CMS’s theoretical auspices

1. Critical Theor y

In this section we will briefly discuss Critical Theory in sociology and outline its history and broad characteristics. Critical Theory is a cohesive body of work that has been highly influential across the social sciences and more broadly in the new left and other left-leaning social movements. We will begin by situating Critical Theory historically and theoretically. We then discuss the influence of Critical Theory on one branch of CMS – the branch we will refer to as the European School of CMS, which draws explicitly on Critical Theory as a foundation for the exami- nation of management and the modern organization. While a relatively small body of literature, the well-developed theoretical foundation of Critical Theory provides analytical power and impact that makes this an extremely important literature for those interested in power in organizations.

Critical Theory refers to both a group of scholars, or ‘school of thought’, and a form of ‘self-conscious critique that is aimed at change and emancipation through enlightenment and does not cling dogmatically to its own doctrinal assumptions’ (Carr 2000: 208). The body of work produced by this school of thought is interest- ing as much for its societal effects as it is for its influence on sociology and related disciplines. As Held explains:

The writings of what one may loosely refer to as a ‘school’ of Western Marxism – critical theory – caught the imagination of students and intellectuals in the 1960s and early 1970s. In Germany thousands of copies of the ‘school’s’ work were sold, frequently in cheap pirate editions. Members of the New Left in other European countries as well as in North America were often inspired by the same sources. In other parts of the world, for example in Allende’s Chile, the influence of these texts could also be detected. In the streets of Santiago, Marcuse’s name often took a place alongside Marx and Mao in the political slogans of the day. (1980: 13)

The writings of this group of scholars, often referred to as the Frankfurt School, became an important influence in the development of various radical protest movements in the 1960s and 1970s, especially, as Held suggests, through the ideas of Herbert Marcuse (1964; see Ali 2005b). The alternative interpretation of Marxist theory provided by the Frankfurt School, and their focus on issues and problems of common concern such as mass culture, the family, and sexuality, and their search for a transcendental subject able to spearhead change, resonated with the concerns of many of the people involved in the radical protest movements that characterized this period around the world.

The Frankfurt School was established in 1923. Its proper name was the Institute for Social Research and it was formally associated with the University of Frankfurt. However, an endowment from Felix Weil, the son of a wealthy grain merchant, pro- vided a significant amount of autonomy. The first director of the new Institute was Carl Grunberg. Grunberg was unique in being the first professed Marxist to hold a chair at a German university. He was also unique among chaired professors of his time in his concern for what he saw as a tendency for German universities to focus on teaching at the expense of research and to produce academics who were only capable of supporting the status quo upon which their privilege and power depended. He also believed that Marxism provided the theoretical infrastructure to challenge this situation. It was a combination that led him to focus the attention of the Institute on a program of critical research, bringing together a range of schol- ars who shared his interest in theorizing about social life and development. He also founded a journal, Grunbergs Archiv, which was the first major European journal of labor and socialist history. The journal published articles on a broad range of topics focusing on the history of capitalist and socialist economies and the workers’ movements by economists, sociologists, historians and philosophers.

Marxism provided the basis of the Institute’s program for the empirical investi- gation of the social world from the outset. But Grunberg’s view was very different from the mainstream view among Marxists at the time. He believed very strongly in a version of Marxism that was highly situational and limited in focus, a sharp contrast to the monistic materialism of many Marxists of the time who believed in transhistorical laws that explained the relation of the social and the economic in simple, universal truths.

While setting the stage for Critical Theory, his view, however progressive, was largely rejected by the central figures of the Frankfurt School. In particular, his belief (commonly held by Marxists at the time) that the social was simply a prod- uct of the economic was rejected along with his optimism about the general improvement of social institutions over time. What was retained, however, was a commitment to empirical research and a belief in the importance of history. The critical moment of Marxism combined with these latter beliefs in methodology (see Morrow 1994 for an extended discussion) provided an initial foothold for the development of Critical Theory, as it became known.

The turning point for the Frankfurt School occurred when Grunberg retired in 1929 and Horkheimer took over as the director of the Institute. Horkheimer quickly gathered together a diverse group including Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse. Horkheimer continued Grunberg’s concern for theoretical analy- sis and empirical investigation (not to mention his belief in the ‘dictatorship of the director’) but moved the focus of the Institute towards a much more radically his- torical and theoretical mode. He also believed strongly in the need for a reintegra- tion of the disparate disciplines of the social sciences, as the state of fragmentation he saw was so advanced that no discipline could say they had any real ability to explore the historical reality that existed in a particular place and time.

The Institute was closed by the Nazi regime in 1933 for ‘tendencies hostile to the state’ (Jay 1996: 29). Many members of the Institute were Jewish, which was prob- lematic in those times; in addition, their obvious interest in Marxism and their rather suspect international connections marked them out as enemies of the fascist state. Fortunately, Horkheimer had arranged to transfer much of the Institute’s financial endowment out of Germany. The Institute first moved to Geneva and then, in 1935, to Columbia University in New York City. It may seem somewhat ironic for a openly left of center group to move to what is arguably the heartland of capitalism. At the same time, this forced emigration resulted in changes in the tone and focus of the work of the Institute and provided exposure of their work to the English-speaking academic world (particularly through their English-language journal Studies in Philosophy and Social Science). Arguably, this period was at least partially responsible for the later popularity of their work among English-speaking scholars.

Critical Theory as a term was introduced by Horkheimer in an early essay in 1937 (Horkheimer 1993), but its meaning was initially far from clear and has evolved sub- stantially over time. At its most basic, Critical Theory ‘is most succinctly defined as an empirical philosophy of social institutions’ (Steffy and Grimes 1986: 325). It combines a conceptualization of the nature of social investigation with a belief in empirical investigation carried out within a Marxist framework:

Critical theory aims to produce a particular form of knowledge that seeks to realize an emancipatory interest, specifically through a critique of consciousness and ideology. It separates itself from both functionalist/objective and interpretive practical sciences through a critical epistemology that rejects the self-evident nature of reality and acknowledges the various ways in which reality is distorted. (Carr 2000: 209)

Morrow (1994) has identified three phases in the development of Critical Theory. The first was characterized by a kind of interdisciplinary materialism that sought to analyze factors that might contribute to the development of a revolutionary work- ing class. The term ‘materialism’ referred explicitly to Marx’s historical materialism but, as we mentioned above, rejected the reductionist view of the link between the economic and social that characterized orthodox Marxism. Instead, it was argued that a new version of materialism was required with a more nuanced and complex idea of culture, a more developed social psychological investigation of class, and a much more reflexive view of method. And, at all times, there was to be ongoing empirical investigation to explore the applicability of the resulting ideas. At a more practical level, the focus was on understanding when the German working class would mobilize and overthrow the Nazi dictatorship that was then in power.

In the second phase, the work took a decidedly more pessimistic turn. With the failure of the German workers to organize and overthrow Hitler, and the distressing turn of the Soviet revolution to Stalinism, Critical Theorists began to lose their faith in Marx’s theory of revolution. The general mood of Critical Theory turned unmis- takably gloomy and became a view of modernity ‘where every increment of Western progress, every step on the ladder of (instrumental) reason was adjudged to be simul- taneously its obverse, a regressive retreat into myth and repression’ (Howe 2001: 179). While retaining the belief in the destructive effects of capitalist forms of production, they began to focus on the stabilizing dynamics of capitalism. Instead of a focus on what would lead to the revolution, they tried to understand the dynamics that were preventing it. In particular, they looked to the rise of the welfare state and the devel- opment of the mass media, or the cultural industries as they referred to them, and their role in distracting the working class from their ‘real’ interests.

Underlying this work were two important concepts: reification and dialecticism. ‘Reification’ refers to the tendency in social science and philosophy to remove ideas from their historical context and to believe they are independent of that context. It is a recognition that the ‘researcher both is part of what they are researching, and is caught in a historical context in which ideologies shape the thinking’ (Carr 2000: 209). Horkheimer drew on Lukacs’ concept of ‘reification’ to describe this tendency and the rejection of reification became a distinguishing feature of Critical Theory and an important center point of its debate with mainstream social science and philosophy.

The term ‘dialectical’ is one that has been the source of much misconception in social science as it is too often understood as some sort of a compromise of opposites. Instead, Critical Theorists meant something much more subtle. In developing this notion they drew on Hegel’s notion of dialectics involving the recognition that the particular and the universal were interdependent. In this dynamic relationship of interdependence, contradictions emerge which in turn promote the generation of a new totality. The dialectic, as such, was conceived as involving three ‘moments’: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The new synthesis was not some sort of middle ground but rather a new position that encompassed the old in their totality.

While the founding members of the Frankfurt School embraced the Hegelian foundation of dialectics, they rejected Hegel’s claims to absolute truth, preferring a historical-contextual interpretation. Truth was always mediated, and part of that mediation was the historical period in which the truth claim was constituted. Many truth claims that were accepted as a constitutive part of normalcy derived from ideologies distributed through the cultural industries, while another part was to be found in the material reality of those needs, desires, and wants which, in their formation, bear the inscription of a specific history.

Based on this much more powerful notion of dialectic, the Frankfurt School rejected the simple class interest analysis that came with a traditional Marxist orien- tation and placed its emphasis on understanding cultural phenomena as mediated through the social totality. Counter to the orthodox Marxist view, the economic sys- tem could not be extracted and analyzed other than in its broader societal context. The focus of Critical Theory was to explore the aspects of the system that made the most dominating aspects of the social order appear normal and natural. The lack of knowledge of the real history of the social system in place at a particular time was not an academic matter but a political one with which Critical Theory worked to engage. Finally, in the third phase identified by Morrow (1994), under the leadership of Jürgen Habermas5 the foundations of Critical Theory were radically rethought. In its previous phase, Critical Theory had taken a very pessimistic turn. Against this deep pessimism, Habermas argued that while enlightenment and myth will always be entwined, the fundamental differences between them should not be lost, nor should our ability to discern one from the other be underestimated. While Habermas and his followers agreed that modernity is certainly characterized by pathologies and distortions of various kinds, it contains progressive elements too. For Habermas, one of the primary tasks of social science became to distinguish what was socially rational from what was not, and bring this distinction to bear on contemporary life. The term ‘modernity’ is not just the description of a historical condition. It is an unfinished project that could lead to a more rational society. To distinguish what might count as rational, the social sciences must seek to become ‘reconstructive sciences’ whose focus is on the emancipation of all members of society. The goal of Critical Theory for Habermas, like his predecessors in the Frankfurt School, was not to reflect reality, but to engage with it and create change.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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