My Social Science Career: Interview with George Ritzer

As part of a series of occasional interviews with leading social scientists George Ritzer, Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, spoke to Social Science Space about his influences in the field.

Tell me about some of the people who have influenced your career in social science

I tend to be a loner – I think a lot of social theorists are like that. On one level, the majority of the most important people to me are people who I have imaginary conversations with in the deep of the night: I’m often in conversation with Max Weber or Karl Marx or someone like that. Those are the people I’m closest to and that have had the most influence on me!

From a personal point of view, the one person who had a powerful effect on me was the chairman of the first sociology department that I worked in at Tulane University – Leonard Reissman. I wanted to write a book on the sociology of occupations, but in order for me to get a contract he had to agree to be editor for the book. Being arrogant I thought I could write it without any problems! I wrote several hundred pages, I thought it was a book and I handed it to Reissman. I didn’t hear from him for a while, and then he called me in to see him and tossed it across the desk at me, saying, “This is not a book. This is a potboiler! Come back when you’ve written a book.” That was a devastating experience for a young academic but a very important lesson in terms of motivating me to learn what I needed to do to write a book. We live in an era where we back away from those kinds of confrontations, but I don’t think I would have been the scholar that I became were it not for Reissman’s honesty.

Reissman was a type of sociologist that you don’t see much of anymore: an old-time European scholar. He had that kind of scholarly orientation that to my mind has largely disappeared. There are a few people left, such as Zygmunt Bauman, but it’s a generational thing. Bauman has spun off an incredible number of very interesting ideas that have profoundly affected me (his ideas on the Holocaust played into my thinking about McDonaldization; his thinking on liquidity is central to my text on globalization).

Which developments in your field do you think have been most important or influential?

I see myself as being largely out of touch with American sociology; the kind of sociology I do is more European in style. The book I’m best known for is ‘The McDonaldization of Society’; I wrote that book as applied social theory (applying the theories of Max Weber to the contemporary world). I didn’t see it as a contribution to the sociology of consumption; there was no discernible sociology of consumption in the US at the time I started the book (about 1990). Only later, when I wrote the book ‘Expressing America’, did I realize that people were associating my work with the sociology of consumption. I then familiarized myself with that field and was drawn into the British / European work on the subject.

A second development also relates to McDonaldization. To some people, especially in England, it came to be seen as a work on globalization. I began to read people who were interpreting ‘McDonaldization’ as a model of globalization. It was a model that some were critical of, particularly in comparison to Roland Robertson’s ideas on glocalization. I became progressively interested in, and irritated by, the discourse on globalization in general, and glocalization in particular, and moved more and more in the direction of thinking and writing about it. In the process I created the idea of “grobalization” as a needed counterpoint to glocalization.

The third development is prosumption and the prosumer – one who combines being a producer and a consumer. I’m using this idea to redefine the history of a lot of social theory, which I think has tended to look at either the producer (as Marx did) or the consumer (as Baudrillard did, or as I did!). I think those concepts made sense in their historical time. However, those people who we consider to be producers or consumers were, and are, actually prosumers. It’s a historic reality that’s been lost because of our propensity to think in terms of either producers or consumers.  Now, with the internet and especially Web 2.0 (Facebook, Twitter), we can clearly see an explosion of the prosumer.

What areas do you think will be important in the future?

The prosumer, Web 2.0, the nature of globalization, all of them will continue to be important and to evolve. Not enough attention is given to the fact that the Great Recession has occurred at the same time as we’ve seen changes globally, and on the internet. When you put those developments together, what they indicate is that a lot of jobs that people think will return when the economy picks up will not return. Many have permanently gone to unpaid prosumers, especially on the internet, or to China and India.

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Alana Berry

One of my heroes!! Thanks for this interview.

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