Rationalising Leisure McDonaldization and Technology The de-humanising outcome of automation

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Rationalising Leisure

The de-humanising outcome of automation

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  • Rationalization (a modernist process):
    • Made famous by the work of Max Weber
    • A far reaching process where traditional modes of thinking are replaced by an ends/means analysis concerned with efficiency and formalized social control
    • Society dominated by purely instrumental social relationships : continuum from emotional - traditional - rational action
  • Bureaucracy:
    • A large formal organization characterized by a hierarchical authority structure, well established division of labour, written rules and regulations, impersonality and a concern for technical competence
    • Structure imposed on human interaction and thinking furthers process of rationalization
    • Produces de-humanising consequences as individuals are trapped in an ‘iron cage’
  • Rationalization processes affect ‘leisure’ and not only work

Ritzer’s thesis

  • “McDonaldization” (Ritzer, 1993; 1998; 2004):
    • “is the process by which the principles of the fast food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world” (Ritzer, 1993)
    • Organizing force representing and extending rationalization into everyday life and interaction, facilitated by, and driving technology
    • Evidences the proliferation of non-human technologies into the realms of production and consumption on a global scale
    • Continuing debate as to the social impact of McDonaldization processes


  • Technological ‘efficiency’: a ‘near universal desire’ (Weber, 1991)
    • Technologies often the most attractive means to reach a specific end rapidly, with least amount of effort, reflecting the general ‘speeding up’ of the pace of life and desire for convenience
    • Both production and consumption experiences benefit from streamlining processes (e.g. division of labour), replacing workers with non-human technologies
    • Drew heavily on industrial predecessors (e.g. Taylor’s Scientific Mgt) but revolutionizes our ‘means of consumption’ (Ritzer, 1999)
    • Requires ‘putting customers to work’ (e.g. supermarket scanners, Technogym printouts)
  • Leisure examples:
    • Vending machines, online ticket sales (cinema, football etc), electronic queuing/parking systems, drive through restaurants, online travel booking/shopping, exercise machines, credit cards, video/PPV, search engines, email and virtual chat (e.g. MSN Messenger)


  • Technology facilitates ‘calculability’
    • Involves an emphasis on things that can be calculated, counted and quantified (i.e. quantity over quality)
    • Emphasises ‘speed’ (Virilio, 1986) as an emblem of contemporary western societies
    • The computer is central as it enables the calculation of vast amounts of data quickly and accurately; facilitates the computerization of society (Lyotard, 1994)
    • Technologies have helped quantify performance (e.g. sporting feats) and capture ever more ‘experiences’ in as short a time as possible (e.g. digital camera technology)
  • Leisure examples
    • Sports statistics and ‘chatter’, TV (ratings over quality), fast-food delivery


  • Predictability (Apollonian v Dionysian; red or blue pill)
    • Attempts to structure our environment so that surprise and differentness do not encroach upon our sensibilities
    • Selling sameness, certainty and security: robotic routinisation
    • Technologies promise predictable outcomes and a standardised quality again and again…(e.g. kit houses, IKEAisation)
    • Telemarketing extends processes of scripting and predictability
    • Self-fulfilling, as consumer (and commercial) expectations reinforce the need for predictability (e.g. television schedules)
    • De-territorialisation of activities a response to predictability (e.g. climbing walls)
    • Service employees monitored to ensure predictable outcomes
  • Leisure examples:
    • Sports grounds (predictable surface, weather, quality, experience?), indoor facilities (e.g. The Adventure Centre, Wimbledon Roof), shopping malls, hotel chains, amusement parks (Disney)
    • “antiseptic, climate-controlled, plastic world (s)” (Vertifeuille, 1994)
  • Modernity


  • “What a wonderful world Truman Burbank inhabits – a town of pretty houses and smiling people. On Seahaven Island, the streets are spotless, the traffic is orderly, the weather glorious, from seductive dawns (let’s get out of bed!) to sunsets worthy of Turner’s brush” (Corliss, 1998)
  • This Stepford Wives-type fable is eminently possible as technological ‘advance’ permits us to eradicate imperfection and difference: but do we want it?

Control by technologies

  • “replacement of human by non-human technology is often oriented
  • towards greater control. The great source of uncertainty and
  • unpredictability in a rationalizing system, are people - either the
  • people who work within those systems or the people who are
  • served by them” (Ritzer, 1994)
  • Not a recent phenomenon. F.W. Taylor separated conception from execution, ‘head’ from ‘hand’
  • Control of employees/customers: rules, regulations, computers, surveillance. ‘systems’ encourage servitude
  • Man-machines (http://www.kraftwerk.com): pre-packaged, pre-measured, automatically controlled: eradicating uncertainty:
    • Removes ‘thinking human’/follow instructions (surrender authority)
    • Dependence upon/subordination to machine (de-skilling)
  • Controlling customers: routes, queues, directing behaviour
  • Leisure examples:
    • Turnstiles, swipe cards, touch screen cash registers, automated customer service


  • Irrationality of rationality (5th dimension)
    • Rational systems turning in on themselves; leading to irrational outcomes (e.g. inefficiencies, unpredictabilities)
    • “most specifically, irrationality means that rational systems are unreasonable systems. By that I mean that they deny the basic humanity, the human reason, of the people who work within, or are served by them” (Ritzer, 1994)
    • Loss of the self/agential action: de-humanisation and dis-enchantment
  • Leisure examples
    • Long queues, less nourishing food causes health problems, dependency on systems results in inability to be flexible, innovative, autocash machines

Re-enchanting a disenchanting world?

  • Enchanting a disenchanting world
    • we are ‘consumed by consumption’ (Ritzer, 1999: xi)
  • Technological developments enable the ‘new means of consumption’ take on an almost enchanted, religious quality
    • casinos, mega mall, theme park, themed restaurant
  • BUT they also act as highly effective rationalized selling machines (e.g catering, merchandise, credit cards)
  • Apparently ‘de-McDonaldized’ settings actually act as a veneer for extended McDonaldization (e.g postmodern ballpark/stadia)
  • BUT: McDonaldization can be positive and liberating
    • travelling in unfamiliar countries we benefit from efficient, calculable, predictable, controlled systems
    • extends consumer choice and thus freedom rather than illustrating homogenization

Indicative References

  • Ritzer, G (1993) The McDonaldization of Society, Pine Forge
  • Ritzer, G (1998) The McDonaldization Thesis, Sage
  • Ritzer, G (1999) Enchanting a Disenchanted World, Pine Forge
  • Ritzer, G (2004) The McDonaldization of Society: Revised New Century Edition, Pine Forge
  • Bryman, A (2004) The Disneyization of Society, Sage
  • Weber, M (1991) From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Routledge
  • Gabriel, Y (2003) “glass palaces and glass cages: organizations in times of flexible work, fragmented consumption and fragile selves”, Ephemera, 3, 3, 166-184
  • Grint, K & Woolgar, S (1997) The Machine at Work: Technology, Work and Organisations
  • Virilio, P (1986) Speed and politics, Semiotext (e)
  • Vertifeuille, J (1994) “ Fun factory: Kids pay to play at the Discovery Zone”, Roanoke Times & World News, December 8th,

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