Since arriving at the University of Maryland two years ago, I have had four classes with Dr. George Ritzer. After three semesters and four classes, I can honestly say that I know countless Ritzer anecdotes, stories, and wisecracks, most of which will safely remain within the confines of class discussion and hilarities! So, when it came to interviewing a faculty for our newsletter, it was beyond clear that I had to spotlight George.
A couple of weeks ago, on a bright – and unusually warm – May day, George and I sat outside of Art-Sociology, soaking in the sun and discussing his childhood, academic, and familial experiences. After an hour and a half of him sharing his intellectual journey and answering my somewhat naïve questions about intellectual maturity, I knew that my notes were a feeble display of an incredibly noble career.
However, I hope that I have pieced together well – via a pastiche technique –the wealth of knowledge and inspiration George provided me with during our interview. Read and enjoy! And I hope you feel a sense of childlike wonder after doing so (you’ll see what I mean below)!
George grew up in the ultimate of urban experiences – Manhattan. Though he grew up “relatively poor,” Manhattan for George was a sophisticated world, as he was raised reading the New York Times and attending out door concerts and events.
George attended the Bronx High School of Science – “the best high school in New York City,” then and now, as competitive exams are required for entry. For George, this experience was essential. Solid teachers and students surrounded him; they provided him with aspirations and a sense of what was required to succeed intellectually.
The “most tangible event” of George’s intellectual life occurred while he was a student at City College of New York in 1960. It was then that he visited Amherst where he went inside of a McDonald’s for the very first time; this event manifests itself quite clearly in his work. This event, juxtaposed to New York City’s very distinct restaurants and stores, was jarring.
A few years later – in 1975 – George saw a McDonalds in Amsterdam. The New York that George grew up in and the Netherlands of the 1970s were not spaces in which he expected to see a McDonalds; the establishment was not consistent with either environment.
These experiences meshed with the social theories with which he was engaged – especially those of Max Weber – and became a turning point in George’s career. For the first 20 (or so) years of his career, George successfully produced pure theory, specifically meta-theory (theory about theory). However, he had a small audience and soon became dissatisfied with that type of knowledge production. George was then drawn to theoretically critiquing fast food establishments, credit cards, globalization, and consumption. These interests flowed from meta-theory to discussing the social world with a more tangible and empirical display. George was able to produce applied social theory (i.e., using theory to think about the social world).
That said, George’s experiences growing up in New York City – specifically the intellectuality of the City and of Bronx High School in the 1950s – sensitized him to non-New York City phenomena and developments, as they were inconsistent with the world in which he grew up.
George’s father was a taxi-cab driver for most of his son’s youth. His father told him countless stories framed around a person within low-status occupation who was abused quite readily by both customers and management. Therefore, talk of unionization was rampant in the Ritzer-household, allowing a young George to saliently identify within a working-class mentality. George had a strong labor union orientation (as opposed to a Marxian orientation; he appreciated Marxian theory rather than Marxian ideology). From this upbringing is a social justice perception within George, specifically rooted in the anger he felt toward the manner in which his father – and others in low-status occupations – was/are treated. This is from where his critical perspective – critiquing wealthy and large corporations – stem.
George received his MBA from the University of Michigan. During second-year interviews – where students interview with potential employers – George ran into a gentleman that worked for General Electric Company (GE) in Schenectady, NY. This gentleman invited George to interview and test with the company. Though he was welcomed with open arms when arriving in Schenectady for a series of interviews and tests, it soon became clear to both the potential employers and him that he was “too” pro-union to be working for GE. As GE is (in)famous for its anti-union practices, the interview-tone quickly transformed. Both parties mutually agreed that it was best if George did not continue the interview and testing process.
That said, this pro-union ideology has remained with George.
George always tells this amusing and inspiring story about when he was a young professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. Long-story-short, somewhere along the line a longhaired, bearded George Ritzer became the rally-cry leader for Tulane students during a series of administration protests, as this was a nation-wide frequent occurrence epitomizing “the times.” George’s sympathies lay with the students – he had the same feelings and attitudes toward them that he had toward his father – as they were protesting systemic injustices. Within his frustrations with class-based power-induced injustices was based a much more personal – rather than theoretical – worldview. This story is but one example.
But … the personal and theoretical can be combined, according to George. Within the above story, his personal and theoretical frameworks were combined in a certain manner. George is concerned about the social justice of “the underdog.” While he does not consider himself an “optimistic person,” he concedes that a person has to be somewhat optimistic to buy into Marxian theory … to believe that better situations are possible.
Another powerful influence – personal and professional – for George is New York’s urban cynicism. This perhaps, according to George, explains why he is drawn more to Max Weber’s theories than to Karl Marx’. Weber married well the personal and the theoretical, somewhat epitomizing stereotypical New York City cynicism.
George does not have a PhD in sociology. Then how did he enter the sociology field, specifically theory? And what keeps him within the theory world?
After receiving his MBA, George worked at Ford Motor Company for a year. He then applied and was accepted to the top-ranked Cornell University’s School of Industrial Labor Relations’(ILR) PhD program. In those days, Cornell made the student choose her/his advisor within the first two weeks of attendance. George – at around 25 years of age – wanted an advisor that would “leave him alone and let him go in whatever direction.” Serendipitously, he found that advisor – Harry Trice
Dr. Trice was a trained sociology professor within the ILR program. Him, along with other sociologists – including William Foote Whyte of Street Corner Society (1943) – were scattered throughout campus degree programs. Quickly George’s minor field became sociology, which eventually overrode his interest in ILR.
While a student, George took a class with Margaret Cussler – who eventually became a professor at the University of Maryland as well. The class was a social psychology theory course – fairly intimidating to George. Each week’s assignment was to choose and read one of four substantive course readings. George read every single assignment in order to compensate for feeling ill prepared. Within a few weeks he proved to himself and others that he could handle the sociology community and discourse.
When George received his PhD in 1968, he had to decide between teaching at a business school or within a sociology department. Though his main interest had become theory – as he informally became acquainted with it in a variety of ways – he never took an official theory course. However, Tulane University hired him as an Assistant Professor to focus on industrial sociology. Tulane had apparently lost their sociology theorist, so George taught the undergraduate-level theory course and eventually the graduate-level theory course. It was via teaching that George realized his ability to communicate theory well; for him the most effective way to learn theory is to teach theory. In doing so, he read everything – evidenced by his boxes of yellowed notes that he still brings to class-meetings (notes that I secretly want to read and transcribe!).
A decade later George’s interest in book publishing emerged. He realized he could write theory texts in which he summarized what he learned while also consuming all sorts of new knowledge along the way – and publishers would pay him to do that! This (awesome) strategy motivated George toward double-objectives: knowledge-gain and economic rewards!
The irony is – George doesn’t have a sociology degree. And, as mentioned, he has never taken a “true” graduate course in theory. Undoubtingly, however, most U.S. sociologists have learned (and probably teach) theory from his textbooks.
In the early 1970s George learned of “meta-theory”. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) encouraged him to analyze sociology from a paradigmatic perspective. He eventually wrote how to do so – Sociology: A Multiple Paradigm Science (1975). Recently a Bulgarian professor emailed George and mentioned that he heavily relied on this specific text.
In the text Toward an Integrated Sociological Paradigm: The Search for an Exampler and an Image of the Subject Matter (1981), George describes the paradigm that sociologists need to create. However, this text easily is lost because of publisher-policies (which have since changed) that prevented earnings. Within six months, the book appeared and disappeared. This event marked the culmination of George’s meta-theoretical period.
In 1986 George wrote an article about McDonalds – published in the Journal of American Culture – as he was immersed within theoretically critiquing the “rationalization ideal.” At first, the article seemingly had zero impact and George “moved on.” However, at the 1991 American Sociology Association (ASA) meetings, many folks wanted to discuss this particular article.
George both balks and appreciates when he is referred to as “Mr. McDonaldization,” as if it is the only thing he has done throughout his career.
When I asked George what keeps him in theory, he replied that the last couple of years have been the most fun he has had in a long time. He notes, specifically, “the prosumption group” (refer to PJ Rey’s newsletter piece) as a motivation. This reflects the fact that the social world, him – as someone within this social world, and theory each keep shifting. This constant, forever-new, changing is a circular process, as there are in chorus exist both new and old theories. Within the last two decades George has gone from theorizing consumption to globalization to prosumption; he has evolved more – in theoretical orientations – in the last 15 years than in the previous thirty.
George is well aware of his intellectual capital in theory. He often quips, as he did in this interview, that if you give him a topic, he can theorize on it.
I asked George what the sociological imagination means to him and if/how it influences his daily activities as a professor, researcher, and life outside of campus.
For him, everything is sociological. “The curse of sociology is that you’re always doing sociology. Whatever you’re involved in, at some level you’re analyzing it sociologically,” according to George. This is both interesting and problematic, as its consequence is too often times a critical attitude. George said that almost everything that he is engaged in, he’s analyzing and criticizing it simultaneously – breeding a double-layered life (in which his wife – Sue – is good at calling out).
George reflects on how he can apply his sociological imagination about anything and everything he observes. For him, some sort of relationship exists between the realities that he is encountering at the moment and theoretical ideas that he has acquired over the years (as he can be distinguished as a fairly eclectic theorist).
George does not often impose a theory on a reality. Rather, he looks at the reality and asks what theories can help him to understand it. He does this in his work, in his student interactions, and in his personal life. This is a double-edged sword. While many folks say that they are enjoying specific realities, George often finds himself analyzing them instead; therefore, it is difficult for him to become totally immersed in anything as he is always critically analyzing while concurrently experiencing. This is dramaturgy for George; he cannot help but think of the performances (front-stage) and what is occurring back-stage (Hello Erving Goffman!).
“There are no people in my work,” George often quips. He reinforces that he spends most of his life “mis-meeting” (Bauman 1993) people. George is much more comfortable writing in and about structures than being with and writing about people. He jokes that while ethnographers love to be in people-friendly environments, he works hard, well, and purposefully at mis-meeting people.
HOWEVER … George’s wife, children, and grandchildren – his overall family – are exceptions to this. He and his wife Sue have two children and four grandchildren, ranging from three to 13 years of age.
Though life was a bit different when his children were young versus now that he has young grandchildren, George has always made time for his wife, children, and grandchildren. However, he has always been a workaholic. For example, when his children were infants, he would purposely take the middle-of-the-night feeding in order to stay up and work until 3 a.m. He discovered a balance to be both a workaholic and to responsibly and lovingly be in relationship with his children. With grandchildren in both Seattle and in Washington, DC, he now has a propensity to be in the Washington area as much as possible.
George often wakes up at 4 a.m. to write, typically ten to 14 hours per day. He “love[s], love[s]” writing and creating a book. The whole process of starting with an idea and birthing a book is an ultimate form of creativity, both aesthetically and artistically.
George also loves teaching. Teaching – attending graduate seminars, etc. – is his sense of having a social life. It is an unusual characteristic in an academic to love both writing and teaching. But, for George, both have come relatively easy. He is drawn to this peculiar world where the two things he does best – writing and teaching – are rewarded.
More importantly, most of his social life outside of academia is spent with his wife Sue. If they are not in Maryland or Florida, they are traveling, as Sue travels with him most everywhere. She enjoys the travel and has only missed one or two trips throughout their 47 years of marriage. Speaking engagements are always seen as mini-vacations for both of them.
My final question to George was: “What does the term “intellectual maturation” mean to you? In answering this, what advice, guidelines, and words of wisdom would you give to us graduate students in the beginning stages of our “intellectual maturation” process?”
When discussing “intellectual maturity,” George suggests that the process becomes a question of drawing intellectual capital. Maturation notes a life-long process of expanding that particular body of intellectual capital. A student should use her/his intellectual capital as a basis on which knowledge is continuously acquired. It never stops and never should. However, George has met people who have purposively discontinued acquiring intellectual capital, something he describes as rather disturbing.
Ultimately, however, the term “maturity” bothers him. Instead, George prides himself in his immaturity. He jokes that his oldest grandson – at age 13 – always claims him that George is immature.
His two (paradoxical) points on intellectual maturity are as follows: 1) maturity is a constant intellectual growing process, and 2) simultaneous – and perpetual – immaturity is also necessary. For example, when reading his theoretical influential heroes – like Jean Baudrillard – George often writes “WOW” in texts’ margins. This perpetual openness for “WOW” is needed in the social and intellectual world. “Maturity” sounds as if a person is finished growing. But, from George’s point-of-view as he approaches 70 years of age, he does not at all feel as if he is “done,” especially as the social world, he, and theory continue to expand. A perpetual childishness is needed to survive this. To observe these expansions. To be open to these expansions. And to write, think, master, and teach others to think about these expansions.
George critiques that many folks at his career stage and age take themselves way too seriously. While he is serious about his work, he does not feel as if it is up to him to judge his work. This judgment is for others. While people are reviewing his work, he is already working on his next project. For George, it is always what is next. He is never interested on reflecting on what has happened. Rather, he is much more interested in what will happen. (For example, he is currently focused on a lecture he is giving in Korea this September focusing on leisure.)
What advice does George give us graduate students? “Write everyday. Work a lot. It is hard work. It is not like a 9 to 5 job. It is your life. You have to enjoy it. If you do not, then get out of it,” he insinuates rather clearly and without hesitation.
His main advice is: 1) acquire intellectual capital and be serious while gathering and updating a body of knowledge, and 2) continue to have a perpetual childlike wonder of the social word with a desire to understand it better, using your intellectual capital to do so. Essentially, do what he did.
At the interview’s close, George and I walked a bit back to Art-Sociology. As we were parting ways, I thanked him for taking time to sit and discuss his life, career, and thoughts. Then George reached out his hand, giving me a distinguished handshake. What an honor it was to interview a sociologist and social theorist of his caliber and intellect, to hear stories I hadn’t before, and to shake the hand of a professor I admire, respect, and hope to make proud …
Bev is a second year PhD student.