FROM: Harris, D. (2004) Key Concepts in Leisure Studies, London and Thousand Oaks: Sage



McDonaldization is a term originally coined by the American sociologist George Ritzer in a series of best-selling books about the spread of the fast food industry and the implications raised for modern society (including other types of leisure). More general theoretical arguments are also involved. Controversy has greeted the work and has led to new emphases.


Section Outline

Weber on rationalization. Ritzer on the characteristics of McDonaldization. Critical evaluations of the McDonaldization thesis. Weber on the ‘ideal type’. Developments and applications to other leisure activities – package tours, Disney and the re-enchantment of the (baseball) ballpark.

Ritzer (1993,1997) tells us that he was originally hoping to illustrate a major approach to the development of modern institutions associated with the German sociologist Max Weber, and he provides an account of Weber's sociology in his equally famous social theory book, Ritzer (1986). Ritzer sees the growth of the McDonald’s chain as an excellent illustration of the tendencies that Weber described as rationalization, although the later work also suggests that Disneyfication, or certain aspects of globalization, including the development of international credit cards and the increasing exchange of 'nothing' (that is, 'weightless' goods like expertise and credit) would also serve as equally good examples. Since much of the discussion of McDonaldization points to the strengths and of the weaknesses of Weber's analysis, it is best to begin with a brief account of Weber's theory of rationalization.

Weber had analysed rational human action as falling into four basic types, but he wanted to focus attention on the relationship between two of those types of rationality in particular. One was 'value - rationality', where social life was organised in order to rationally pursue some good life, some ultimate value, as in Christian notions of salvation or virtue. The other type is more familiar, so much so that it has become more or less identified with the concept of rationality itself. Weber called this type 'purposive - rationality', and it takes the form of a much more scientific and calculating pursuit of effectiveness. Here, overall values are important only insofar as they can be translated into specific, ideally measurable, goals. Any matters outside these specifics are left as purely private concerns, no longer to be debated in public life.

The most effective means to achieve these specific goals, with maximum benefit and minimum cost, are then selected, regardless of sentiment, subjective or emotional attachments, or tradition. This second kind of rationality has obviously dominated the modern corporation or state bureaucracy. Weber went on to define his notion of bureaucracy (in the rather special form of an 'ideal type', to which we shall return below) to reflect this overwhelming importance of rationality: work was rationally subdivided, and organised in a hierarchy, there were technical rules and procedures to cover every operation, people were appointed exclusively according to their merits or experience. Modern corporate life would be impossible without the development of this kind of rationality, Weber thought. If an insurance company is to process a large number of clients, for example, it has to be completely rational in the way that it assesses risks and pay outs. It would be no good trying to judge the risk of applying insurance cover to drivers by making personal and subjective judgements about them. Instead, standard information is required, and forms are filled in. The status and risks attached to the policy are then calculated using a set of objective rules. Decisions whether to cover or not are managed by having a hierarchy of offices, with specialist claims assessors and actuaries at the top, and reception staff at the bottom. It is in no one's interests, least of all the customers', to leave such decisions in the hands of traditional elites, or people who happen to appeal to the shareholders regardless of their merits. It can even be a great relief and refuge to work in a rational organisation, instead of one run by prima donnas and bullies permitted to express their ‘bad’ subjectivity.

It might be obvious immediately that these characteristics can be applied to leisure businesses specifically. The first step is to take a thorough look at a key example, the task of providing recreational foods, in this case burgers. It is clear that the whole process can be modernised and developed by abandoning the traditional craft methods of producing burgers in small local stores. Something more like a factory is substituted instead -- the burger becomes a standard combination of a particular kind of sandwich or bun, a standard portion of meat, and a standard combination of salad and gherkins. Standardization enables exactly the same kind of economic benefits that Henry Ford received after standardising the production of motor cars: in particular, fine calculations can be made which balance the quantities offered in the meal, the cost of those inputs, the volume of sales, and the price of each item. Such burgers are produced on a kind of factory production line to a standardized formula, and are dispensed in measurable packages. Craftwork disappears, and machines come increasingly to regulate the whole process. Ritzer describes the key qualities overall as:

(1)   efficiency (choosing the most efficient means to achieve specified ends as above, giving the assembly-line philosophy of McDonald’s, drive-throughs, making the customer work to assemble their own meals and dispose of waste and so on),

(2)   calculability of process and product (the quantification of meals, portion size, times to cook fries),

(3)    predictability (standardised meals and Mcworkers all over the world, often trained in-house by the Hamburger University) ,

(4)   control, as in the use of non-human technology  (factory farms, microwaves, computerisation in cash tills or drinks dispensers -- and robot workers).

(5)   ‘irrationality of rationality’, (the costs which rationalised organisations can impose on their environments or customers – what is rational for the company may be damaging or costly for these others, a clear reference to pollution or health issues).

High overall productivity clearly has been factor in the huge success of McDonald’s. Prices are low, and customers get the same value and (in general terms) the same menu wherever they go. However, there is a social price to pay, again well foreseen by Weber. The human and cultural meanings involved in producing food are stripped away. Weber used the rather ambiguous term 'disenchantment' to describe this process – cold, abstract scientific procedure replaces the (often illusory) mystery and charm of the old-fashioned ways of cooking. Ritzer (1999) uses this term to describe the dislike that people feel for coldly rational organisations that seem inhuman, especially in leisure, but goes on to look at processes of ‘re-enchantment’ as well, in a way which rescues him from many critics as we shall see.

It is clear that Ritzer disapproves heartily of the trend towards McDonaldization, so much so that he urges readers to resist these trends, to press for quality instead of quantity, for diversity rather than uniformity, for human contact rather than the anonymous consumption of products after queuing at the delivery end of a production line. This clearly strikes a chord with many cultural critics as well. Rather as with Disney, many middle-class intellectual academics clearly despise McDonald’s and the whole fast food syndrome. Again we might use Bourdieu to explain why (see the section on social class) -- the quick anonymous consumption of bland and probably unhealthy food is clearly going to be anathema to those sharing the 'high aesthetic' with its central values of cool, abstracted judgment and denial of immediate gratification (and see the section on food). This structured distaste for fast food is so common among bourgeois groups that it might be difficult for them to see why anyone ever wants to eat in McDonald’s in the first place. Indeed, Parker, in Alfino et al. (1998), suggests this distaste is the real impulse behind Ritzer’s analysis rather than the attempted technical application of Weber.

We have already acknowledged the convenience and predictability of the fast meal, but, as usual, deeper cultural manipulation might be at work. Given that rationalization serves to strip food items of any cultural meaning by reducing them to industrial products, there is a need to supply alternative meanings for the consumer. These are going to be ones that lead to further commercial exploitation. McDonald’s has worked hard on its image as a family restaurant, for example, and, like Disney, its workers are trained to be hospitable and friendly (although not too friendly, since this might impede efficient processing of large numbers of customers). Children and adolescents like fast food, because it is tasty (salty or sweet), and because McDonald’s tries very hard to market their products with a whole range of toys and spin-offs for children. Although Ritzer does not mention it explicitly, we know from other studies of children's diet that they tend to like ‘junk’ foodstuffs that directly invert adult food values, as in the fascinating study by James (in Waites et al. 1982) of children’s desires for cheap, sticky and unwrapped sweets. Fast food offers these pleasures, not least in the way in which it can be eaten with minimal table manners. These clever marketing strategies are particularly sinister, perhaps, because vulnerable people like children are involved, and because there are serious anxieties about the overall effects on health of an excessive diet of burgers. There is a suspicion that ruthless business practices underscore the friendly image: McDonald’s has also had a spate of bad publicity about the damage to the environment for which the company allegedly is responsible.

For some critics of Ritzer, however, the familiar accusation is made that this simply underestimates the capacity of the customers to choose or to resist. To take some quick examples, Rinehart, in Alfino et al. (1998) argues that feminists are perfectly capable of resisting the blandishments of the company, while Turner, in Smart (1999), suggests that customers are much more likely to be playfully consuming rather than to be completely dominated by the ideology of rationality. Kellner (Alfino et al. 1998) suggests that Ritzer simply has missed out the slightly subversive uses to which people can put the McDonald’s restaurant, such as when young Taiwanese meet in local Macs to discuss politics. As might be expected, advocates of the ‘skilled consumer’ thesis see a much more active and measured acceptance of the pleasures of rational consumption, as Miles argues (in Alfino et al. 1998): the predictability of McDonaldization can be welcome in an otherwise risky and changing world of consumerism, and this value is capably calculated even by young consumers. As with all celebrations of the skilled consumer, though, this particular argument can look very uncritical and blandly optimistic. There are some undoubted advantages for rationalised food production though, despite their drawbacks – they can relieve women of the constant responsibility of providing meals for the family, and McDonald’s restaurants can provide a kind of temporary refuge for the culturally threatened (like American visitors to the UK – see Caputo in Alfino et al. 1998).

There is also much more diversity and subjective variability in concrete examples of McDonald’s restaurants. To take some of my own experience, I quickly spotted that you can buy alcohol in French ones, and one McDonald's I visited in the Place de la République in Paris was playing Verdi on the sound system (almost unknown in Britain, I would think). Menus vary as well, between Britain, America and France, and there is, I gather, a whole menu on offer in the Middle-East described as 'MacArabia'. The current ‘new tastes’ menu in the UK is also more diverse, offering salads and pasta, Greek-style burgers, or ‘Premiere’ burgers in healthy focaccia buns.

These comments often lead on to a methodological argument as well, expressed best perhaps by Kellner (2003). By relying on Weber, Ritzer leaves out a number of theoretical models that would have explained the missing aspects of his analysis. Marxism might have helped provide an assessment of the capitalist background of rationalisation, and the impact on the workforce. Semiotic analysis could clarify the ways in which meanings are attached to burgers, both by the company and by the customers, as Caputo demonstrates in his analysis of the appealing American ‘food, folks and fun’ myth displayed in the advertisements (in Alfino et al. 1998: 49). Certainly, in order to understand McDonald’s itself as a phenomenon, and not just as an illustration of Weber's work on bureaucracy, we would need to draw upon other theoretical resources, including postmodern ones – see Wynyard in Alfino et al (1998). In fact this is taken up by Ritzer himself in his later work on disenchantment and re-enchantment, when he adds to his account additional insights drawn from marxist and postmodernist theorists to consider consuming more fully (see the section on adding leisure values).

However, there is one aspect of Weber's work which might be deployed in the defence of Ritzer's analysis. It is clear that subjective variations do take place in particular McDonald’s restaurants, as they must whenever human beings are involved. Some managers will offer different decor or music, as we have seen. Some people will attach particular meanings to visiting McDonald’s, as do the (possibly mythical) divorced fathers who take their children for a Big Mac on the weekends they have access. Muscovites apparently queued for hours to be among the first to sample a burger on the opening of the first restaurant in Russia, possibly because they saw eating a Mac as an essential step towards a post-communist future. We know from other studies of corporations that the participants relate to each other in all sorts of subjective ways, not just following the technical rules, but pursuing micropolitical strategies (see Weick, in Westoby 1988), imposing their own structures of dominance, and even falling in love with each other. As we said above, these are not always ‘good’ activities, and, increasingly, they may actually be put to commercial purposes after all by apparently humanising or ‘enchanting’ the workplace.

However, the point is whether these subjective variations are important enough to weaken the central analysis. There will never be a pure type bureaucracy, complete in every detail, as Weber knew only too well. That is why he offered instead an 'ideal type'. This term has been much discussed in social theory, but the word  'ideal' is usually seen as referring to an idea, a central definition, the essence of the organisation (the 'type' part refers more to the commonly-found features in existing typical examples). If we see Ritzer's work as offering not a simple description of McDonald’s but this rather special 'ideal type' of the organisation, it becomes possible to rescue it from many of its critics. Despite all the variations we have found, does the central logic of McDonaldization show any signs of weakening or changing? Are the alternative menus themselves produced using the principles of calculability, predictability and so on? Asking this sort of question might lead to far more support for Ritzer's position, and, indeed, it is a feature of his later work on enchantment. He does use questions like this in reply to his many critics, and he does explicitly mention ideal-type analysis in his reply to critics in Smart (1999). However, he does not refer to this particular interpretation of the ideal type, but sees it instead as a simple template or yardstick!

In conclusion to this section, we might briefly consider some attempts to apply this work to other aspects of leisure. Ritzer himself has always seen the package tour as an excellent example of McDonaldization (even in Ritzer 1993), and we might compare this with the discussion of authenticity. He has also pursued the implications for Disney theme parks and shopping malls (Ritzer and Liska in Rojek and Urry 1997), and a wide range of other ‘cathedrals of consumption’ such as cruise ships or museums, and, in the process, tried to incorporate some of the criticisms. Perhaps the best single short piece on this is the analysis of the postmodern ballpark (Ritzer and Stillman 2001).

Other writers are less certain of the general application of the McDonaldization model, at least in its earlier stages. Bryman, for example, tries out the five characteristics pretty explicitly in his revisit to the Disney theme park (in Smart 1999), and finds a good fit except for the characteristic of calculability: Disney parks seem to stress the overall quality of the experience rather than attempting to calculate cost-effectiveness in a detailed and local manner. Jary has explored two major applications of McDonaldization – to the university (Parker and Jary 1995) and to leisure and sports in general (in Smart 1999). The first example has provoked much amusement and irony among academics trying to debunk the new managerialism in British universities, but Parker and Jary find many exceptions to the overall trend to McDonaldization even in modern universities. In terms of leisure more generally, Jary finds the model too limiting, and he wants to add additional stages or dimensions to the analysis (including the history of leisure in figurationalist terms as a pre-cursor to McDonaldization, and to analyses of commodification of sport, of the kind we explore with Nike, in the section on adding leisure values). Ritzer reacted rather sternly to this attempt to both extend and localise his model in his reply (also in Smart 1999), and claimed he was already working to add some missing elements (in the work on enchantment that became Ritzer 1999).

See also: adding leisure values, authenticity, Disneyfication, figurationalism, postmodernism, shopping.

Further reading

Apart from following up the collections of criticisms (Alfino et al. 1998 and Smart 1999) Kellner’s (2003) online essay summarises the critiques and offers new insights. Ritzer and Stillman (2001) on baseball illuminate the power of the new approach to re-enchantment. Those interested in the Weberian background might consult Ritzer’s own bestselling textbook on social theory (Ritzer 1996), or Ray (1999), and compare the sections on the ‘ideal type’ especially.


Alfino, M., Caputo, J. and Wynyard, R. (eds.) (1998) McDonaldization  Revisited: critical essays on consumer culture, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers.

Kellner, D. (2003) ‘Theorizing/Resisting McDonaldization: A Multiperspectivist Approach’ [online]

Parker, M. and Jary, D. (1995) ‘The McUniversity: organization, management and academic subjectivity’, in Organization, Vol. 2: 1—20.

Ray, L. (1999) Theorising Classical Sociology, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Ritzer, G. (1993) The McDonaldization of Society: an investigation into the changing character of contemporary social life, London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Ritzer, G. (1996) Sociological Theory, 4th edn., Singapore: McGraw-Hill.

Ritzer, G. (1999) Enchanting a Disenchanted World: revolutionizing the means of consumption, Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Ritzer, G. and Stillman, T. (2001) 'The Postmodern Ballpark as a Leisure Setting: Enchantment and Simulated De- McDonaldization', in Leisure Sciences, Vol. 23: 99—113.

Rojek, C. and Urry, J. (eds.) (1997) Touring cultures: transformations of travel and theory, London: Routledge.

Smart, B. (ed.) (1999) Resisting McDonaldization, London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Waites, B., Bennett, T. and Martin, G. (eds.) (1982) Popular Culture: past and present, London: Croom Helm in association with the Open University Press.

Westoby, A.(ed.) (1988) Culture and Power in Educational Organisations, Milton Keynes: Open University Press