Saturday, August 8, 2009

The McDonaldization of Society: Or is it a case of an academic lost?

How do we know that a social theorist has lost track of his own argument?

When he starts espousing academic pearls like this:

"Although, the grobalisation of nothing is at odds with the glocalization of something, clearly much of the power today lies with the grobalization of nothing, which threatens to overwhelm and undermine the glocalization of something (through, for example, McDonaldizing these forms of something" - pg 179, The McDonaldization of Society 5 (2008) by George Ritzer.

Ritzer came into limelight in 1993 with his book The McDonaldization of Society, in which he examined how the fast food chain McDonald's, and the fast food industry in general, had come to adopt a highly rational system of production based on efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. (The principles were first put forth by Max Weber when talking of the rationalisation of bureaucracy in Europe). He took existing journalistic records, popular knowledge about the McDonald's food chain, his own observations of society in general - doused them with a strong polemic against profit-driven corporations - and tried to show how such a model was bad for workers, customers and for society as a whole. He explained that such an effort towards formal rationality will eventually lead to irrationalities creeping into the system, such as, poor quality of the food and service, deskilling and high turnover of labour, health and environmental disaster, dehumanisation, and more. More importantly, Ritzer claimed that this model was being adopted by different sectors - banking, healthcare, police, education - and was spreading out of America to other parts of the world through globalisation. The whole world was getting McDonaldized, he warned. In short, he used McDonaldization to damn capitalism, Americanisation, Westernisation and globalisation – incidentally, Ritzer fails to differentiate between the last three – without doing any primary research himself.

The book met with an enthusiastic reception. Here are some responses put together by David Chery, an academic studying the theory's popularity:
* ‘Since using Ritzer’s text, enrolment in [my] class has grown …We think the text will serve as ‘launching pad’ for our majors.’ US college lecturer
* ‘This book has attracted the most animated response from students I have ever experienced…’ Lecturer, Arizona State University
* ‘invaluable as an illustration of how classical social theory can be applied’ Stephen Miles Social Theory in the Real World
* ‘Genuinely succeeds in communicating the sociological imagination … and would serve as a wonderful catalyst for an extended discussion on rationalization, modernity, and …related issues’ Endorsement of The McDonaldization of Society by Peter Kollock

It is easy to see the appeal of the book. It is written in everyday language, and relates to an easily observable everyday phenomena: fast food chains. It has relatively little tedious comparative statistics, specific definitions or extended analysis based on such statistics or definitions. And yet, it seems to explain the whole world around us through manifold observations and plausible extrapolations. Most importantly, it provides us with an identifiable bad guy, the evil profit-driven corporation, to pin all our problems on - obesity, break-down of family structure, increasing isolation, ecological disaster, deskilling of labour to name a few. Little wonder that students loved it. It allowed them to pontificate, criticise and judge without actually exerting themselves to do any boring scientific enquiry.

For example, this is how he extrapolates the model of fast food industry to higher education:
“The masses of students, large, impersonal dorms, and huge lecture classes make getting to know other students difficult. The large lecture classes, constrained tightly by the clock, also make it virtually impossible to know professors personally; at best, students might get to know a graduate assistant teaching a discussion section. Grades (and students are obsessed by this quantifiable measure of education) might be derived from a series of numbers rather than by name. In sum, students may feel like little more than objects into which knowledge is poured as they move along an informational-providing and degree-granting educational assembly line.” The McDonaldization of Society 5 (2008), pg 158.

There is no attempt to systematically apply the principles of efficiency, control, predictability and calculability to university education here. Ritzer does not try to break down the various functions of a university and examine how the McDonaldization model has come to dominate them all. For example, if we were to judge universities on classroom size, we would first have to come to some understanding regarding what an optimum classroom size should be. Next, we would need to find out what the average classroom size of an American university is, and prove that there is indeed a significant difference between the two. To further cement our point, we would have to prove that such classroom sizes had indeed led to a decline in the quality of students stepping out of such universities. Only then, could one say that irrationalities had crept into university education and it was getting McDonaldized. However, Ritzer does no such work. He makes random observations about classroom size, grades, exams and generalizes them to all professors and students, peppers his argument with “may” and “might” and pronounces that higher education in America has become McDonaldised.

However, such lack of precision did not deter the book or its author’s popularity in the least. Ritzer has revised the book five times since, the latest one being published in 2008. He has further extended the theory in books such as The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and Extensions (1998) and McDonaldization: The Reader (2002), apart from writing other books on globalization and consumer culture that willy-nilly relate back to his McDonaldization theory. In the process, he inspired many other academics to look into McTelevision, Disneyfication, McWorld and more.

However, criticism also accompanied the veneration.

Ritzer came up with an ambitious social theory to predict how the world operates. And yet, many theorists pointed out how the world, and the people who inhabit it, were deviating from his predictions. To take McDonald's for example: Yes, its outlets were spreading around the world, but in each new outlet seemed to adopt the local colour, cuisine and customer habits, making it different from its counterparts elsewhere, found James Watson. Further, the spread of chain stores and restaurants were also being accompanied by an explosion of independent restaurants and stores, back-to-nature movements, organic businesses, and other small businesses. In particular, Roland Robertson introduced the theory of glocalisation - that global and local are the two sides of the same coin, and their encounter leads to something new and unique, not the global always overpowering the local to create a homogenous world. Thus, globalisation is also responsible for greater heterogeneity, which is observable once we dig under the superficial homogeneity. Robertson claimed that corporations had an interest in promoting and nurturing these local differences in order to capture different markets.

How was Ritzer to explain the many contradictions to his theory that were emerging as sociologists started applying the glocalisation theory to a fast globalising world?

It is, thus, that Ritzer descended to the gibberish that we started the blog post with.

He could not deny that glocalisation was taking place. So he decided to differentiate between the different encounters of global and local, and the resultant outcome.

* Glocalisation: When, a global and local encounter takes place without the aid of multinationals, it is glocalisation.
* Grobalisation: When, a multinational is involved, such an encounter is grobalisation. He does not specifically define the term coined by him, beyond saying that “grobalisation focuses on the imperialistic ambitions of nations, corporations, organizations, and the life and their desire, indeed their need, to impose themselves on various geographical areas.” The term GRObalisation arose out of the needs of corporations to see their influence, power and profits GROW.
* A Nothing outcome: When such an encounter results in a product or service that was “centrally conceived, controlled and comparatively devoid of distinctive substantive content” – the outcome is nothing.
* A Something outcome: When the product and service results in something that is “generally indigenously conceived, controlled and comparatively rich in distinctive substantive content” – the outcome is something.

That Ritzer came up with such horrendously imprecise terms – Nothing & Something – to explain a phenomenon of global impact indicates his own cluelessness about the argument he wants to make.
He agrees that most outcomes will lie somewhere between the Something and Nothing continuum. But, he gives us no clue as what factors would lead to a result closer to one or the other end. For example, when decision-making is being shared by a global office and local branch how are we to judge the outcome. What kind of sharing arrangement would lead to the relationship closer to a Something end?

No doubt, he will answer the question in the 6th edition of The McDonaldisation of Society, due to be published in 2012. I guess, his answer will be – "since the decision-making of the grobal “the” emphasising nothing will always overwhelm the decisions of the glocal “a” producing something, the Mcdonadization of the “an” creating anything is inevitable."

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