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Ritzer on the Rationalization of Consumption
By Frank W. Elwell
The concept of rationalization was developed by Max Weber. It is the application of logic, observation, and science to achieve desired ends. The major characteristics of the process are efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control. Weber saw bureaucracy as the prime example of the rationalization process applied to human organizations. These organizations are hierarchical in nature, and controlled through directives from the top offices. Written rules define the responsibilities and authorities of office; there is a detailed division of labor; and staffing and promotion are done through achievement.
While Ritzer sees bureaucracy as continuing in the world today, he believes that McDonalds is a more effective model of the rationalization process applied to human organization. Ritzer did not coin the term “McDonalization” to describe a new process, only to reach a broader audience and to more effectively illustrate the rationalization process. What are the bureaucratic characteristics of the fast food restaurant?
Unlike traditional restaurants that rely on chefs or cooks, the fast food restaurant relies on unskilled laborers who are assigned a simple task that is endlessly repeated. The restaurant employs technologies to take the variability and guesswork out of preparation. They are able to do this because these restaurants have a very restricted menu. Much of the food preparation is done in factories away from the restaurant. The hamburger patties and chicken nuggets are formed off-site, the fries are pre-cut, and the buns are baked and shipped out to the restaurants for final cooking and assembly. Rather than waitresses, the restaurant employs counter people and uses cash registers with pictures instead of prices. Rather than busboys, the restaurant encourages customers to clear their own tables. To move customers quickly through the dining experience, restaurants provide finger foods that can be rapidly eaten and uncomfortable seating that discourages lingering over the meal. To make it even more efficient, a recent innovation has been the drive-through where the customer is not even given a table is required to remove the waste from the premises as well.
The attractions of fast food restaurants to consumers, Ritzer points out, are many. Their efficiency combined with the volume of their business allows them to give more food for the money. They serve very predictable fare. The food has been designed to appeal to a broad audience. While no one anticipates a gourmet feast, you need not fear spoiled or bad-tasting food, or outrageous prices, either. By design, the Big Mac you buy in San Francisco is likely to be virtually identical to the one purchased in Tulsa or New York City. This predictability is ensured through centralized control, exercised through written rules, regulations, and procedures as well as through the use of technology. Another attraction of fast food is that the innovation fits in with modern lifestyles. The growth of fast food coincides with
Ritzer is also in agreement with Weber in seeing Capitalism as providing much of the driving force promoting the rationalization process. In its drive for profit—which is its reason for being—capitalism pushes the individual to acquire marketable skills, work at inhumane jobs for wages, and above all consume. Although the forces of rationalization and capitalism are separate, Ritzer writes, they are also very much intertwined. Profit provides a motive for millions of entrepreneurs (and wannabes) to adopt technologies and techniques that can lower the costs of producing, delivering, or selling products or service to consumers.
Chief among these techniques are the detailed division of labor thus breaking jobs up into simple steps, the replacement of labor with technology, setting the pace of work, and close monitoring of employee performance—all of which are part of the rationalization process. The rationalization of the economy to maximize profit is in the interests of capitalists, and it is capitalism that provides much of the drive (though not all) behind the rationalization process.
Ritzer also points out that rationalization is driven by our cultural value system, that is, rationalization and its drive for efficiency has come to be seen as a value in-and-of-itself. It is the continuing development of rationalization and capitalism that has led to the creation of culture of hyper-consumption in America. So important has consumption become, Ritzer argues, that America is now “better characterized by consumption than production.” With the expansion of rationalization, the spread of consumer society is threatening to overwhelm indigenous cultures around the world.
For a more extensive discussion of Ritzer's theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.
Elwell, F. W. 2009. Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.
Elwell, F. W. 2006. Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
Elwell, F. W. 2013. Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.
Ritzer, G. (1975). Sociology: A Multiple Paradigm Science. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.
Ritzer, G. (2004). The Globalization of Nothing. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.
Ritzer, G. (1993). The McDonaldization of Society. Newbury Park: Pine Forge Press.
Ritzer, G. (2007, August 25). About Ritzer. (F. Elwell, Interviewer)
Ritzer, G. (2007). Being (George Ritzer) and Nothingness: An Interview. (S. Dandaneau, & R. Dodsworth, Interviewers)
Ritzer, G. (2005). Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.
Ritzer, G. (1995). Expressing America: A Critique of the Global Credit Card Society. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.
Ritzer, G. (n.d.). George Ritzer Home Page. Retrieved August 20, 2007, from University of Maryland: http://www.bsos.umd.edu/socy/ritzer
To reference Ritzer on the Rationalization of Consumption you should use the following format:
Elwell, Frank W., 2013, "Ritzer on the Rationalization of Consumption," Retrieved August 31, 2013, [use actual date] http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/~felwell/Theorists/Essays/Ritzer1.htm