McDonaldization and Higher Education

There is no current consensus on the definition of globalization, as the understanding of this term is influenced by assumptions and worldviews that shape one’s approach to the topic (Eriksen, 2007). Robinson (2008), for instance, proposed “domain questions” (p. 127) that can help in identifying different schools of thought. Some of these domain questions relate to time, while others deal with politics, society, and the economy. Based on the answers to these domain questions, Robinson has organized the main globalization theories into seven major groups containing multiple variations each: world-system theory; theories of global capitalism; the network society; theories of space, place and globalization; theories of transnationality and transnationalism; theories dealing with modernity, postmodernity and globalization; and theories of global culture.

Theories of Global Culture

Theories of global culture “tend to emphasize globalizing cultural forms and flows” (Robinson, 2008, p. 139) including the globalization of communications, tourism, religion, and consumer patterns. These global culture theories may be grouped into three different perspectives: the homogenizing view understands world culture as converging into common themes and practices; the heterogenizing view focuses on the local differences and the efforts to resist a global trend of homogenization; and the hybridizing view proposes that new and transformed ways of doing things spring out of the many interactions between cultures.

The global culture school of thought was started in the early 1990s by a couple of prolific scholars: Roland Robertson and George Ritzer. Roland Robertson first coined the term “globalization” in 1985 (Robertson, 2014, p. 447), much earlier than other scholars had identified the trends that would later be known as globalization. Robertson (1992) proposed that there is a worldwide culture based on the view that humanity lives in what can be considered the same place and not in multiple worlds that are far apart. This view has implications not only for daily life, but also to international relations, the role of religion in society and others (Roland, 2011).

While Robertson focused more on the cultural and semi-intangible aspects of globalization, George Ritzer on the other hand decided to investigate the more tangible features of globalization as it related to production and processes. By coining the term “McDonaldization” over twenty years ago, Ritzer (1993) proposed a new approach to understanding global culture with concrete examples based on the modus operandi of McDonald’s, a famous worldwide fast-food chain. Drawing on five principles used by McDonald’s to streamline its production and minimize costs, he identified trends in the world culture and production methods that seemed to mimic how the fast-food chain operated.

The first principle Ritzer (1993) drew from McDonald’s was that of efficiency—time was of the essence and processes must be in place that will minimize the time it takes to complete each step, thus minimizing the time it takes from beginning to end (from preparing the hamburger to eating it). The second principle was calculability: each process and product must be quantifiable in order to facilitate its tracking and efficiency. The third principle was predictability—the consumer should expect the same products and services during each contact with the company; this third principle had a direct connection with standardization, and it was easily seen in store set-ups, menus, signage, uniforms, etc. The fourth principle was control—along with predictability, control involved the standardization of products and services, including the use of machines to ensure that products were as similar as possible independently of the batch they were a part of or the time of day or night that they were cooked. The fifth principle was that of irrationality—people got caught up in rational processes (e.g. bureaucracy) that were put in place in order to rationalize production and service, and such processes eliminated the need for each individual to think through and make his or her own decisions; this, in effect, stripped human reason from the system and frequently resulted in “unreasonable systems” (Ritzer, 1993, p. 154).

McDonaldization Today

The “McDonaldization” theory has had wide and deep influence in multiple fields of study, including education, business, and even religion. Several scholars have developed McDonaldization further and applied its concepts to their fields of study; these studies are wide-ranging and involve the concepts of McDonaldization but many times they also include what has become known as de-McDonaldization; that is, the efforts to avoid the traps and negative aspects that characterize McDonaldization.

There has been a rich output of research and articles on McDonaldization. A brief search of the university’s library yielded a total of 1,249 peer-reviewed articles published in the last five years alone. Nearly all articles (1,197) were written in English; very few (10 or less per language) were written in other languages. While current McDonaldization scholars are located throughout the world, their focus seems to be concentrated on major capitalist centers. A search of the university’s library yielded the following geographical list of peer-reviewed articles on McDonaldization published in the last five years: 59 articles were published on Great Britain, 47 on the United States, 34 on China (although China is officially Communist, it adopts a semi-Capitalist economic posture which includes the “one China, two systems” view of Hong Kong), 30 on Australia, 14 on India, 10 on France, and many others in lesser frequencies on several other countries, such as Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey, Germany, etc. Still using the same university library search, the topics scholars are writing about clearly indicate that McDonaldization is a major concern in terms of higher education: the highest number of articles about McDonaldization are also about higher education (68 articles), followed by tourism (52 articles), culture (51 articles), and consumer behavior (38 articles).

According to a search on the university’s library, the main scholars focusing on the impact of McDonaldization on higher education today are investigating multiple aspects of higher education. For instance, Ramírez (2014) has investigated brands and franchises and their impact on the assurance of quality, including the accreditation of Mexican universities by American institutions; the idea that if something is good for American universities then it must also be good for Mexican universities is an inference from McDonaldization. Dolan (2014) has investigated MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and their impact on some students that feel isolated due to the McDonaldization of online education. Treiber (2013) approached McDonaldization from the perspective of the teacher and how students learn about the topic, focusing on helping students to think through the implications of McDonaldization and finding solutions that can be applied in the real world. Berg and Seeber (2013) investigated the impact of slow movement on student learning, which runs counter to the efficiency and time minimization tenets of McDonaldization. Gutiérrez (2011) researched the impact of neo-liberal economic policies on educational policy, and concluded that the perception of the role of education has changed to a more utilitarian understanding based on free-market values, including efficiency and quantifiability.

Finally, George Ritzer continues to be very active in McDonaldization scholarship as well; one could argue that he is still the leading figure in this field with recent articles that either coin new terms or deal with newly created ones, such as “glocal” and “grobal” (Ritzer & Richer, 2012), “prosumer” (Ritzer, Dean, & Jurgenson, 2012), and “prosumption” (Ritzer, 2014). McDonaldization has evolved and now interacts with various other ideas, including Disneyization (referring to Disney theme parks’ ability to standardize its products, marketing and human resources so that they all project the same image and homogeneous message) and Cocacolonization (referring to Coca-Cola’s ability to market its products everywhere, which is seen by some as an imposition of American culture and values on other cultures). Disneyization was popularized by Bryman (2004) and Cocacolonization was popularized in academia by Wagnleitner (1994). Other subsequent terms that are directly linked to McDonaldization are: McJob (easily-replaceable and low paying job), McChurch (a very large church that practices a standardized type of community Christianity), and McUniversity (a for-profit university set up according to standardized procedures and bureaucracy aimed at increased efficiency, lower cost, and high revenues).

McDonaldization in Practice

The author works at a large, for-profit, multi-campus university that serves students around the world through its online education platform; his observations and experience may point to an example of McDonaldization in higher education (i.e. McUniversity). In this particular university, all five McDonaldization principles are evident. The principle of efficiency can be seen in the fact that the university has established its bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs in ways that minimize the time it takes for students to complete the program—from the enrollment process to financial aid approvals to class time, all contact with the university was designed to be efficient. Calculability was also built into the way the university was set up: the academic credit hours have been set up in a way that is both efficient, trackable, and provides the outcome desired by the student and by the accrediting bodies. Predictability can be seen in the way each course is set up, be it traditional (ground) or online classes: for each course (independent of instructor or session) all syllabi contain the same information and same requirements, the instructors are all expected to provide the same type of feedback, and the cost is very similar independently of modality. The principle of control can be seen in the use of automated online systems that generate standard instructor policies and in the instructor notes provided for each course; these two resources ensure a certain level of standardization and are directly related to predictability as well. Finally, the principle of irrationality can be seen in situations where official rules dictate that students need to be in the classroom for the duration of each session (four hours); sometimes class content has been covered and discussions have already taken place and there would be no need for students to stay in session for the full period, but the decision to dismiss class has been taken away from the instructor and replaced with a strict rule that must be followed. These five principles of McDonaldization can be clearly seen in the way this university operates, and serve to illustrate that a degree of de-McDonaldization may be called for.



Berg, M., & Seeber, B. K. (2013). The slow professor: Challenging the culture of speed in the academy. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching & Learning Journal, 6(3), 1-7.

Blanco Ramírez, G. (2014). A world of brands: Higher education and the emergence of multinational quality franchises. Quality In Higher Education, 20(2), 216-232. doi:10.1080/13538322.2014.924787

Bryman, A. (2004). The Disneyization of society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Dolan, V. B. (2014). Massive online obsessive compulsion: What are they saying out there about the latest phenomenon in higher education?. International Review Of Research In Open & Distance Learning, 15(2), 268-281.

Eriksen, T. (2007). Globalization: the key concepts. Oxford: Berg.

Ritzer, G. (1993). The McDonaldization of society. London: Sage.

Ritzer, G. (2014, March). Prosumption: Evolution, revolution, or eternal return of the same? Journal Of Consumer Culture, 14(1), 3-24.

Ritzer, G., Dean, P., & Jurgenson, N. (2012, April). The coming age of the prosumer. American Behavioral Scientist, 56(4), 379-398.

Ritzer, G., & Richer, Z. (2012, August). Still enamoured of the glocal: A comment on “From local to grobal, and back.” Business History, 54(5), 798-804.

Robertson, R. (1992). Globalization: Social theory and global culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Robertson, R. (2011). Religion, international relations and transdisciplinarity. Protosociology: An International Journal Of Interdisciplinary Research, 27, 7-20.

Robertson, R. (2014). Roland Robertson. Globalizations, 11(4), 447. doi:10.1080/14747731.2014.951203

Robinson, W. (2008). Theories of globalization. In G. Ritzer (Ed.), Blackwell companion to globalization (pp. 125-143). London: Blackwell.

Treiber, L. (2013). McJobs and pieces of flair: Linking McDonaldization to alienating work. Teaching Sociology, 41(4), 370-376.

Wagnleitner, R. (1994). Coca-colonization: The cultural mission of the United States in Austria after the second world war. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.


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