Bureaucracy and the McDonaldization of Society
One type of formal organization that has been studied in-depth by sociologists is the modern bureaucracy. Abureaucracy is a large secondary organization that is a common characteristic of modern society. It is characterized as having a large division of labor, a hierarchy of authority, written rules and regulations, credentialism, and impersonality. Below is a diagram that outlines the characteristics as well as the problems that occur within a bureaucracy.
Max Weber studied the bureaucracy as a characteristic of modern life. He pointed out that in modern societies, the traditional way of getting things done was becoming less important due mainly to the fact that modern life itself changed so rapidly. Prior to industrialization, social institutions such as the church and government set out to protect traditional cultural practices. After capitalism and industrialization, however, the emphasis on traditional modes of behavior became less important. Weber pointed out that what replaced tradition was rationalization, a process where society’s organizations and institutions relied more on efficiency and impersonality as a means of social organization.
Technology became more and more sophisticated which further aided in therationalization of society and the formation of the modern bureaucracy. With the invention of the printing press, agencies were better able to record data and store it. Written rules and regulations were set in place. Social networks began to increase and interactions in modern life became more formal. This formality created a greater need to rely more on rationality rather than on tradition.
Weber pointed out that there were many positive attributes associated with the bureaucracy. Democracy would not have been possible without a formal system of rules and regulations. Also, due to the emergence of the bureaucracy, there was less chance for dictatorship and political corruption. If we look at the authority hierarchy of the United States government, for instance, the constitution is at the very top. In other words, there is no single person who can have divine rule over our nation. The three branches of the government can change the constitution, but there are formal guidelines that must be met before this is possible. Also, we limit the amount of time a person serves as president, which is another way of limiting the amount of power one person or family can have. While the U.S. government is not entirely free of corruption, many of the checks and balances set in place by the constitution make it less likely to occur and create a more stable government overall.
Weber also wrote about the darker side of the bureaucracy. Once rationalization permeates all of society’s institutions, individuals may begin to feel a sense of alienation and isolation. Interactions become more formal and impersonal. Individuals are treated as “cogs in a machine.” Weber said that the modern bureaucracy has the capacity to place individuals in “Iron Cages of Rationality.” In other words, we become imprisoned by the impersonal nature of modern life, and efficiency becomes more important than human emotion or compassion. In the Stanford Prison Study, the prisoners were given numbers instead of names. Although Zimbardo had created a mock prison in the experiment, this ritual is something that all prisoners must be subjected to. Has the modern bureaucracy made us into numbers rather than individuals? All of society’s institutions have become influenced by the rational character of the bureaucracy.
George Ritzer applied Weber’s work on the bureaucracy and rationalization to the fast food model. He pointed out that the fast food model was based on efficiency, calculability, automation, predictability, and replacement of humans by technology. Ritzer said that the fast food model has permeated all aspects of modern society from shopping malls, newspapers, doctors, offices, schools, and even family life. He referred to this process as The McDonaldization of Society. Everything we see on the news and in our daily lives has become influenced by the need for efficiency and predictability. We go shopping online, use the “U-Scan” at the grocery store, calculate our phone bills by the amount of minutes we use, and rarely eat a meal at home with all of our family members present at the same time. How often have you called a friend hoping your call goes directly to voice mail? Have you ever been broken up with through an e-mail message? Do you feel more comfortable discussing issues oin the discussion board of an online class rather than in a lecture class? Why would we rather talk to a machine than a real person? Is this a form of alienation? Read more about Ritzer’s theory and go to the discussion board to debate whether or not the focus on efficiency in modern life has caused us to become alienated from one another. Is McDonaldization a real threat to our personal intimacy with others?