Tom Larney

Ferdinand Postma Library
Potchefstroom University
2522 Noordbrug, South Africa

The American sociologist George Ritzer has attracted wide attention with his concept of "the McDonaldization of society" (expounded in his book of the same names). In his book, Ritzer analyses the particular ways in which the success of the American hamburger chain has impacted upon not only economic patterns, but in particular on a multitude of facets of social life in general. Basing his analysis on Max Weber's theory of rationalization,

What in Ritzer's view is responsible for McDonalds' revolutionizing effect, is the fact that its model offers four "alluring dimensions" to producer and consumer alike, namely efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. Naturally all of these have led to beneficial and irreversible changes which are not to be denied. Equally undeniable, however, is the negative consequences: the ecological impact, the dehumanizing effect of ever more automation, and the inescapable mistaking of quantity for quality.

These effects, as already indicated, are not limited to industry. In higher education the movement towards rationalization has had a major effect not only on the content of courses, but also on the way these are presented towards the development of a quantity orientated society has naturally had its biggest impact precisely on the information sectors. What these effects are and whether the foursome of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control have had their effects only on the beneficial side in the application of information technology, will be the main effort of this paper. The rationalization that has taken place in hardware, operating systems and search engines is also possible that there might be deeper underlying influences. Will Manley, the well-known library commentator, has pointed out that despite librarians' penchant for fast-food efficiency, "information is not a 'to go' commodity". This view has important implications for the technology that we use to process and dispense it.


The golden arches of Hamburgerdom encroaching on the hallowed halls of Academia? Information, thought of by so many as the very essence of democracy, development and affluence, treated as if it is a Big Mac, large Coke and fries? Difficult to imagine as it is and incongruous as it may sound, developments in society as a whole and in those sectors that deal with the generation and dissemination of information have made this a real possibility. It is the aim of this paper to look at what is called Mcdonaldization as a general concept and to investigate in what possible ways this process has had its effects on the world of libraries, computers and information. I must point out right at the beginning that these developments are not necessarily negative ones and neither will it be treated as such.


Although, especially in the United States, the ubiquitous hamburger chain has been around long enough for academics and other commentators repeatedly to have drawn attention to its social effects and analogies in other fields, it is the sociologist George Ritzer who coined the phrase in his book "The Mcdonaldization of Society" (Ritzer, 1996). In his book, which he describes as a work in social criticism, Ritzer analyses the particular ways in which the success of the American hamburger chain has impacted upon not only economic patterns, but in particular on a multitude of facets of social life in general. Basing his analysis on Max Weber's theory of rationalisation, he draws on ex- tensive empirical and anecdotal data to trace these influences.

McDonald's revolutionising influence on the fast-food industry not only in America, but increasingly across the globe, has led to the establishment of dozens of clones in just about every branch of the retail industry and has led to other social institutions adapting McDonald's principles to their operations. The process by which these principles are coming to dominate more and more sectors of society, is perceived by Ritzer to extend to education, work, health care, travel, leisure, dieting and many more fields. This "...sweeping through seemingly impervious institutions..." (Ritzer, 1996, p. 1) has had its impact upon institutions as diverse as the sex industry, where more efficient porn shops are the order of the day, and the Roman Catholic Church, where, since 1985, adherents can receive indulgences through the Pope's annual Christmas benediction on radio and TV (Ritzer, 1996, p. 48)

The connection of the name of Ray Kroc's empire to this process is not to suggest that it is a totally new and revolutionising development devoid of precedents. Ritzer finds its roots in the whole phenomenon of bureaucratisation, as well as in the idea of scientific management and naturally in twentieth century industry's assembly line. Given these precursors, it comes as no surprise that always more products and sectors come under the ambit of these developments and that its geographical reach has become ever wider - presently also to include tremendously successful outlets in Moscow and Peking. Then again it must be pointed out that this development of rationalisation is not an all or nothing process. Different facets of the economy have reacted differently to it and it is safe to say that there have even been reactions to it. In the last regard the move towards smaller and more personalized and caring businesses of all kinds can be mentioned.


In order to better understand what McDonaldization is all about and therefore better to delineate its supposed influences in the realm of information, one must begin to ask what typifies it and wherein lies the attraction of this model. Ritzer identifies what he calls four "alluring dimensions" to producer and consumer alike, namely efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. Each of these four has led to beneficial and irreversible changes in a wide variety of concerns. Before proceeding to look at how they have their effect on information related concerns, let us first have a look at what it means in general and in the McDonald's context.

Efficiency is described as the "...optimum method for getting from one point to another..." (Ritzer, 1996, p. 9). Knowing the way McDonald's and a growing number of other businesses operate, it is hardly necessary to expand on this. Each and every process of the business is organized to ensure that everything happens at the right time and the right place (never too early and never elsewhere) to ensure that the maximum gratification for the customer and the maximum profit for the company are ensured. If this was all there was to it, you might have been forgiven for thinking what all the fuss is about.

Perhaps it is in its dimension of calculability that the character of the McDonald's model is best revealed. Exactly so many patties have to come from a pound of meat, the buns must be of a certain exact size and the patties again have to have a certain limited fat content so that, after being cooked, it will still have a larger diameter than the buns, the fries must be of a certain thickness and the bags must never be too full or too empty. It is easy to see how seemingly neutral measures, meant to ensure standardization, eventually lead to the reduction of the processes of production to a game of numbers. Even though this may not be too harmful in the case of hamburgers and fries, the spread of an attitude like this will in the case of the majority of industries of necessity lead to depersonalisation of both customers and workers. Another facet of calculability is the accent that is being put on size. In the case of McDonald's the very example is the Big Mac, but a multitude of examples can be gathered from just about every type of business, whether in America or elsewhere. This inevitably leads to quantity being mistaken for quality.

Predictability is maybe the one dimension of the McDonald's setup that is most directly aimed at how it is perceived by its customers. It is imperative that the products must be the same everywhere, so that being in Moscow or Peking (or Johannesburg, for that matter) wouldn't be that big a problem if you get homesick: at least McDonald's would be the same as it is back home. Naturally this would preclude any possibility of cus- tomers expecting anything else than the standard McDonald's fare (in any case, why should they?) and, more important, of any McDonald's employee showing a tendency towards innovation or initiative.

The dimension of control, in so far as it has not been implied by the foregoing, is attained "...especially through the substitution of nonhuman for human technology..." (Ritzer, 1996, p. 11). This tendency, by far not unique to McDonald's, enable the company to far better control the uniformity of production and to at least partly eliminate the hassles of having to deal with human beings. Even the implied threat of replacing human with other technology enables further control over employees. But it is not only the employees that need to be controlled, but also the customers. This is ac- complished by a range of subtle measures, among which not the least is the restriction of menus to a limited number of items, the utilization of customers to do work them- selves, such as carrying food to the tables and litter away from it, and of course the availability of hard chairs which certainly does not encourage customers to linger.

As has already been said, this identification of certain prominent dimensions of the McDonald's way of doing is not meant to suggest that it is all detrimental to the interests of society. To the contrary. Quite a large number of advantages can be mentioned to offset the disadvantages of the effect it has on the environment and the dehumanizing work settings that are created. Probably most prominent among the advantages is the fact that more products and services are available and that this availability is less dependent on time and geographical factors. Thus such services are available to more people as well as quicker and more conveniently. The fact that products of a more uniform quality and with more economic alternatives are available, leads to the comfort created by stability. On a social level the biggest advantages are probably that a lot of people are enabled to do things at night that were previously impossible, and that all people are treated similarly.


Mention have been made of the fact that the pattern of rationalisation which is so very patently typified by McDonald's, is by no means restricted to the domain of the fast-food market. In fact, in the modern society the first real representative of this wave is probably the supermarket, which came to the fore as a replacement for the corner store and has since itself been superseded by all sorts of hypermarkets. Also in the world of entertainment and health care similar developments have taken place. As far as the first is concerned, videoshop chains and Disneyland are pertinent examples, while nobody who has been to a private hospital or medical centre lately, needs to be reminded that the much idealised house doctor has been irretrievably replaced by a much more streamlined, effective, all-encompassing, but, alas, also a much more impersonal system of health care.

Having thus considered the nature, dimensions and reach of McDonaldization, let us now turn to its beneficial and negative effects, or the lack thereof, on information. Although they are not the primary fields in which many of you are employed and thus hopefully interested, let us briefly look at two fields which nevertheless still very much has to do with information, namely the press and higher education.

It is not for nothing that the American nationwide newspaper USA Today is sometimes referred to as McPaper (Ritzer, 1996, p. 7). This paper pre-eminently perfected the presentation of the news in a standardised, and what is more, easily digestible way. Colour, a very specific and easily recognisable layout, shorter pieces and no continuation of reports on later pages, as well as a number of other measures, ensure absolute predictability and thus efficiency. Just as much as tomorrow's Big Mac in LA will be the same as yesterday's in New York, so much will USA Today live up to your expectations. "USA Today gives its readers only what they want. No spinach, no bran, no liver." (Ritzer, 1996, p. 76) The acceptance with which this style has been met, has forced many older and respected publications to go the same way. News magazines, like Time and Newsweek, are themselves representative of this way of presenting news in a way that requires as little as possible exertion from the reader (Ritzer, 1996, p. 49) I will underestimate your intelligence if I point out that television, both in the USA and South Africa, has long ago decided that their task in presenting information, if they consider that a valid task, is hardly to expect any intellectual effort from their viewers. The role of quantified measures like ratings as means of deciding what we will see on TV and what not, need neither be mentioned to stress the point.

The idea that the forces of McDonaldization have invaded the domain of higher education might appear even more shocking initially. Nevertheless, this is exactly what the process of quantification, what with grade point averages and the ranking of institutions, point at. It is predictability just at another place and phase of proceedings. Efficiency is more and more accomplished by means of multi-choice tests and even more, by standardised textbooks and preset tests that accompany them. In most universities around the world the bureaucracy has been able to control the processes and products of teaching with such an array of physical and non-physical technologies, that one doubts whether there is much left of a culture of learning in the classical sense of the word. Specifically in the context of the creation and distribution of scientific information, the ever-present spectre of "publish or perish" must be mentioned. One can hardly overemphasise the detrimental effects such policies, founded as its is in a paradigm of quantification, has on the quality of the information disseminated in scientific journals.


Turning now specifically towards information as it is perceived by the participants at this conference, we will look at the world of computers, at computerised information systems and at the attitudes of librarians as information intermediaries and at the various ways that the movement towards standardisation, as well as other tendencies, display the dimensions of McDonaldization as they have been defined thus far.

In general it must be said that many of the moves towards standardisation in industry, as well as control, defined as the substitution of non-human technology for human, have received a major impetus from developments in electronic data processing and communication. The computer is, in fact, a sine qua non in the world of McDonaldization. More materially, however, the effect of this process is noticeable in a number of current developments in the computer industry. It is difficult to look at the role that Microsoft is playing at the moment and not to think of it as the McDonald's of the computer world. Its moves towards having a finger in just about every facet of the industry and its products, totally smacks of trying to control the user in every way. Tibbets and Bernstein (1995, p. 112), with their tongues firmly in their cheeks, looks at how Microsoft is actually making decisions "about how users will best be served". Its adding of on-line services as an extra layer to their operating systems is nothing less than an effort to even better control their users. The way in which they routinely pass on information about new operating systems to application developers, while with holding it from competitors, seems to enhance this idea. As far as the present battle between Microsoft and Netscape to control the browser battlefield is concerned (McManus, 1995, p. 11), it is probably safe to say that the attentions of these two is to a much greater extent aimed at the popular mass market, thereby better to control the market, than at the scientific or whatever.

The growing importance of the Internet, and especially the way in which it is being marketed by service providers as a quick and easy way to instant gratification for upwardly mobile computer junkies, is in more ways than one a reflection of a McDonaldized society. Quick and easy access to as many sites as possible and to as much information as possible, regardless of its value, is precisely the triumph of quantity over quality. Add to this the basically impersonal communication that is typical of the Internet, and it is clear that there is a clear resemblance between McDonald's and the Web.

This clearly has its effect on the development of computer systems. According to Schlack (1996, p. 14) "(t)odays shrink-wrapped applications are the last place you'll find innovation". He points out that apart from operating systems, server software and multimedia and Web applications, very little of interest is happening in the world of computer systems. In spite of the problem of restricted bandwidth and other problems, one gets the idea that there is something of a concerted effort to force users into a particular paradigm of computer and software usage. That this is happening at the stage where computers are finally making it in the household worldwide and that computers in the home is probably moving towards surpassing in numbers personal computers in the workplace, should not come as any surprise.

Around the retrieval of information, moves towards standardisation have been along for a long time. The development of a common user interface has over the years been high on the agenda of librarians and other information users and intermediaries. Z39.50 is an example of such a standard where the search engine and interface are independent. It however, does not specify what the interface should look like. In the world of CD- ROM there have also been a lot of discussions about a standard user interface for such applications (Fletcher, 1993, p. 29). Of late, with the logaritmically growing popularity of the World Wide Web, there is growing indications that the popular browsers also might be becoming something of a de facto standard in this regard. Maybe this field of standardisation is a clear example that all its aspects need not be suspect, as long as, of course, it does not lead to the lowering of functionality.

A pertinent example of how the influence of McDonald's is addressed in the library world, is an article by the provocative Will Manley (1981, p. 762) in which he bemoans the fact that public librarians "have had this thing for McDonald's". He is referring to schemes where registration as a library user has been rewarded with a voucher for a free hamburger, but also has in mind the admiration of librarians for the hamburger chain, because it practices all the things that libraries merely talk about: serving a wide range of customers, cost effectiveness, filling a pertinent need, and having employees who always smile. The danger in taking this admiration too far is oversimplification of what the delivery of information is all about. Information "...are not of the short-order "to-go" variety" (Manley, 1981, p. 762). He also points out that "(t)here's no catering to special interests at McDonald's" (798). Librarians (and for that matter any other category of professional people serving the interests of the public by dealing in information) must serve everybody and not only an ill-defined majority. Moreover, the task of the librarian can never merely be a reactive one to uncritically respond to the demands of the customer. Instead, she or he has a task to interpret and anticipate even where the user doesn't and even where such a response naturally takes longer than assembling the informational equivalent of some combo meal.

Finally, the role of the academic library as a information consumer in a market that is increasingly commercialised, forces the constant redefinition of its policies (Martin, 1991, p. 93), also in the light of budgets that always get more limited. This naturally ne cessitates critical choices about what to acquire and what to leave, about what services to concentrate on and which to relegate to the back burner. This creates the very real danger, to guard against, of settling for the same kind of limited menu of popular items that is typical of McDonald's.


In approaching a subject like this, there is a strong temptation to go for a black and white picture of stark contrasts and to either equate the world of information with all that is bad in the fast-food world or otherwise to absolve it of any shortcomings. The true picture is probably, as always, a more complicated one. We as practitioners in the information world need to have an open eye for what can be learnt from the world of the golden arches, to be wary of the pitfalls, and to be hopeful that we can make the distinction in time.


Fletcher, Liz. (1993, February). Is there a chance for a standardised user interface? The Electronic Library, 11 (1):29-32.

Manley, W. (1981, June). Facing the public. Wilson Library Bulletin, 55 (10): 762-763,798.

Martin, Marilyn J. (1991, May). Academic libraries as information consumers: Implications for policy making. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 17 (2): 93-98.

McManus, N. (1995, November). The browser wars: Netscape and Microsoft battle to control World Wide Web formatting standards. Digital Media, 5 (6):11.

Ritzer, G. (1996). The McDonaldization of Society. Revised ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif. : Pine Forge. 265p.

Schlack, M. (1996, October). Wanted: New software. Byte, p. 14.

Tibbets, J. & Berstein, Barbara. (1995, July). Microsoft monopoly? Never! Information Week, 538: 112.