To what extent does the process of McDonaldization exemplify Weber’s theory of bureaucratisation

Published: 2019/12/05 Number of words: 5005

To what extent does the process of McDonaldization exemplify Weber’s theory of bureaucratisation”
As Lash (1990) ably asserts, the infinitely complex and dynamic nature of human societies means that sociology must continually evolve, resulting in few scholars maintaining any degree of longevity within the discipline. However, this paper pays tribute to one particular sociologist, Max Weber (1946), whose thoughts and concepts remain pivotal to our understanding of society today. In particular, his writings on bureaucratisation or the increasing implementation of administrative (bureaucratic) systems throughout various institutions (e.g. industry, law, education) have had a profound impact on developing and invigorating the sociological imagination (Mills 1959). Indeed, Ritzer’s (2008) McDonaldization thesis, whilst considering McDonalds (not bureaucracies) as the ideal-type for depicting rationalisation in late- modernity (Giddens 1991), is committed to explaining, modernising and extending Weber’s concept of bureaucratisation and the wider rationalisation process that it personifies. This essay, through the verses of Ritzer’s McDonaldization thesis and the various applications of it, hopes to demonstrate the uncanny resemblance between the Weber and Ritzer theses, both in their theoretical orientations and in their pessimistic caricatures of society’s future. However, acknowledging the anachronistic limitation of Weber’s thesis, this essay demonstrates how his original ideas may be employed – under the new alias of McDonaldization – to examine societal developments such as the service industry, mass consumerism, globalisation and postmodernism. In summary, this essay illustrates the ongoing dialogue between sociologists like Ritzer and the ghost of Weber.

For Weber (1946) the advent of bureaucratic order coincided and greatly appealed to an emerging capitalistic ethos which sought to minimise costs whilst increasing profitability by embodying the formers tenets of rationality, specialisation, quantification, predictability and control. Indeed, he postulated that an “elective affinity” (Weber 1946: 83) or mutual partnership existed between economy and bureaucratisation, which he considered the “two [greatest] rationalising forces” of modernity. Thus, as Toye (2006) alludes, the principle function of bureaucratisation was puritanical inasmuch as it served to eradicate human imperfection or error by minimising possibilities for creative thought or sentiment. Hence, for Weber (1946) society’s institutions became analogous to (bureaucratic) “iron cages” whereby the affective and imaginative – like the entombing gaze of the Greek goddess Medusa – are purged or transformed into the impersonal, indifferent and inhumane – a lifeless rock. Indeed, its parasitic and cancerous nature would eventually colonise every aspect of the lifeworld (Habermas 1984), with only fragments of enchantment evading its “cold skeleton hands” (Weber cited in Kadarkay 1994: 83). Thereafter there would be little to differentiate humanity from death, both would symbolise nothingness. Indeed, as Ritzer (2003: 130) argues: “[rationality] is designed to destroy us as humans”.

Thus, as Edgell (2006) suggests, given its propensity to yield greater revenue, bureaucratisation had been assimilated into the world of industry under the auspices of Scientific Management (Taylorism) and Fordism. Indeed, these techniques sought to revolutionise the workplace into a meticulously fine-tuned machine, capable of performing specialised, routine and automatic (automated) tasks; where employees are, quite literally, reduced to “appendages of machines” (Marx and Engels 1848: 87). Interestingly, as Gramsci (cited in Jones 2006) notes, Henry Ford had offered competitive wages in exchange for what would inevitably be monotonous, demeaning and ultimately soul-destroying work. This coincides somewhat with Braverman’s (1974) notion of ‘degradation’ – and indeed de-skilling thesis – whereby work is gradually substituted by non-human factors e.g. machines and later computers, and knowledge/skills increasingly centralised within an elite nexus of ‘experts’ (Foucault 1988). Subsequently, an increasing number of workers become disenfranchised and estranged (i.e. proletarianization); the artisan becomes just another cog in the machine as the markets for authenticity and creativity begin to diminish.

In this vein, as Weber (1946) implies, whilst an expedient contraption for increasing productivity, organisational and social control, a major irrationality of bureaucratisation is its enchainment of the soul and debasement of humanity. Indeed, we become servants, celebrants and evangelists of rationalisation, building temples in its name (e.g. bureaucracies, McDonalds etc) and propagating its verses worldwide. These pessimistic revelations and overtures of Marxism, which are embodied in Weber’s bureaucratisation have been adopted, advanced and recast within Ritzer’s (2008) McDonaldization thesis, which (self-evidently) construes the fast-food chain as the quintessence of rationality.

Indeed, as Wassmann (1998) contends, McDonaldization becomes a hegemonic vernacular of the modern world, a contraption of the Occidental (like the dominant language of English), inasmuch as it must be assimilated by ‘non-western(ised)’ countries wishing to participate – efficiently and therefore profitably – within international economic and socio-political markets. In addition, as Lindsay (2005) asserts, the term ‘McJobs’ comes to describe the prevalence of highly routinised, low paid/status/skilled occupations within modernity, with sparse promotional opportunities or benefits and high levels of staff turnover. In addition, ‘McJobs’ commonly (over-)represent disadvantaged and marginalised groups within society e.g. working-classes, ethnic minorities and women.

Furthermore, if we accept Beck’s (1999) dystopian vision of a climate plagued by increasing uncertainty (i.e. Brazilianization) – characterised by receding unions, welfare and benefit systems – then McJobs like retail, hospitality and catering, which simply require “warm [living] bodies” (McKay 2009: 27), are likely to be (disproportionately) fraught with insecurities and (personal) risk. Indeed, this contrasts somewhat with what Goos and Manning (cited in Dickens et al 2003: 70-85) call ‘MacJobs’ or knowledge/skills-dependant occupations which offer greater degrees of autonomy, wealth and mobility whilst better enabling workers to transfer their skills or ‘cultural capital’ (Bourdieu cited in Shusterman 1999) as businesses make redundancies or undergo liquidation. Thus, again adopting Beck’s lexis, we might differentiate between ‘Core’ or MacJobs, offering greater security and opportunities, and ‘Peripheral’ or McJobs which, whilst employed, represent a reserve army of labour (i.e. hireable and fireable).

Furthermore, as Castles and Miller (2009) contend, we witness the exportation of such mundane (often labour-intensive) occupations e.g. manufacturing and telecommunications, to developing countries where legislation, unions and workers’ rights are weak and wages cheaper. However, as Townley et al (2003) contend, even within the higher echelons of management, employees become entangled in red-tape, subjected to scripted performances and organisational (bureaucratic) surveillance. For example, Ritzer and Walczak (1988) explain how the physician’s professional role and sovereignty is becoming jeopardised by external exigencies of government policies and private enterprises seeking to improve efficiency and profit-margins by condensing, standardising and controlling the physician’s workplace and activities. Thus, the once revered, esoteric and elite medical practitioner is reduced to little more than a pre-programmed robot awaiting a production line of anonymous patients.

In addition, McDonaldized principles permeate into those service industries that claim to offer that personal touch of spontaneity. Thus, Hochschild’s (1983) research on emotional labour exemplifies how human sentiment is frequently harnessed, engineered and scripted for profitability. Indeed, this is what Bolton and Boyd (2003) call bureaucratisation of the sprit. Thus, (service) workers, having to masquerade everyday as the polite, cheerful and comported employee – what Ritzer (2001: 30) calls “false fraternisation” – are often denied their species-being (Marx and Engels 1974) as it becomes the product of another i.e. a company caricature. Namely, ones humanity is exploited and subjugated by the overwhelming forces of rationality and economy, leaving workers feeling alienated, lonely and exhausted – to the detriment of their personal (intimate) lives.

Ironically, as Harris’ (2002) research on barristers suggests, emitting genuine sentiment is often construed as unprofessional and/or inappropriate. Similarly, Bain et al’s (2002) research on call centres reveals how, despite a minority niche of highly skilled workers, most work is appropriated by Taylorist methods whereby conversations with customers are timed, scripted, target-driven and continually scrutinised and refined to maximise sales. In addition, each employee’s output is meticulously monitored and surveyed by computers and recording devices – what Lyon (1993) calls the ‘electronic panopticon’ – which allow managers to reward or chastise employees on the basis of how efficiently or rationally they perform their tasks.

Furthermore, as Adorno (1996) attests, the production and delivery of goods and services in contemporary society – as propagated by the (Mc)mass-media (Ritzer 2008) with its emphasis on sound bites, vivid colours and extravaganza – has been besieged by processes of bureaucratisation such that what is produced by these so- called “culture industries” is largely unexceptional, impassive and commonplace i.e. kitsch. Today, as Ritzer (2001) argues, the world leans towards a one-size-fits-all ethos whereby everything e.g. clothes, food and property, is subjected to the depersonalised principles of standardisation and rationality; art, craftsmanship, uniqueness and the bespoke becomes a dying language. Indeed, as Marcuse (1991) lamented, products embossed with the stamp of rationality could only ever produce an “illusionary happiness” or temporary escape – designed purposefully so that people (like the drug addict) would continue to consume – from an otherwise one- dimensional (i.e. insubstantial) and soulless world.

Yet, drawing on Bryman’s (2004) notion of Disneyization, routinisation of the lifeworld must be blanketed with enchantments and mystical themes or what Ritzer and Stillman (2001) call fabricated “(re-)enchantment”; an illusionary veil or shadow which conceals the “iron cage”, nothingness or mechanical apparatus lurking within. The analogy of Plato’s (cited in Kernan 2000) spectral cave seems a befitting juxtaposition for such a depiction i.e. people chained to chairs, unable to turn their heads, and force-fed a pseudo-reality of silhouette performances.

Similarly, Ritzer (2005) describes places (or Cathedrals of Consumption) such as Las Vegas, The Mall of America and Disneyland as “islands of the living dead” which, whilst enticing mass audiences with their carnivalesque and bewitching pretences, are essentially mechanical, scheduled and imitative realities or what Baudrillard (1994) labels simulacra. Indeed, one finds parallels in the final paragraph of George Orwell’s 1984, which reads: “He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache […] but it was alright […] the struggle was finished […] he loved Big Brother” (pp. 239-240). Indeed, Ritzer argues that, for many, the bureaucratisation of social-life is a godsend, nirvana or “velvet cage” (Ritzer 2008: 118) in which one is cradled in a blanket of ‘ontological security’ and awe (Berger and Luckmann 1966) – a world of high predictability is comforting for many.

Similarly, despite being premised on the principles of leisure, eccentricity and choice, Wright’s (2006) account of Disneyland (Florida) depicts a highly efficient, controlled, predictable and well-groomed micro-world or model that epitomises the sterility, deportment and control depicted within Elias’ (2004) civilising process. Interestingly, contradicting or resisting Beck’s (1999) notion of insecurity and ambiguity, these “islands” depend on determinism, banality and control i.e. the theme-park, superstore or casino is organised methodically to maximise revenue, escort customers and discourage loitering. Thus, McDonaldization combines rationality with post- modernism’s superficiality (spectacle) as a method of control, fallacious (re)enchantment (i.e. enticing or captivating patrons) and lucrative enterprise.

Moreover, Foucault’s (1988) work provides an understanding of how rationality penetrates the very consciousness of an individual in everyday life, manifesting itself in what he calls the “technologies of self”. Namely, an imperceptible but very real iron cage located deep within the individual’s psyche – a personal Big Brother – whereby the presentation of self becomes meticulously monitored, managed and, subsequently, bodies and behaviour become predictable and controlled. Thus, we might tentatively talk of the McIndividual. Interestingly, such an individual is also present (albeit implicitly) in Weber’s (2003) “Protestant Ethic” which observes religious (i.e. Protestant) sects orientating towards the what he calls “this-worldly asceticism”; a religious doctrine laden with connotations of individualism (i.e. personal piety), self-discipline (e.g. material abstinence, the ledger of deeds) and (capitalistic) enterprise, since prosperity and wellbeing became ‘signs’ of divine favour.

Furthermore, as Crossley (2006) suggests, the linearisation and rationalisation of time, which is increasingly ordered by the clock, becomes a curse for many trying to manage the innumerable demands of modernity (alluding to the popularity of fast-food/fast-service) which has been associated with increasing levels of stress, depression, heart-attacks and obesity (i.e. irrationalities of rationality). Similarly, Lyon (2004) explains how ‘rationalising technologies’ – such as CCTV and biometrics – serve to increase the ‘panoptic gaze’ which polices and controls behaviour, bringing both temporal and spatial dimensions under surveillance, leaving few(er) places within the interaction-order (Goffman 1990) uncharted, untainted or un-asphyxiated by McDonaldization.

Indeed, as Foucault (2003) notes in the “Birth of the Clinic”, even the process of birth has undergone an epistemic shift from the experiential and skilled professions of midwifery to medicalised (i.e. rational/technical), esoteric and heavily institutionalised doctrine of experts. Today, as Leavitt (1986) notes, almost all births occur within the sterile, routinised and professional confines of the hospital, with machines, scientific knowledge and the scrutinising gaze of technicians continually charting every developmental stage of the pregnancy. Subsequently, the human character of childbirth and post-natal care is somewhat distanced by the imposition of non-human equipment (e.g. stirrups, birth stool, weighing scales), the rationalisation and regulation of time (e.g. visiting hours, inspections) and the unnatural (almost hostile) sterility of the hospital itself.

At the opposing end of the spectrum, as Aries (cited in Robben 2004) suggests, the process of death and dying, once a communal, ritualistic and public spectacle, has subsided into the sterile realms of the hospice where the “unbound body” (Street and Love 2005) is isolated and objectified by numerous technologies and routine practices of rationing medicine, maximising days lived, calculating chances of survival etcetera. Subsequently, the individual self, its subjectivity and vibrant biography, fades into the inconsequential background. Thus, it might also be suitable to talk of the McDeath and McBirth.

Yet, amidst the numerable ‘McDonaldisation of’s’ (a rather long list!) resides Jary and Parker’s (1995) notion of the McUniversity which is, arguably, the most depressing and despairing example of rationality’s (destructive) power and reach. Thus, whilst once a symbol of autonomy and creativity, the academy is gradually succumbing to the (joint) pressures of economy and bureaucracy; with greater emphasis placed on issues of finance, time and quantity of articles, books and number of ‘bums-on-seats’. Accordingly, as Hartley (1995) alludes, the beauty and value of creative mediation and depth of understanding is cast asunder as the dictates and oppressive forces of instrumentality and lucrative use-values come crashing through. Indeed, this is an outcome Weber (1946) would have abhorred but perhaps understood as, pessimistically, inevitable.

Yet, as Kellner (cited in Smart 1999: Ch 12) alludes, one might also contend that both authors’ versions of rationalisation – whether epitomised by bureaucracies or McDonalds – share similar criticisms of generating meta-theories or master trends that are homogenous, reified, unremitting and pessimistically bleak. Although, unlike Weber, Ritzer (2008) might be praised inasmuch as chapter 9 of his book provides a ‘list’ of ways in which we might resist or manage rationalisation in the 21st century. Indeed, the whole of his book is designed on McDonaldized principles, colourful, simplistic, categorised etc, such that it might appeal to ordinary members of society and succeed as a conscious-raising strategy – it certainly excels as a piece of Public Sociology (Burawoy 2005). Yet, whilst chapter 9 provides some optimism, this is tainted by the deterministic pessimism in the preceding 8 chapters.

Indeed, as Rinehart (cited in Alfino et al 1998: Ch 2) suggests, both authors’ theses fail to comprehend the multiplicity, vibrancy and depth of social life – which is ironic given that Weber in particular introduced the intersubjective term Verstehen – and individual experience. In effect, to paraphrase Denzin (1990), they ‘replace the experiences of ordinary members [society] with their own dominant master narratives’. Thus, Turner (2003) employs, somewhat unconvincingly, the notion of
‘glocalisation’ to describe the mosaic, flexible and negotiated nature of McDonaldized principles as they are exported internationally; there is a dialogue between local cultures (lifeworld) and global themes/processes (system). Indeed, he calls on recent developments such as decentralisation, liquidity, de-traditionalisation and the advent of an “information society” (Bell cited in Harris et al 1998: Ch 1) – which witnesses the individual as sovereign and principle possessor of the means of production i.e. knowledge – to explain the impossibility or incompatibility of a hegemonic meta-narrative such as McDonaldization existing in contemporary society. Therefore, although McDonalds continues to proliferate worldwide, embodying rationalising principles, the supposed process it exemplifies i.e. McDonaldization , does not or does so in an heterogeneous and negotiated format. However, Ram (2004) argues that McDonaldization continues to exist within the structural strata, persistently etching itself, through bribes, acclimatising to cultural tastes etc, into the cultural psyche of developing and non-western countries. Indeed, there is a gradual – albeit slow – colonisation and homogenisation of the lifeworld, leaving only a shallow symbolic reference to diversity or illusionary mask concealing the structural uniformity that resides beneath. Indeed, like a plague, McDonaldization suffuses the world placing a wedge between social relations as it re-orientates them or reduces them to “abstract monetary exchanges” (Ram 2004: 27) or “fetishism of commodities” (Marx cited in Ollman 1976: 195) and instrumental mean-values, the intersubjective order ceases to exist independently of such a process. Furthermore, his projection is that everything becomes reduced to a profit-margin that is deeply rooted in the foundations of efficiency, predictability, calculability, control and technologies (replacing human-beings). The temples of bureaucracy and McDonalds stand as effigies of this world.

Yet, Merleau-Ponty’s (cited in Toadvine and Lawlor 2007) notion of indeterminacy and freedom as embodied components of the body-subject reveal how, no matter how depressingly constrained social life is, the capacity or potentiality for resistance and agency cannot be subsumed entirely. Indeed, as an example of subversion within the micro-political milieu, Monaghan’s (2007) research describes how members of a local slimming organisation actively engage in resisting McDonaldized processes of rationalising charts, measures and images of ‘ideal’ (BMI) body weight. Thus, normative prescriptions of ideal body weight were often construed as dangerously low, e.g. “I looked really ill at my supposed ideal weight” (Monaghan 2007: 592), idealistic, standardised and subsequently too restrictive.

Similarly, Jermier et al’s (1991) research of the police organisation – which personifies bureaucracy as its ‘official culture’ – reveals how various subcultures emerge in contestation to managements rigid specifications, such as protocol and workload demands. Thus, the symbol of bureaucracy is repossessed by employees, inverted and recast as a soft(er), more flexible, creative and autonomous internal environment (i.e. what Ritzer (2008: 118) calls a “rubber cage”). However, one might construe such examples as the exception rather than the rule or minor (micro) deviations rather than radical attempts to oppose the omnipresent societal process of rationalisation, which remains heavily embodied in official bureaucracies, industries, commercial outlets and everyday life.

This essay has demonstrated that there is a strong resemblance between bureaucratisation and McDonaldization, both of which are heuristic devices designed to explain the gradual colonisation and asphyxiation of the social lifeworld, along with its many institutions and industries, by rationalising principles. In addition, both authors recognise the ‘elective affinity’ between capitalism and rationality, which serves to reinforce their pessimism regarding the possibilities for resistance or reversal. Indeed, both authors may also be criticised for being too deterministic and depressingly cynical, perhaps even simplistic, about the character of social life. However, in their defence, both authors have been highly influential, as evidenced through the multitude of research presented above, which imparts a certain degree of value and validity to both Ritzer and Weber. Yet, where both authors differ pertains more to (historical) context rather than any major theoretical divergence. Namely, Ritzer’s McDonaldization is capable of accounting for specifically modern developments, such as globalisation, mass consumerism and service industries, drawing inspiration from the rationalising principles of the fast-food giant McDonalds rather than the bureaucracy. Indeed, perhaps McDonaldisation is a more suitable (modern) alias than bureaucratisation for describing rationalising processes in contemporary society. Finally, whilst both Weber and Ritzer bewail the gradual eclipse of those things that make us human – e.g. spontaneity, affection, deviance etc – in their final remarks they advocate the need to seize what remains of humanity and resist with everything we possess. As the poet Dylan Thomas (2003: 239) ably said: “do not go gentle into the night […] rage, rage against the dying of the light”.


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