Loss Amidst Monumental Abundance: An Interview with George Ritzer

Interview by Dennis Soron

George Ritzer is one of the most influential and prolific scholars at work today in the fields of social theory and the sociology of consumption. A Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, he has also been a Distinguished Scholar-Teacher and the recipient of a Teaching Excellence Award. His many books include The McDonaldization of Society (1993, 1996, 2000; 2004), Expressing America: A Critique of the Global Credit Card Society (1995), The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and Extensions (1998), Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption (1999; 2005), Explorations in Social Theory: from Metatheorizing to Rationalization (2001), McDonaldization: The Reader (2002; 2006), Contemporary Sociological Theory and its Classical Roots: The Basics, and The Globalization of Nothing (2004). Ritzer is the editor of the Journal of Consumer Culture, and has also recently edited The Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists (2000), The Handbook of Social Theory (2001; with Barry Smart), Handbook of Social Problems : A Comparative International Perspective (2004), and the two-volume Encyclopedia of Social Theory (2005). He is currently editing the 11-volume Encyclopedia of Sociology.

Photo: Permission provided by George Ritzer

Conceptualizing 'Nothing'

Aurora: Your recent book, The Globalization of Nothing (2004), represents an original effort to reframe current debates about globalization around the concept of “nothing”. You argue that the prevailing zeitgeist in the advanced capitalist world is one of “loss amidst monumental abundance”- a sense of disenchantment arising from the ongoing transformation of “something” into “nothing” within a variety of spheres in contemporary society. To start off with, could you clarify your particular way of conceptualizing “nothing” in this book? Your employment of this term seems to depart from some of the familiar ways in which it is used in everyday speech and in the specialized language of philosophy and other disciplines.

George Ritzer: In the appendix of the book I go through a number of the definitions of “nothing” that I ran across in philosophy, sociological theory, and many other different fields. Unfortunately, none of these did quite what I wanted to do. So, after poring over the existing literature for a significant period of time, I ended up defining the term in a rather unique way. 

For me, “nothing” is a social form that has three main characteristics. First, it is centrally conceived; that is, there is some central organization or institution somewhere that conceives of the particular social form. Next, it is centrally controlled, usually by the same organization or institution. Finally, I argue, its iterations are generally lacking in distinctive content.

In terms of my previous work, we could say that McDonald's would be a major example of nothing in the contemporary world. All of the defining features of the Big Mac, for example, have been centrally conceived at McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Oak Park Illinois. The specific manner in which Big Macs are prepared, marketed, and distributed to consumers at various franchises is all also centrally controlled. As a consequence, each Big Mac – wherever in the world it may be sold – is highly uniform and standardized, and hence lacking in distinctive content.

In pursuing this line of analysis, I quickly realized that I couldn't adequately grapple with the problem of nothing without also simultaneously addressing the issue of “something”. So, flipping things around, I came to define “something” as a social form that is locally conceived, locally controlled, and rich in distinctive content. Some examples in this case might be a local diner or a local farmers market, both of which are conceived in the immediate locale, controlled by the people in that locale, and possessed of quite distinctive content.

In this sense, nothing and something are basically the two endpoints of a continuum on which various social forms can be situated and compared. Overall, as I see it, the dominant historical trend we’re currently witnessing is the movement from social forms that exist more toward the something end of the continuum, to social forms that are more toward the nothing end of the continuum.

Aurora: Moving beyond the example you’ve just given of the Big Mac, could you quickly outline for us some of the various forms that “nothing” can take in today’s world?

George Ritzer: As I worked on this book, I realized that I really needed to refine this continuum, along with its two cardinal concepts of nothing and something. As a first step in this direction, I went to the existing literature on “non-places” – associated most readily with the work of French anthropologist Marc Augé. Within my schema, a non-place would be toward the nothing end of the continuum, and a “place” would be toward the something end. To return to my earlier example, a McDonald’s restaurant would be considered a non-place, whereas a farmers market would be regarded as a place.

As I thought about it, it seemed to me that there were a number of other important distinctions to be made – between “things” and “non-things”, for instance. Thus, the Big Mac would be a non-thing, and a homemade meal, whether gourmet or not, would be a thing. A further distinction also needed to be made between “people” and “non-people”, the latter referring to those people whose actions are centrally conceived, controlled, and lacking in distinctive content. A counter person at McDonalds, and a telemarketer, would both be good examples of a non-person in this sense, although it should be said that workers in many kinds of organizations these days are increasingly non-people. In contrast, a person would be someone whose actions are locally conceived, locally controlled, and rich in distinctive content, such as the neighbourhood baker or independent grocer.

The final distinction I found it necessary to make was between a “service” and a “non-service”. A non-service might be the kind of service you would get via the internet from Amazon.com, for example. Such services are tremendously centrally conceived, controlled, and lacking in distinctive content. Conversely, the kind of attention you might get at a local bookstore or from your local librarian would be a service locally conceived, controlled, and rich in distinctive content.

Aurora: You've made it clear in your book that the distinction between nothing and something should not be taken to imply a simple hierarchy of value, in which the former is by definition inferior to the latter. Could you elaborate on this point for us?

George Ritzer: Obviously, the book’s title and its basic terminology communicate my critical orientation toward the general historical drift towards nothing to which I’ve alluded. But on the other hand, and I make this clear in several points in the book, it is also important to recognize that not all forms of nothing are bad and not all forms of something are good.

My favorite example of a nothing that is good would be pharmaceuticals of various kinds. There are many pharmaceuticals that are saving people's lives and reducing suffering throughout the world. They may be created by corporate giants such as Pfizer, centrally conceived and controlled, and lacking in distinctive content, but most people would nevertheless consider them to be a good thing - people who can afford them, at any rate.

On the other hand, there are forms of something which are not necessarily good. We might, for example, think of a southern plantation in the Civil War era. Being locally conceived, controlled, and rich in distinctive content, it would certainly meet my definition of something. That said, I don't think we would think of it as a good thing. Another example I often use is of a Russian pogrom, which would also meet the definition of something I’ve outlined and yet would clearly not be the type of event that we would actually welcome.

Aurora: Given the current climate in fields such as cultural studies, one objection to your book that is likely to arise is that takes an unduly dim view of popular tastes. Certainly, many forms of nothing – from Big Macs to Hollywood blockbusters and other standardized commodities – seem to have a large degree of mass appeal. Cultural studies today is rife with uplifting tales of active consumers creatively re-appropriating the wares of mass culture and investing them with new and ever-so-subversive meanings. How would you respond to the charge that your critique of nothing has “elitist” overtones?

George Ritzer: Let me first say that, as co-editor of the Journal of Consumer Culture, I see a lot of the kind of literature that you're talking about – the kind that stresses the agency of consumers, highlighting how they do not simply passively accept “nothing” as I describe here, but manipulate and transform it into “something”, and so on. In many cases, I think that there is some truth to this line of thinking. In fact, I recently wrote an essay in which I deal with this issue of how people transform nothing into something.[1]

That said, I also think that the field has gone way overboard in this particular direction. As a result, what's been gradually lost from sight is the wide-scale production and dissemination of nothing in our society. For example, you might read articles about people buying jeans and cutting them off, painting them, or putting appliqués on them. In this case, the consumer might be seen as an active agent transforming nothing into something. But what often gets overlooked in this rush to empower the consumer is the fact that jean manufacturers such as Levi Straus, to say nothing of Valentino and the higher-end companies, don't really care what you do with the jeans once you buy them. They just care that you buy the jeans. In a sense, I am working that side of the street, where we find the massive corporations that are in the business of producing huge amounts of nothing and disseminating them throughout the world of consumption. Although there is no shortage of valid criticisms to be made about a company like Wal-Mart, for instance, one crucial thing we might say is that it is the world’s great purveyor of nothingness.

As for the critique of elitism, I also think that this can become extremely overstated. A big part of my book deals with the issue of social class and the consumption of nothing. I am very careful to point out that the elite members of society are as likely to consume nothing as the members of the lower and middle classes. I argue, for example, that a Gucci bag costing hundreds or thousands of dollars is just as much nothing, by my definition, as would be a Big Mac. In this sense, I think that this issue really cuts across social classes. We also need to remember that the upper classes are not just consuming their expensive forms of nothing, but they're also consuming the Big Macs and other ordinary commodities as well. So, in some ways, nothingness is a bigger problem in the upper classes than the lower classes. Along similar lines, I also emphasize the point that in many parts of the world, the poorest people are those who are typically “doomed to something”. In many cases, the people who actually manufacture consumer goods in Third World countries can't afford to buy them.

Globalizing Nothing

Aurora: To what extent is the globalization of nothing simply an expression of the logic of capitalist production? Doesn’t capitalism’s expansionary logic, and its drive to continually increase the scope and intensity of commodification, necessarily give rise to powerful global pressures towards centralized control, standardization, and the elimination of “distinctive content”?

George Ritzer: Absolutely, there's no question. This goes back to Marx's original insight that capitalism must expand or die – that it must ceaselessly continue to grow, extend itself geographically, find new markets. Obviously, the capitalist dynamic is central to the globalization of nothing – although I would also point to the key influence of the connected but relatively separate processes of Americanization and McDonaldization.

The United States is clearly the dominant player in global capitalism today and has an economic stake in the globalization of nothing. But, as a nation, it has historically also had a variety of other distinct cultural and political motives impelling it to bring its way of life – its hamburgers, its war-planes, its version of democracy - to the rest of the world. Similarly, McDonaldization is quite evidently capitalistic in orientation -  McDonald's is a capitalist organization, after all – and is integral to Americanization, but it is also a separable force in some ways. One of the things I emphasize in recent editions of my McDonaldization book is that McDonaldization is not just an American project, and not just a capitalistic project. Increasingly, in today’s world, other countries are shipping their own McDonaldized cultural forms into the United States, and McDonaldization is proceeding apace in many spheres of social life, such as the church or education, that are outside of the formal economy.

Of course, a key part of my book is the argument is that, from an economic point of view, it is far easier to globalize nothing than something, and that there's much more money to be earned by through the globalization of nothing than of the various forms of something. It is far easier to sell these relatively empty forms of nothing around the world than it is to sell something, because, after all, every form of something is rich in distinctive content. The richer this content, the more there is in any specific phenomenon that can alienate a potential buyer, or not be attractive to a potential buyer, or not be understood by a buyer.

For all of these reasons, I think the capitalist dynamic is such that you can produce millions or billions of a given popular type of nothing, and sell it throughout the world. Of course, that is precisely what McDonald's does. One of its great sources of success is its ability to sell these various forms of nothing in 130-plus nations around the world. A lot of people who write about the issue of McDonald's in other parts of the world tend to emphasize the degree to which the company adapts to these local environments. It is certainly the case that McDonald's adapts in this way in some limited instances. But the bottom line is that all of its basic principles – as well as virtually all of the foods, the business structures, the way the restaurants look and operate, and so on - are almost exactly the same everyplace in the world. So yes, they make some minor adaptations in order to succeed in local environments, but what can't be lost is the degree to which they impose this one top-down model everywhere they go. In this sense, it is perhaps a very telling example of globalization as a whole.

Aurora: In contrast to many other contemporary thinkers, who have tended to portray globalization as a force promoting cultural pluralism, syncretism and hybridity, your critique of globalization has remained very much anchored in notions of cultural imperialism and Americanization. In this

book, you tease out the differences between these different views of globalization largely through the distinction you establish between “glocalization” and “grobalization”. Could you explain these terms for us a bit more, and how they fit into your work?

George Ritzer: “Glocalization” is an idea that is most readily associated with the work of Roland Robertson, although its basic premises are at the foundation of what I see as the predominant academic view of globalization as a cultural phenomenon these days. Basically, the notion of glocalization expresses the idea that, in any given part of the world, the global interacts with the local, and that out of that interaction is produced something that is novel and unique, that has both elements of the global and elements of the local in it – in short, something that is “glocal”. This view recognizes the transformative pressures exerted by globalization, but gives great power to the continuing power and influence of the local, and assumes that the today’s world continues to be marked by great distinctiveness.

In this book I have coined the term "grobalization" as a complement to the concept of glocalization, in order to reassert the basic point that there remain countless times and instances in which global forces imperialistically impose themselves on local environments. Even in the most remote parts of the world, it is impossible anymore to find a form of the local which has not been affected, at least negatively, by globalization. I find it hard to share in the sense of optimism that some people have about the resilience and power of the local; indeed, what we are seeing today is the death of the local, or the imminent death of the local, perhaps. This is not to argue that there is not any glocalization going on today, but simply to suggest that our attention to its various manifestations shouldn’t blind us to a very powerful counter-tendency - the growing reach and influence of dominant states, international corporations and other organizations that are actively imposing their ways of doing things on other parts of the world. In most cases, from my point of view, even if McDonald's is selling a local product or two, in the end it is much better seen as a grobalizing force than as a glocalizing force. Similarly, many recent exposes of Wal-Mart have made it quite clear how powerful this corporate behemoth has been in imposing its will unilaterally on local communities and suppliers all over the world.

I think that one of the things that initially got me into debates over globalization was the general predominance of this glocalization / hybridity perspective, and the hegemony it had achieved within the globalization literature. I started to personally come face to face with this problem because my older book, The McDonaldization of Society, would on occasion come under attack by people with this perspective, whose notions of glocalization and hybridity didn’t sit well with my concerns about cultural imperialism. My point, of course, is not to further polarize these debates and ask people to declare their allegiance to one side or another. My argument is that if we want to understand globalization, we need to look at both glocalization and grobalization.

Aurora: How truly “global” is the scope of your analysis of the globalization of nothing and its theme of “loss amidst monumental abundance”? Does it speak primarily to the cultural predicament of sated consumers in the advanced capitalist world, or does it also allow for a consideration of the stark inequalities in the current global system?

George Ritzer: The first step in answering this question is to ask: who are the producers and who are the consumers in the contemporary global economy? I think that increasingly it is people in the less economically developed parts of the world who are the producers of nothing, and it is those in the more developed and affluent parts of the world who are the consumers of nothing. That's not to say, however, that more and more of these forms of nothing are not finding their way into third world countries as consumer goods. I think that is happening, and is going to continue to happen for the foreseeable future. If you look at what is going on in China, for instance, it is clear that many of these forms of nothing have now found their way there. As China economically produces greater and greater quantities of nothing, it is also going to be inundated economically, socially and culturally by more and more of these very forms of nothing.

Of course, there are other parts of the world that are neither significant producers nor consumers of nothing. They are, as I put it earlier, doomed to a life of something - a life of meager self-cooked meals, home-made clothing, makeshift housing, and locally bound activities. Although, from our perspective, some features of this type of life – such as cooking a meal communally and consuming it together - may seem to embody positive qualities, the people themselves who are living it may be desperate for the nothing of the developed countries. Virtually all of them would likely give up their forms of something for Nike shoes, Big Macs or the other forms of nothing that I describe in the book. Nonetheless, according to my theoretical schema, the fact is that they are doomed to a life of something, at least for the foreseeable future.

Doing Something About Nothing

Aurora: You argue the resistance to the globalization of nothing will in the first instance come from defending and preserving the remnants of something at the local level. Does this simply imply a change in our cultural sensibility and criteria of cultural value, or will it require other systemic social changes? In the case of food, for example, it seems that people often opt for the “nothing” of fast food and frozen dinners not simply because of their misguided cultural preferences. Indeed, it is often practical constraints built into their everyday work lives and domestic routines that leave them without the time and energy to pick out unique ingredients from specialty shops, to prepare foods creatively and lovingly, to develop the skills to cook interesting meals from scratch, and so on. To what extent do we need to transform society to create the social conditions in which “something” can flourish culturally?

George Ritzer: I think Juliet Schor, in her books, is right on target here, in the sense that what we've done over time is to create a work-and-spend society that is very hard to struggle against. We've chosen to work more so that we can spend more. So we work long hours, and we have both spouses work. The result of that is that we can afford to buy a ton of nothing, but we have no time for cultivating and enjoying something.

I think one of the key choices that could be made by people facing this dilemma is to choose to work a little bit less and have a few less forms of nothing. This will enable them to have more time to attend to forms of something that are ultimately more personally satisfying:  to be with their families, spend time with their children, develop hobbies and skills, and prepare their meals lovingly, as you put it. We need to remind ourselves that there is a tradeoff that we are making Increasingly, it seems, we're willing to work like crazy just so we can pile up various forms and types of nothing.

Of course, there is also an “iron cage” component to this problem that structures the choices that are actually available to people. In the restaurant industry, for instance, fast food chains – including not only classic examples such as McDonalds and Burger King, but also more upscale chains like Red Lobster or Olive Garden – continue to proliferate and blanket public space, to the point that they gradually crowd out many of the alternatives. So, increasingly people live in an iron cage of nothingness, in which it is harder and harder to find traces of something in one’s everyday environment. Furthermore, this means that more and more young people are raised in this world of nothingness, this comprehensively McDonaldized world. Based on their own experience, they know no alternative, so where is the craving for alternative forms of something even going to come from?

In such circumstances, the Slow Food movement, which is often erroneously seen as an elitist organization, can in many ways be seen as a model for those seeking to resuscitate the value of something and build an alternative. This movement does, of course, have its elitist elements, but its real goal is to protect and defend traditional foods (although it does not want to simply be a “museum: it has more progressive objectives, as well), along with traditional ways of raising and preparing them. Resisting the pull of our McDonaldized food culture, it appreciates that there are all sorts of unique and delectable varieties of locally grown foods that need to be preserved and celebrated, that there are culturally particular ways of cultivating and cooking and consuming foods that need to be defended. As its very name suggests, the Slow Food movement arose as a reaction against the expansion of fast food - the paradigmatic example of nothing. In a disenchanted world of wall-to-wall fast food restaurants, we encounter this monumental abundance of nothing – an abundance which, for the Slow Food people, is also at the source of a great sense of loss. Thus, in addition to its culinary and community-building achievements, this movement is also waging a useful struggle against the mounting danger of nothing completely inundating something in our world.

Aurora: This next question takes up the issue of elitism, to which you’ve just briefly alluded. While, as you’ve said, elite groups can in some ways be the greatest consumers of nothing, it also seems that the process of elite class distinction today often takes place through a rejection of mass consumer tastes, and the fetishization of auratic forms of “something” - unique, exotic, artisanally crafted ornaments, furnishings, meals, pieces of clothing, and so on. Can the valorization of something today be divorced from this form of class distinction?

George Ritzer: I think that this process certainly occurs, and that this particular version of something is certainly one that is cultivated symbolically by some elements of elite society. I’m not arguing that your point is wrong, but what strikes me most overall is the degree to which elites in today’s world are drawn to expensive forms of nothing. A good example here is the popularity of “McMansions” – huge, extravagant dwellings that may be on five acres of land, but are essentially ten-thousand square-foot suburban tract houses.

A few years ago I spent some time in a small town in Sardinia. We went into the center of town to partake of the sights and see what a traditional Sardinian town looked like. As it turned out, this was a town founded for the Mediterranean elite. The downtown was, basically, nothing but a shopping mall composed of Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana, and all of the other requisite upscale chain stores. In effect, they were selling expensive forms of nothing. Very wealthy people, very well attired people, were wandering from store to store buying these expensive forms of nothing. That's the aspect of it that most interests me, and of course most happens to support my position.

Aurora: By now, you are acquainted with – and perhaps even bored by – the familiar complaint that you don’t more systematically take up Marxist ideas in your work. Theoretically, your work here on the globalization of nothing seems to carry you onto the terrain of some classic Marxist concerns – alienation, commodity fetishism, reification, and so on. Politically, a Marxist response to the globalization of nothing would likely complement your focus on consumption with more of an emphasis on challenging capital’s power over the production process. Do you think that the Marxist tradition offers useful tools for addressing the types of issues you’re analyzing in this book?

George Ritzer The fact is that, in my theoretical work, I've always done a lot with Marxian theory, and some of my early theoretical work was accused of being Marxist in its orientation. From a purely intellectual point of view, I love Marxian theory, and always tell my students that I think it is the most beautiful of all of the classic social theories. I'm a great admirer of Marxian theory, and perhaps even know more about it than I do about Weberian theory.

My reservations about Marxian theory essentially boil down to two main concerns. First, there has been and continues to be a very strong orientation towards the sphere of production among Marxists and among sociologists and social scientists more generally. To correct this imbalance, I think there needs to be more of a focus on the sphere of consumption. So, this underlying productive bias is one of the reasons that Marx does not provide a stronger base for my work.

Beyond that, my fundamental problem with Marxian theory is that it is a “happy ending” theory. At the end of the historical road, something dramatic is going to happen. There's going to be a social revolution and we will all live happily ever after. I wish I saw that as being in the works - I would certainly sleep better at night, in fact, if I believed that. But, unfortunately, that is not the direction I see the world going in. Here, I think that Weberian theory – while not nearly as pretty as Marxian theory – was much closer to being historically accurate.

Very often when I speak on this subject, students or other members of the audience question me at the end of the talk and say: “If you have such a dim, bleak view of the future, why do you even do this? Why do you write about these problems, and why do you speak about them publicly? The answer I always give is that I hope I'm wrong.  The historical movement towards “nothing” that I've talked about and criticized is the direction we're clearly moving in – but ultimately it is people themselves who are choosing to move in this direction.

That said, people can also choose to do things differently – even if it is as simple as consuming something different or refusing to go to McDonalds. We know from history that institutions that we thought were solid and could not be destroyed have turned out to be rather easily destroyed. McDonald's, for example, is one of those institutions. It wouldn't take very many people in very many cities to stand up and say, as they said in that old movie Network, “I'm mad as hell and I'm not taking it anymore” – or, at very least, “I'm mad as hell, and I'm not eating here anymore”. In this case, MacDonald's would find itself quickly in trouble. So there is always that glimmer of hope for me in an otherwise depressing view of what the future holds for us.

[1] Ritzer, Stepnisky, Lemich (2005). "The "Magical" World of Consumption: Transforming Nothing into Something". Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 49:117. 

General Links:

Ritzer’s homepage at the University of Maryland’s Department of Sociology:


Journal of Consumer Culture:


McDonaldization.com - a popular site inspired by Ritzer’s work, whose mandate is “to educate about the perils of the McDonaldization process”:


Multi-Media Links:

Online Radio Interview with Ritzer:

“I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” (Interview by BBC Radio 4’s Laurie Taylor).


Other Resources:

“Interview: George Ritzer, Author of ‘The McDonaldization of Society’”:  Ritzer Interviewed by One-Off Productions. (1997)



Updates, publications.. George Ritzer bio page: https://georgeritzer.wordpress.com/bio/

Dennis Soron is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. His research and teaching interests include social theory, cultural studies, the political economy of consumption, and the intersection of labour and environmental politics.


Article published Spring 2006

Updated March 2018

Citation Format

Soron, Dennis. (2006) Loss Amidst Monumental Abundance: An Interview with George Ritzer. Aurora Online