September 10, 2012

The Rationality of Irrationality

Peter_Kaufman_Bio_PicBy Peter Kaufman

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, as 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 restaurants 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:

clip_image002Efficiency: Completing tasks in the most productive and proficient manner.

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 efficient, calculable, predictable, and controlling, we often end up with illogical, counterintuitive, and problematic results.

Take, for example, the namesake of the theory. No one will argue with the fact that McDonald’s (as well as Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, and similar restaurants) fits all of the four dimensions. When you go to any McDonald’s in the United States or around the world, you know you will always find the same food, in the same amount, and at the same value. That is why many people love it: it’s a predictable product delivered to you efficiently. So what’s the problem?clip_image003

As we all know, fast food is not very healthy. Most of the items on a fast food menu are high in fat and 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 greenhouse gases.

Ritzer did not develop his theory to target or pick on the fast-food industry exclusively; many aspects 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, and so 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 have 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 extremely 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:

clip_image005clip_image007Every 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. CSAs 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 nonhuman 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, and free of chemicals, and it is not genetically modified. I usually get so many vegetables and fruits each week that it forces me to eat in a healthier way 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 faraway multinational corporation. The people 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 CSAs, 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 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.

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Comments

Great post! In our collective lives since the mid to late seventies in particular, families have had to live on dual incomes or individuals needed needed extra income to feed their insatiable conspicious consumption habits often resulting in expensive loans (mortgages, student loans, credit cards just to name a few) to help contribute to the materials economy. To be in the "less [efficient] is more [quality of life]" group you have to gumption to stay away from the habits of the masses even if others always "need" the latest consumer goods or expensive vacations.

It is true that McDonaldization has a significant influence on our current lifestyles. Personally, I want to be as efficient as possible and completely use my resources until they are gone. Majority of the people do not see why McDonaldization is a problem, so they continue to keep doing it. They think they are being efficient by getting tasks done quicker, but really they need to take their time and do things themselves. This will promote benefits to the individuals who choose to put the work and effort in.

Thank you for your post. Great ideas and very well presented. I really trying to be efficient too: no fast food, walking as much as I can and using my bicke.

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