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What is McDonaldization Theory?

Parul Solanki Aug 29, 2020
McDonaldization theory developed by George Ritzer draws on sociology's concept of rationalization. It is based on four principles of predictability, efficiency, calculability and control, examples of which are often seen in fast-food chains. These principles are dominating American society and the rest of the world.

Did You Know?

In 2003, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary included the word McJob to refer to "a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement."
The power of globalization which is impacted by many technological and other influences in the information age is quite noticeable. McDonaldization is one of the many influences that have impacted globalization as well.
Built on German sociologist Max Weber's ideas for rationalization, McDonaldization is a concept that was coined by George Ritzer to represent how the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world.
Rationalization refers to an increasingly rational world where traditions, emotions and values are replaced by rational calculated ones, based mainly on elements like predictability, efficiency, calculability and independence from human technologies.
McDonaldization draws from this theory and shows how these four concepts of rationalization apply to the famous fast-food chain McDonald's.
While Weber's theory uses bureaucracy as the model to represent a change in society, McDonaldization provides a contemporary paradigm with the example of fast-food restaurants. Ritzer further goes on to provide several illustrations and arguments to support his theory.

Understanding Rationalization and McDonaldization

To understand the theory of McDonaldization and a McDonalized world, it is important to first understand rationalization perfectly. While Weber's rationalization theory is what inspires Ritzer's theory of McDonaldization, he also draws from Karl Mannheim's thinking on rationality and rationalization.
Mannheim defines rationalization as consisting of settled and routinized procedures in dealing with situations that recur in an orderly fashion. The routine procedures and the elimination of any irrational domain like traditions, values and emotions is what forms the central theme of McDonaldization.
Why choose McDonald's to set the example? Modern fast-food consumption and restaurants are the perfect examples of rationalization. Go to any city, and you can find this familiar fast-food restaurant chain with the golden arches logo characterized by its quick and cheap food choices, packaging and service, not to forget the no-waiters concept.
The homogeneity of these elements in the McDonald's around the world (more specifically 119 countries) is what makes it perfect example for studying rationalization. However, the theory of McDonaldization refers not to the brand but the principles on which it is based.

Concepts of McDonaldization


Defined as the "choice of the optimum means to and end", efficiency on the surface appears to be a good for an organization and society in general. However, in this case, efficiency is only related to generating profit for the company.
The emphasis now shifts from providing quality products or services to providing something in the least amount of cost or effort.

In case of McDonald's, the quality is traded for quantity in the form of bigger-sized food products (The Big Mac or the large-sized French fries) in lesser time as opposed to good-quality food.
Things like "self-service" and "fill your own cup" does away with the need for waiters and makes the consumers do the work. So the company saves on the waiter's salary and the consumer ends up paying for this privilege. Preparation of the food off-site and offering customers limited menu choices are some other factors that are used to increase efficiency.


What is the first thing that you notice about McDonald's restaurant? The golden arches, the Happy Meals with the toys, the similar global packaging and almost similar menu items and not to forget Ronald McDonald, the red-haired clown mascot of the company.
This environment of predictability, irrespective of the place or time, helps in eliminating any surprises and differences. So, a Big Mac will always taste like a Big Mac, irrespective of the changes and uncertainty in life. So, people know what to expect when they enter the restaurant.
Predictability that is seen in McDonald's stems from order, discipline, consistency and methodical operation. This in turn permeates every facet of the society. The movie and television industry works on this predictability by churning out sequels or using the same story lines.


Calculability is when the standards of quality are sacrificed to attain more quantity. Today, people want more for less. To get this they are willing to sacrifice quality. This is seen in case of McDonald's where the emphasis lies on getting more food at a less price, so "bigger the better".
However, it is not just limited to that.

In his book the The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and Extensions, Ritzer provides an example of the emphasis on quantitative rather than qualitative studies in major journals.
Since it is difficult to quantify or assess the quality of theoretical and qualitative essays and studies, they find no place in the McDonaldized society. Also, the articles need to be of a fairly uniform length with very short or very long articles finding no place in these journals.

Nonhuman Technology

Despite all the trying, human efforts can fall short and there are bound to be mistakes. By replacing human cooking with machines to calculate every small element, including the size of the meat in a hamburger and the period of time it has to sizzle on one side, McDonald's ensures that everything tastes the same every time.

The replacement of humans with machines for control is seen in almost every sector, from our business to our homes, like the assembly lines in factories. By making tasks repetitive and controlled, employers force the employees not to think, thus maintaining control over them at all times.
This has led to the inhibition of the variations in society, and made us dependent on the very things that McDonaldization creates.

Irrationality of Rationality

Along with the four concepts of rationality, McDonaldization also takes into account the irrationality of the rational systems. According to Ritzer Most specifically, irrationality means that rational systems are unreasonable systems. By that I mean that they deny the basic humanity, the human reason, of the people who work within or are served by them.

What it means is that however controlled or efficient a system might be, there is bound to be certain unpredictability and inefficiency. For example, bureaucracy which is the cornerstone of Weber's study of rationalization is noted for its many irrational inefficiencies like "red tape."
Similarly, in a McDonalized society where things are made for efficient functioning there are bound to be certain inefficiencies as well. So, a person stands for a long time in lines or a drive-thru at fast food restaurants as well.

Critical Analysis of the McDonaldization Theory

Criticisms of the McDonaldizaton theory are based on the dark, somewhat foreboding picture of globalization that Ritzer paints. It is somewhat difficult to associate these negative predictions as a reality in the global marketplace.

One of the key areas where Ritzer's theory has been criticized is his likening McDonaldization with the Holocaust which he believes is the "precursor of McDonaldization." To substantiate his claim Ritzer takes the example of Zygmunt Bauman's argument that the Holocaust was a result of scientific rationality and the modernization process.
According to Ritzer, both the theories rely on bureaucracy and rationality along with the connection to the factory system. Moreover, based on Bauman's theory, Ritzer believed that the rationality spread by McDonaldization could spur on another Holocaust.
Although they may share a few similarities related to rationality and bureaucracy, what differentiated McDonaldization from the Holocaust is the sheer scale of destruction and evil that Holocaust was associated with. Likening an event of that scale with the rationality of McDonaldization is somewhat superficial.
As for the argument that the rationality spread by McDonaldization could spur on another Holocaust, Ritzer's argument is proved wrong by the source he cites. Although Bauman does claim that societal causes led to the Holocaust, he also believed that it is globalization that keeps such an event from happening again.

Apart from this McDonaldization theory has been criticized for applying very little of the critical theory and providing no recommendations for what can be done to stop McDonaldization of society. Moreover, the thesis is believed to be more or less limited to the US context.
While there are many criticisms of this theory, McDonaldization theory and its concepts like efficiency, predictability, control and replacement of nonhuman with human technologies can be seen in almost all new means of consumption like mega malls, shopping networks, cybermalls, infomercials and of course, fast food restaurants.
Ritzer realizes that rationalization has accelerated and is ruining the country. Is the condition that bleak then? Maybe not, returning to a world without rationalization is impossible and may not be needed.
After all, we do not need a less rational society rather what we want is more control on the process of rationalization to remove more of its irrational consequences.