The Rationality of Irrationality
One of the most well-known sociological theories is George Ritzer’s idea of McDonaldization. Ritzer based his idea on Max Weber’s theories of bureaucracy and rationality. Weber was concerned that capitalism and industrialization were fueling a world where our individual freedoms were being eroded. He warned that we were increasingly living in an iron cage in which we become trapped in an impersonal world that values efficiency, rationality, and control over individuality and autonomy.
Ritzer picked up on Weber’s concerns and adapted them to contemporary life. He realized that the fast food industry epitomized many of the concerns that Weber identified. Ritzer used McDonald’s as the basis for his theory, although he argues that McDonaldization is applicable to (or taking over) many social institutions including education, health care, religion, the family, sports, the media, politics, and even sex.
Ritzer’s theory of McDonaldization has four dimensions:
Calculability: Being able to quantify the output; emphasizing quantity over quality.
Predictability: Ensuring that tasks, results, and products are the always the same.
Control: Replacing human efforts with non-human technology.
After discussing these four dimensions, Ritzer makes the point that when our lives become McDonaldized the resulting effect is often one of irrationality. In other words, as we try to become so efficient, calculable, predictable, and controlling, we often end up with illogical, counter-intuitive, and problematic results.
Take for example the namesake of the theory: McDonald’s. No one will argue with the fact that McDonald’s (as well as Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, etc.) fits all of the four dimensions. When you go to any McDonald’s in the United States or around the world you know it will always be the same food, the same amount, and the same value. That is why many people love it: it’s a predictable product delivered to you efficiently. So what’s the problem?
As we all know, fast food is not very healthy. It is high in fat, high in salt, and low in nutritional value. With obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems on the rise, especially among children, it is certainly irrational for us to be eating so much fast food. But in addition to these adverse health effects, the production of fast food is also unhealthy for the environment as it results in excessive waste, consumes a lot of fuel, and emits green house gases.
Ritzer did not develop his theory to target or pick on the fast-food industry exclusively. As I noted above so much of our lives are now characterized by the dimensions of McDonaldization. The whole push for more standardized testing in schools is a perfect example of McDonaldization as is the proliferation of social media such as Twitter and Facebook as new forms of communication.
But just like our consumption of fast food, basing our educational system on standardized tests and using social media for our interpersonal communication has many irrational drawbacks. In the world of education, we have teachers teaching to the test and students feeling like empty vessels that are being filled with irrelevant information (see my recent blog about this). In terms of communication, when technology replaces face-to-face interaction we end up, to use the title of Sheryl Turkle’s book, Alone Together.
When I teach about Ritzer’s McDonaldization theory I invite students to entertain the idea of a counter dimension to this theory: The rationality of irrationality. If the result of trying to be hyper efficient, calculable, and predictable is irrational then might it be true that we can be more rational if we try to be inefficient, un-calculable and unpredictable?
Let me offer an example:
Every Thursday during the summer and fall I pick up vegetables and fruits at the Huguenot Street Farm—my local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). A CSA is like a food co-op where members pay to join for the season and then pick up their share of food each week. CSA’s are really the antithesis of McDonaldized systems. I don’t know what varieties or how much food I will get each season because it all depends on unpredictable forces (namely, the weather). When I pick up the food it is not cleaned, there may be signs that bugs had a few nibbles before it was picked (not to mention the occasional bug that is still there), and the produce may not even be in recognizable shapes. There are also vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers that I can pick myself each week thereby reversing the McDonaldized trend to replace human efforts with non-human technology.
In the framework of McDonaldization, the CSA model seems quite irrational. And yet, the results are undeniably rational. The food I am eating is healthy, fresh, natural, free of chemicals, and is not genetically modified. I usually get so many vegetables and fruits each week that it forces me to eat healthier than I might normally eat. The money I am spending is staying in and contributing to the local economy instead of adding to the profits of some far away multinational corporation. The people that I see each week allow me to build a greater sense of community and social capital. As my colleagues Brian Obach and Kathleen Tobin found in their study of CSA’s, this un-McDonaldized form of food production has significant benefits for individuals and their communities.
The idea of purposely being irrational certainly seems irrational! But as you go through your daily life and you find yourself trying to be efficient, predictable, and calculable, you may want to take a step back and see if you can resist the urge to live a McDonaldized life.
Here are some examples you may consider: Audit a class instead of take it for a grade. Eat at a local restaurant instead of at a fast-food chain (as Todd Schoepflin blogged about). Walk or bike to school or work instead of drive. Set aside one day a week where you don’t communicate electronically. These suggestions may appear strange, unproductive, unreliable, and unreasonable. But if you try them you may be surprised at just how rational such seemingly irrational behavior can be.