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Mcdonaldization According to Weber and Ritzer: a Way of Presenting The Rationalization of Society

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In this essay, the usefulness of Weber’s theory of rationalization would be analyzed with the social phenomenon in Hong Kong, which is the industry of tutorial schools. It aims to see how Weber’s theory could be used to explain the phenomenon and its limitation.

Weber’s theory would be outlined and McDonaldization mentioned in the reading would be also outlined as it is one of the illustrations of rationalization in modern society in Ritzer’s view. Then, how Ritzer argues that McDonaldization would be conformed to the formal rationality would be discussed, to explain the establishment of tutorial schools in Hong Kong and its popular trends among students today. Finally, the limitation in applying Weber’s theory to the explanation of tutorial school and his view of the “iron cage” to society would be discussed.

Conceptual framework 

Before discussing how formal rationality and rationalization could be used to understand social phenomena, Weber’s theory of rationalization and Ritzer’s thesis of McDonaldization which extends Weber’s theory would be first described.

Weber’s theory of rationalization

According to Weber, the actions of social actors are theorized into four types. They are practical rationality, theoretical rationality, substantive rationality, and formal rationality. Practical rationality is finding the most appropriate means by calculation for the practical end involved in daily life. Theoretical rationality is theorizing precise and abstract concepts with cognitive process and intelligence to find the mean for the end. Substantive rationality is choosing the mean by one’s values for the end. Formal rationality is employing the best means to a particular end by applying rules, regulations, and laws.

Rationalization is the process that which rationality becoming increasingly dominant in society. Formal rationality is being dominated over the other among four types of rationality. Rationalization discussed in the essay means the domination of formal rationality being increasing in modern society. The ultimate illustration to explain formal rationality and the “ideal type” of formal rationality in Weber’s theory is bureaucracy, as it is best represented five elements of formal rationality, which are efficiency that uses the best way to achieve the goal, calculability emphasizes things could be quantified, the predictability that is things expressed the same anywhere and anytime, controllability that emphasizes the uncertainty could be controlled and the irrationality of formal rationality that there is irrational consequences within the system of formal rationality. Irrationality means the process or outcome of rationalization could undermine rationality.

Weber has a pessimistic assumption of a future society that is increasingly dominated by formal rationality. The operation of a society guided by formal rationality could lose control or even control people. People could not stop or escape from it as the rationalizing forces in society also increasingly dominated the action of people. This call “iron cage”.

Ritzer’s thesis of McDonaldization

Ritzer proposes his point about McDonaldization based on Weber’s theory trying to better describe social phenomena of formal rationality in recent. Ritzer illustrates rationalization by McDonaldization while Weber illustrates rationalization by bureaucracy. He thinks that bureaucracy may be replaced by fast-food restaurants. McDonaldization is the operation of the fast-food restaurants that shows the elements of formal rationality and is growing rapidly and expanding in different industries. Its growth and expansion show the process of rationalization in modern society. Following Weber’s theory, Ritzer also thinks that rationalization could cause irrationality and people become closer to the “iron cage”.

How McDonaldization conforms to five principles of rationalization 

Ritzer mainly used the operation and product of McDonald’s to explain the elements of McDonaldization of society.

The first is efficiency. 

Fast-food restaurants pursue efficiency which finding the best way to goals. McDonald’s operates with the most efficient way, such as turning customers into unpaid labor. In this way, McDonald’s could achieve maximum productivity but useless expense and labor. In McDonald’s, customers need to queue and order the food by themselves, to choose and add the ingredients for their burger by themselves, and to clean their trash by themselves. Ritzer also gives examples in other industries. For example, gas stations with all automated procedures which customers have to fill gas tanks on their own, and automated teller machines for customers to withdraw money by themselves.

The second is calculability. 

Fast-food restaurants emphasize calculation and quantity. They measure and quantify the product. Many fast-food restaurants use “Big” or “Large” to show the number of their products. Examples, the Big Mac of McDonald’s and Triple Whopper of Burger King. Moreover, fast-food restaurant calculates accurately their product such as the weight of ingredients and cooking time of food. Ritzer also gives the example of USA Today which provides a great number of short stories instead of a quality-oriented long story to explain the emphasis of quantity not only find in the fast-food restaurant.

The third is predictability. 

Fast-food restaurants ensure the predictability of their products. With the example of McDonald’s, people could enjoy the same Big Mac anytime and anywhere. Another example is movies. Movie producers tend to continue to produce a successful movie in the past rather than a completely new movie, as previously successful movies could increase predictability.

The fourth is controllability. 

Ritzer explains it with the replacement of people by nonhuman technology. Human has human error and uncertainty, which causes mistakes due to their judgment or emotions. Replacing humans by nonhuman technology can increase the controllability as they do not have human error and lead to greater control. For example, fast-food restaurants buy raw materials such as chicken from factory farms instead of family-run farms. It is because factory farm is run by nonhuman technology and it is easier to control the quantity and the size.

Ritzer thinks that McDonaldization has irrationality of rationality like bureaucracy. Although McDonaldization has the advantages of formal rationality in the sense mentioned above, it could lead to inefficiency and dehumanization. Dehumanization means a rational system not no longer serves for humans and it excludes and even destructs the humanity of people who are involved in the system. For example, people need to wait for a long time in lining up to order food in McDonald which turns to be inefficient, the food of McDonald’s is unhealthy and the trash produced by McDonald’s destroys the ecological environment which turns to be dehumanizing.

Applying Weber’s theory to a social phenomenon in Hong Kong 

As mentioned above, McDonaldization is a way of presenting the rationalization of society in recent years. Apart from the fast-food restaurant showing the principles of formal rationality and rationalizing in modern society, more and more industries are rationalizing and they conform the five elements of McDonaldization mentioned by Ritzer. The following would analyze this phenomenon by the illustration of tutorial schools in Hong Kong.

How formal rationality influences on the establishment of tutorial schools and its popular trends among students

Hong Kong’s education system emphasizes good grades and scores students reach in school examinations and HKDSE. It reinforces businessmen, teachers, and students focusing on how they can use the best means to achieve the goal of getting good grades, which being dominated by formal rationality. Exam skills such as time management and answering questions accurately are important for students to get a good grade. It is difficult to teach knowledge and exam skills at the same time in regular school. Therefore, tutorial schools that advertise teaching good exam skills with the efficient ways such as dismantling question types and providing standards of answers for helping students to get a good grade such as getting 5** in DSE have emerged. These tutorial schools have rules and regulations to operate and to find the best way of helping students to reach good grades.

This kind of tutorial school is popular in modern society as formal rationality and rationalization of society have reinforced students to attempt these tutorial schools to obtain exam skills. In the sense of formal rationality, students need to choose the best and most efficient way to obtain great results in examinations under the education system. In other words, the elements of rationalizing tutorial schools encourage students to attempt tutorial schools for the goal. Students believe that learning exam skills in tutorial schools is the best and most efficient means to achieve their goals under the institution and education system. Research showed that over 80% of students join tutorial schools for learning exam skills. Students reflected that teachers of tutorial schools can more focus on exam skills and tips to strengthen their exam capability.

How tutorial schools conform to the elements of rationalization

The first is efficiency. 

From the perspective of tutorial schools, they are a high division of labor to increase the efficiency such as registration by the front desk and teaching and preparing teaching materials by the tutorial teachers, so that tutorial schools could operate with the most efficient way. From the perspective of students, they could learn exam skills in the most efficient way as the tutorial schools would provide tips in understanding and answering questions to students.

The second is calculability. 

There are two examples that show how tutorial schools involved calculability, counting students who get good results in DSE and calculating the probability of certain question types tested in DSE. As said in the part of McDonaldization, quantity usually is treated as big and large. Some tutorial schools especially chained tutorial schools would provide the information of how many of their students get 5** in DSE to show that they have a large number of students who could get good grades in examinations. Also, teachers of tutorial schools would calculate the probability of question types appearing in the heretofore exam to predict the questions will be tested in the next exam.

The third is predictability. 

Tutorial schools are predictable because the customers which are students could predict what they can obtain in the tutorial schools, which is learning exam skills, no matter they join which tutorial school, which subject, and which time period of tutorial class.

The fourth is controllability. 

Tutorial schools use nonhuman technology to replace some activities conducted by people originally for greater control. For example, tutorial schools use a computer to replace humans. Students are asked to swap their class periods online via the website of tutorial schools if they cannot attend the original class period, instead of going to the counter personally. This could prevent human mistakes as there may be mistakes made by employees of the counter such as filling in the time incorrectly and causing a mess of management.

There is the irrationality of tutorial schools, such as causing dehumanization. The original intention of education is to impart knowledge to the next generation and enhance their wisdom and skills to contribute to society. However, the establishment of tutorial schools is not helpful or even undermines this purpose. The aim that testing knowledge by the personal skills and ability of students to deal with the exam are eliminated since tutorial schools would teach identical test-taking skills and model answers.

Limitations of understanding of the industry of running tutorial schools by Weber’s theory

Weber’s theory of formal rationality and rationalization has explained how the institution and social structure lead to the formal rational action of people. However, the theory could lead to the disregard of alternative angles to analyze the trend of joining tutorial schools. Apart from the rationalization leading students are guided by formal rationality to attempt tutorial schools, there are students who are not guided by formal rationality but substantive rationality to obtain extra knowledge and learn subjects better for self-improvement shown in the research. Weber’s theory of rationalization does not explain these particular cases about people’s actions.

View on Weber’s conclusion of “iron cage”

I agree with Weber’s point that we are being locked into the “iron cage” of formal rationality. A formal rational system has relatively more advantages than other rationality even though it has irrationality. There will be more and more organizations being rationalized and guiding people to act by formal rationality. Formal rationality will increasingly dominate how we think and act along with rationalization as people are willing to act by formal rationality because of its advantages. The tendency of rationalization of society would be inevitable, thus the “iron cage” of formal rationality would be also inevitable.


Although Weber’s theory has limitation in explaining the phenomenon of tutorial schools which omit the alternative perspective to explain the phenomenon, it could explain the rationalization of tutorial schools in Hong Kong and how the action of students is guided by formal rationality when the theory is applied in the case of tutorial schools.

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