quality. They sell the Big Mac, not the Good Mac.
  • Predictability – The production process is organized to guarantee uniformity of product and standardized outcomes. All shopping malls begin to look the same and all highway exits have the same assortment of businesses.
  • Control – The substitution of more predictable non-human labor for human labor, either through automation or the deskilling of the work force.

Two factors affect the success of any endeavor that attempts to apply the methodology of McDonaldization. First, there must be a product – McDonaldization is a system of product production. Second, it is important to understand that inherent in any hyper-rational methodology are the seeds of irrationality – and that the law of unintended consequences will will undoubtedly release that irrationality.

*     *     *

In applying the principles of McDonaldization to the institutions of education and medicine (which we think of by the term healthcare), the administrative class, which in both cases in the US arose during the 1980’s, boom years for the business classes, found itself faced with a dilemma: neither the practice of medicine nor the profession of education are products per se. This, as we now know, has not deterred those who have made it their mission to make healthcare and education into products. Much of this “productification” of these fields has come from irrational attempts to treat the practice of medicine and the profession of education as if they are products.

Let’s look at medicine. A health management organization (known commonly by the acronym, HMO) has broken down the practice of medicine into discrete divisions of labor – when a person gets sick and goes to the hospital, there is, for example, a clerical staff that handles admission paper work, a staff of medical personnel whose tasks are to operate machines (non-human technology such as X Ray, MRI, CT, etc.) which conduct medical tests, and a nursing staff whose job is to check on patient condition (which is machine monitored, more non-human technology) and administer medicine on a predetermined schedule. There are doctors, too, of course, but these highly educated and skilled professionals are now primarily tasked with performing procedures or supervising the bureaucracy described above as they attempt to practice their profession within this McDonaldized system.

Monitoring all of these employees are HMO administrators, both onsite at the hospital and in corporate cubicles somewhere overseen by supervisors, who answer to executives whose interest is in making a profit from the medicines, tests, and procedures done for each customer patient. Perhaps this explains why, after a hospital stay, a patient receives separate bills from the hospital, doctors, diagnostic technicians, etc. This might seem inefficient but each charge is equally calculable which proves, I suspect, highly profitable.

Education, as anyone not living in a cave knows, has always served two purposes in American life, transmission of knowledge and socialization. Under the current McDonaldized system, largely education is now controlled by testing and assessment based on (unfunded) mandates which demand that education be treated like a product. More accurately, students are to be treated as customers and education is the product with test scores the proof that the product has been delivered  Faculty at the el-hi level have been largely reduced to coordinators of tests and test preparation presenters. Student test scores determine school funding because the belief is that education is calculable in the aggregate as well as in the individual case. (The efficacy and accuracy of grades as a measure of individual learning is a discussion for another time.) Students’ social development is unimportant; what matters in this system is product performance. The irrational element in this should be obvious. The focus in this system is on the test, not on the student. The test is efficient, calculable, predictable, and controllable.

If one thinks that higher education fares better, think again. Since students pay for the privilege of attending college, the college administrative class, naturally, thinks of students as customers and the college degree as a product. Since education is considered a product, two lines of thought dominate: education should be efficient (students should learn only what will make them more successful in the job market and their careers) and students who will live on campus must offered every convenience (and indeed, luxury) in their accommodations. Subsequently, curricula have been redesigned to de-emphasize liberal education and emphasize “practical” majors such as computer science (especially areas such as cyber security and software development), criminal justice, and the various areas in the business school such as marketing, human resources, and management. To make schools more attractive to students, colleges have built housing that includes private rooms and baths and numerous amenities including snack bars and exercise facilities.

To help defray the costs of this kind of investment, budgets for less important elements such as faculty have been slashed. The majority of students in US colleges today are taught by underpaid adjunct faculty who are often portrayed as “teacher-practitioners” with “real world” experience (a marketing ploy designed to support the claim that “University X provides degrees that earn jobs”).  This has been portrayed as economically efficient, calculable, and predictable use of higher education resources.  But while the quality of student accommodations has been enhanced to luxurious, the quality of students’ actual education, built upon transient, underpaid adjuncts instead of on a stable, tenured full-time teaching faculty, has declined in ways that will only become obvious in the coming years. The wrapper has been made shinier, but the burger’s contents have been compromised.

The redesign of healthcare into bureaucratic processes is one form of irrationality deriving from the field’s McDonaldization. The recasting of higher education as job training in a luxurious setting is another. These kinds of irrationality will have wide ranging, far reaching, long-lived effects on our culture. The likelihood that these practices will be reversed in the near future is nearly nil.

But one small step toward reversing the effects of McDonaldization and its attendant irrationality is recognizing how it is working in our culture and trying to find ways of neutralizing its effects.

Perhaps one more essay is in order – next time we’ll discuss ways of resisting McDonaldization and its irrationality.

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