Notes on: Ritzer, G.  (2003).  Islands of the Living Dead.  The Social Geography of McDonaldization.  American Behavioral Scientist, 42 (2) [but also evidently reprinted in an edited collection --page numbers refer to that) DOI:10.1177/0002764203256179

Dave Harris

[Ritzer seems to be finally moving from Weber here to embrace Foucault but above all Baudrillard]

The metaphor of the iron cage is going to be tested out in terms of its social geography.  It seems to imply that an entire society or world is enclosed by rationalization, although Weber never specified what he meant by a society, focusing instead on structures and institutions.  When thinking of McDonaldization, we should think in terms of 'islands' rather than a whole system.  We can also include Foucault on the '"carceral archipelago"'(33).  This involves a series of isolated rationalized systems with gaps between them.  When focusing on those islands, Foucault and Weber offer a similar vision of discipline or rationalization.

However, modern society is not just an iron cage in total.  There are islands, and the boundaries around them are not rigid.  Ritzer thinks of them as islands of the living dead, as in Romero movies. Foucault's notion of an archipelago is also close.  Our society is not best described as fully rationalized, especially with the growth of consumerism and its settings.  We can see this pattern of islands in a number of examples—factories remaining isolated in an otherwise devastated landscape, towns dominated by McDonaldized shops and businesses but with smaller businesses between them, even areas of Orlando that have escaped.  There may be increasing numbers of rationalized islands, and the trend may be to develop more  but it still remains easy to avoid them and find alternatives.

We also need to explain the popularity of McDonaldized settings [not before time].  The main impulses are still 'the clever, attractive, and aggressive marketing and advertising campaigns' (35) which are added by specialist advertising or marketing companies.  But there is also much that is 'lively, full of life' on the McDonaldized islands.  Many people seem to enjoy them.  Kids have fun and adults like seeing them have fun [there is no actual analysis here, just anecdotes about observing large numbers of people enjoying themselves].  This leads to a paradoxical relation between life of the islands and what might be seen as [cultural] death.

Here we draw on Baudrillard.  He writes that cemeteries can be seen as places which consume death and the dead.  Some cemeteries have become more spectacular, 'similar to other cathedrals of consumption' (37).  There are also ghettoes separated from life, helping us to regulate death, and this in turn is seen as a stage in the '"future confinement of life in its entirety"' [quoting Baudrillard].  Here we see Baudrillard at his most pessimistic, anticipating a fully carceral system as an inevitable future.  He goes on to talk about life being a series of regulated activities, each with its own separate risk.  Applying this to McDonaldized islands, we can see these as ghettoes as well, a form of segregated life involving leaving everyday life [which reminds me of the work on shopping malls producing the postmodern self]. Weber also sees rationalization as a form of death, but Baudrillard is preferred.

This certainly captures the combination of lively pleasure for the customers and dull routine work for the workers.  There is also a suspicious search for perfection and positivity, just like Baudrillard on the '" smile of a corpse in a funeral home"'(38).  This actually makes McDonaldized islands less lively than reality—'they lack "evil" (as well as "seduction" and "symbolic exchange") (38).  However, they're also ecstatic, which for Baudrillard means they are endlessly expanding, producing '"a pure and empty form"', like cancer.  In this way, the expansion of McDonaldization also means the death of more settings outside

For Baudrillard, the dead appear as a simulacrum of life.  All the famous McDonaldized sites are awash with simulacra too.  Can real life go on in simulacra?  Rather, what we have is a simulation of life, just as in the smiling corpse, a zombie affect [and here Ritzer sites work on the dead-eyed wandering of consumers in the shopping mall --but see a critique here].

The carceral archipelago or the iron cage might still described the future, but a social geographical image of islands seems more accurate at the moment.  At least it makes the positives more clear, while enabling a critique of that kind of living as a form of deadened life.

[No references to this chapter]

back to sociology of leisure page