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Putting the McDonald’s Back into McDonaldization

McDonald’s restaurant once served as a model of rationality; customers would come in and be feed ina smooth, precise, and efficient standardized process. Today, its bloated menu (with oodles of choices and combinations) threatens its reputation as the standard for rationality. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how McDonald’s is putting the McDonald’s back into McDonaldization.

McDonald's Happy Meal Box

George Ritzer coined the term McDonaldization to describe how McDonald’s restaurant provided an archetype of rationality, which served as a model for other bureaucracies. Rationality refers to how bureaucracies come to operate under formal rules and procedures. A bureaucracy is characterized by a hierarchy of authority, a division of labor, reliance on written rules, and impersonality of positions. For example, your college is an example of a bureaucracy. Let’s get back to McDonald’s.

Ritzer chose McDonald’s because of its pervasiveness throughout not only the United States (where you are never more than 107 miles from one in the lower 48), but throughout the world (they serve 1% of the world every day). McDonald’s is seen as a powerful business success and a symbol of America.

Principles of McDonalidzation include:

  • Efficiency
  • Predictability
  • Calculability
  • Control

How do these principles exist within McDonald’s?

Efficiency refers to “the optimum method for getting from one point to another” (Ritzer 2006:15). Think about the assembly line method of food production in a McDonald’s restaurant. Instead of one person making your complete meal, the task is split up into its basic components along a hamburger assembly line. This means your meal gets to you more quickly.

Predictability means “that products and services will be the same over time and in all locales” (Ritzer 2006:16). Predictability is ensured through the use of scripts. Many years ago I worked at McDonald’s. These were the days of super-sizing meals. We were expected to ask every customer if they would like to super-size her or his meal. Consider, too, how the McDonald’s menu looks pretty much the same around the country and even world. There might be some regional variation. For example, Hawaiian McDonald’s serve spam and the McRib was never a seasonal treat, but a permanent feature of the Midwestern McDonald’s where I worked. Despite this variability, you can always get a happy meal and order your meal by number rather than name. This predictability.

Calculability is “an emphasis on the quantitative aspects of products sold (portion size, cost) and services offered (the time it takes to get the product)” (Ritzer 2006:15). Think about it. When I worked at McDonald’s in the late 1990s, the cashiers made the customer’s drinks. The soda machine had three buttons for each drink: small, medium, and large. The machine poured out enough to fill the appropriate cup with the standard amount of ice. Yes, standard amount of ice. For most sized drinks, this was one scoop of ice. Though customers make their own drinks today (efficiency), customers are limited on the number of condiments for things like McNuggets. You are only allowed a set number of barbecue sauces before you are charged extra. This is calculability.

Control exists specifically through nonhuman technology. Control “is exerted over the people who enter the world of McDonald’s” (Ritzer 2006:17). There are certain expectations on the customer and the employee. McDonald’s historically has had purposefully uncomfortable seating, lighting, and color scheme to get customers in and out quickly. They have since added TVs, softer lighting, wi-fi, more snacking options, and more comfortable seating but they still encourage people to get out quickly. For example, I attempted to work at a McDonald’s like I do my local coffee shop, but struggled to find an outlet for my laptop.

Putting the McDonald’s Back into McDonaldization

Today, McDonald’s includes 145 menu items (a 70% increase since 2007). The menu is too complex challenging the very aspects of McDonaldization of which the restaurant once was the standard. The sheer size of the menu decreases the efficiency of the workers. The number of choices on the menu limits McDonald’s ability to predict consumer behavior. If McDonald’s has dificulty predicting consumer behavior, then this also challenges calcuability. If I can’t predict what customers are likely to buy, then I have difficulty knowing what to order from my supplier. These factors then limit the restaurant’s ability to control both workers and customers. Too many choices makes it more difficult to break down each task to its simplist parts for workers making it more likely for employees to work “off script.” Customers are given more power as their number of choices increase, too. It is more difficult to develop technology to replace more complex behaviors.

Recently McDonald’s announced it is putting the McDonald’s back into McDonaldization by shrinking its menu.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What is rationality? Why did Ritzer use McDonald’s to apply the concept of rationality?
  2. Where else do we see the ideas of efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control dominating how we interact with one another in a business setting?
  3. What is lost when we become a highly rationalized society? You’re answer can’t be “nothing”, because every change causes us to gain somethings and lose/give up something else.
  4. Apply the four principles of McDonaldization to another social phenomenon (e.g., movie-viewing, dating, or higher education).



Ritzer, George. 2006. “An Introduction to McDonaldization.” Pp. 4-24 in McDonaldization: The Reader. 2nd ed., edited by G. Ritzer. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.