Same Stuff, Different Place: Traveling in the Age of McDonaldization
Why do we travel to far off places? We say that we want “to get away” and “leave it all behind,” but do we really? Do our actions match our words?
Think about the last few times you traveled. Did the room(s) you slept in look a lot like the room you left at home? What about the meals you ate? Did you dine on something you’ve never eaten before? Finally, think about what you did for fun while you were away. Did you have a lot of first time experiences?
From my non-scientific anecdotal observations, most of us leave home only to recreate the same daily routines we seemed to so earnestly want to get away from. Instead we stay at the Best Western, drink Starbucks, eat at chain restaurants, and go shopping, swimming, drinking, to the movies, or any of the other things we can do at home. It would seem that, for the most of us, we want to do the same old things , just in new places.
That people want to recreate their home routines while away doesn’t really say that much about society, but the fact that they so easily can recreate their routines does. While we may take it for granted, we should be awed by the fact that you can go nearly anywhere in the U.S. (and increasingly anywhere in the world) and have an almost identical experience. The sociologist George Ritzer would suggest that this is all made possible because of the phenomenon he calls The McDonaldization of Society.
The McDonaldization of Society
In the early 1900s Henry Ford revolutionized the automotive industry by adopting the assembly line. Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, adapted the logics of the Ford assembly line and created the fast food industry. McDonald’s replaced the chef with a team of low payed workers trained to do one single part of the food production process. Wherever possible human judgment was replaced by technology so that every burger would taste exactly the same (e.g. a ketchup squirter that put exactly the right amount on each bun). Croc also required every aspect of the restaurant be standardized so that you could walk into a Mickey D’s anywhere and the food, the workers, the dining room, and every other aspect of the experience would be identical.
Ritzer (2007) argues that the logics of business that revolutionized car manufacturing and later the food service industry have now been adopted, to one degree or another, by almost every aspect of society. He identified four main facets of the McDonaldization of Society process.
- Efficiency – The optimum method for completing a task. Find the quickest and cheapest way to produce a thing or to complete a task. Individuality cannot be allowed.
- Calculability – Decisions must be made using criteria that can be objectively measured rather than subjective criteria. In other words, opinions are out and measurements are in. After all they sell the Big Mac not the Good Mac.
- Predictability – The production process and consumer experience must be exactly the same.
- Control – Wherever possible, human workers must be replaced by technology because technology is far better at producing identical results. When technology cannot replace human labor, then work should be reduced to its simplest form so that workers are never allowed to make decisions or deviate from the optimum production method.
The McDonaldization of Society is basically the rationalization of everything. To be rational is to only make decisions that get you closer to achieving your goals. Over the last few decades as large multi-national corporations have ascended to dominance, many one of a kind businesses have been unable to compete and shuttered. Today you can find a McDonald’s, Starbucks, Best Western, Walmart, etc. everywhere and every one of them will be run as close to identical as possible. The reason you can go anywhere and have an experience similar to home, is that anywhere you go, the businesses you will interact with are all reproducing the same optimum method.
The McDonaldization of Travel
The McDonaldization of Society makes it possible for us to travel to distant places and find all of the comforts of home waiting for us, but does that make traveling pointless? Why should we leave home only to do roughly the same things? If our goal is to “get away” and experience “something new”, then the McDonaldization of Society makes this harder.
At the same time, the McDonaldization of Society is not complete and total. Meaning that there are still one of a kind experiences left in the world. If you want to design a trip filled with new experiences, you can, but you’ll have to work to find them. And in closing, I have to admit that after a long day of first experiences, it’s comforting to lay my head down in a hotel room that reminds me of home.
- When you travel, do you crave new experiences, familiar ones, or a combination of both? Explain your answer.
- Think about an ATM or self-checkout lane at a grocery store. How are these examples of the McDonaldization of Society? In your answer address the four facets of McDonaldization listed above.
- If you’ve every driven on the interstate, then you’ve likely noticed that the signs for most exits list gas stations and food options that are roughly the same. How is this an example of The McDonaldization of Society? In your answer address at least two of the four facets of McDonaldization listed above.
- Is it possible that as our society has become McDonaldized we have come to enjoy predictability so much that we want it all of the time, even when we travel? Explain your answer.
- Ritzer, George F. 2007. The McDonaldization of Society. 2nd edition. Los Angles, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc.
- Weber, M. 1930. The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism. First Edition edition. George Allen & Unwin.
I’m not judging anyone here, merely observing. There is no wrong way to enjoy some R&R. Do you. ↩
When I ask my students for examples of the McDonaldization of Society they often point to the “obesity epidemic.” However, Ritzer is not talking about how McDonald’s food affects society, but rather he is talking about how the company treats it’s workers, it’s customers, technology, and economic production in general and how the rest of society has also adopted these business principles. ↩
Here Ritzer is building off of Max Weber’s (1930) foundational work on rationalization. ↩