The Weberian Theory
of Rationalization and
the McDonaldization of
George Ritzer is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland. His major areas of interest are sociological theory, globalization, and the sociology of consumption. He has served as chair of the American Sociological Association’s sections on theory (1989–1990) and organizations and occupations (1980–1981). He has been a distinguished scholar-teacher at the University of Maryland and has been awarded a teaching excellence award. He has held the UNESCO chair in social theory at the Russian Academy of Sciences and has received a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship. He has been a scholar-in-residence at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study and the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences. A revised New Century edition of The McDonaldization of Society was published by Pine Forge in 2004. The book has been translated into 16 different languages, including German, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese. Several books have been published that are devoted to analyzing the McDonaldization thesis. His most recent book is The Globalization of Nothing (Sage, 2004).
n this chapter, I apply one of the most famous and important theories in the history of sociology, Max Weber’s (1864–1920) theory of rationalization, to contemporary society.
42——CLASSICAL SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
In Weber’s view, modern society, especially the Western world, is growing increasingly rationalized. As the reader will see, Weber regarded bureaucracy as the ultimate example of rationalization. Thus, Weber can be seen as being focally concerned with the rationalization of society in general and, more specifically, its bureaucratization.
This chapter is premised on the idea that, whereas the processes of rationalization and bureaucratization described by Weber have continued, if not accelerated, the bureaucracy has been supplanted by the fast-food restaurant as the best exemplification of this process. Furthermore, we will see that the rational principles that lie at the base of the fast-food restaurant are spreading throughout American society as well as the rest of the world. On the basis of Weber’s ideas on the rationalization process, in this chapter I describe the continuation and even acceleration of this process, or what I have termed the “McDonaldization” of society (Ritzer, 1983, 2004). Four types of rationality lie at the heart of Weber’s theory of rationalization (Brubaker, 1984; Habermas, 1984; Kalberg, 1980; Levine, 1981). Practical rationality is to be found in people’s mundane, day-to-day activities and reflects their worldly interests (Weber, 1904–1905/1958). In Weber’s (1958) terms, through practical rationality people seek the “methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by means of an increasingly precise calculation of adequate means” (p. 293). Therefore, actors calculate all possible means available to them, choose the alternative that best allows them to reach their ultimate end, and then follow that line of action. All human beings engage in practical rationality in attempting to solve the routine and daily problems of life (Levine, 1981, p. 12).
Theoretical rationality involves “an increasingly theoretical mastery of reality by means of increasingly precise and abstract concepts” (Weber, 1958, p. 293). Among other things, it involves logical deduction, the attribution of causality, and the arrangement of symbolic meanings. It is derived from the inherent need of actors to give some logical meaning to a world that appears haphazard (Kalberg, 1980). Whereas practical rationality involves action, theoretical rationality is a cognitive process and has tended to be the province of intellectuals.
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(Original work published 1921)
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