Critical Theory and European CMS

1. Borrowings and linkages

Critical Theory was an obvious theoretical resource for the nascent CMS to draw on, but surprisingly there was very little explicit borrowing or homage for some time. Burrell and Morgan (1979) did introduce Critical Theory explicitly to the canon of organization analysis but, on the whole, the Frankfurt School remained underappreciated. Fifteen years later, Burrell (1994) extended an invitation to Habermas’s thought for organizational scholars, but few took up the invitation. However, some key ideas from the Frankfurt lexicon have more recently entered into the vocabulary and analysis of one stream of CMS, in terms of a concern with emancipation, a belief in dialecticism, and a desire to avoid reification of theory. This leads to a very different view of organization studies than that which charac- terizes the mainstream of organization theory:

Critical theory assumes that organization science is a social practice and, as such, must give account of itself. This means that research should include a critical discussion of the sub- jective, or theoretical, character of the observer and observed, as in the case of hermeneu- tics. Critical theory further expands its epistemic critique to include: (a) a discussion of the limitations of alternative forms of inquiry; (b) an analysis of the relationship between the community of organizational researchers and organizational practitioners and members; and (c) an acknowledgement of the practical aim of any particular mode of research. In sum, critical theory assumes that theories, systems of knowledge, and facts are embedded in and reflect relativistic world views. (Steffey and Grimes 1986: 325)

The stream of research in organization studies that draws on the tradition of Critical Theory is therefore fundamentally different from more traditional forms of inquiry. It is different in its view of method, in its understanding of the relation of researcher to researched, and in the sorts of empirical issues which are viewed as appropriate topics of enquiry. Additionally, different journals emerged to promote it, such as Organization, which were avowedly critical, while other more conven- tional publications, such as the Handbook of organization studies (Clegg et al. 1996), opened conduits for some critical perspectives to enter the mainstream. We shall consider a number of themes that are associated with critical perspectives.

2. Emancipation theme

In their early article, Alvesson and Willmott focus on the idea of emancipation, which they define as ‘the process through which individuals and groups become freed from repressive social and ideological conditions, in particular, those that place socially unnecessary restrictions upon the development and articulation of human consciousness’ (1992b: 432). They make it clear that by this they do not mean the various uses of emancipation that fall under the term ‘quality of work life’. While giving them a sympathetic nod, they reject approaches to emancipation that legitimate moves in this direction through some link to improved organiza- tional performance (here we see echoes of the logic behind Ford’s programs to improve the lifestyle of his employees that we discussed in Chapter 3). For Alvesson and Willmott (1992b), emancipation cannot be bestowed by management, but is the result of a struggle for self-determination and a protracted and often painful process of self-reflection and change.

The paper then goes on to engage with postmodern and poststructural critiques of the notion of emancipation and of the modernist project more generally. In working through the conflicting philosophical perspectives of various positions, Alvesson and Willmott provide an excellent overview of some of the fundamental differences that characterize the more eclectic version of CMS that we will discuss in the next section. They also do an excellent job of defending the foundational assump- tions of a Critical Theory approach by scaling down and contextualizing them:

In a space between Critical Theorists’ commitment to critical reason and radical change, the scepticism of poststructuralists about metanarratives and efforts to separate power and knowledge, and humanistic ideas for reducing the gap between human needs and corporate objectives, we locate an agenda for microemancipation. This agenda favors incremental change but, because it has open boundaries to more utopian ideas, it does not take as given the contemporary social relations, corporate ends, and the constraints associated with a particular macro-order. (1992b: 461)

The influence of Critical Theory in this work is clear. The concern with engage- ment, the recognition of a conflict of interests, and a focus on emancipation all stem directly from the work of the Frankfurt School. At the same time this is CMS, as the perspectives drawn from Critical Theory are used to examine uniquely situ- ated questions of emancipation in the modern corporation.

3. Alienation theme

While Alvesson and Willmott (1992b) focused on emancipation, Jermier (1985) focuses on another central idea in Critical Theory, the concept of alienation. In his early writings, Marx introduced the concept of alienation as the necessary result of the private appropriation of labor value under capitalist modes of production. But in early capitalism, the shared awareness of the class-based oppression experienced by workers prevented their separation from their true selves. Workers were there- fore objectively alienated but subjectively remained aware of their condition.

But later conceptualizations of alienation had to deal with the reality of the loss of awareness of workers. To the objective alienation that results from the capitalist sys- tem was added the subjective alienation of workers who do not appreciate their real interests. Two different approaches were developed to explain this situation. Lukacs (1968) argued that the system becomes mystified and workers, while experiencing the oppression of the system, are unable to understand it. For Critical Theorists of the Frankfurt School, the blame lies in the intensity of consumption made possible by the material success of capitalism and the effects of the cultural industries together resulting in a mirage of wellbeing, recalling Lukes’s (1974) radical view.

Jermier (1985) represents these two very different conceptualizations of alienation in two different short stories. In both of the stories we follow Mike Armstrong through a day at work. However, the two stories present very different versions of Mike’s life as a skilled operator in a phosphate plant in a large American city. In the first version, Jermier draws on Critical Theory and has Mike surrounded by a con- sumerist wonderland of big screen TVs, designer furniture, and new cars. His view of his work is one of a satiated consumer and he is unable to see his own alienation and to recognize the class-based identity that he shares with his fellow workers. He is the archetype of the worker going through his workday unaware of his own oppression and of the appropriation of his labor through the capitalist system. He has lost touch with his true self and is deeply alienated. Even more, the system in which he finds himself has been reified to the extent that no other system seems preferable, or ever, perhaps, possible:

The major institutions in society (schools, churches, the family, advertising and enter- tainment, etc.) act in harmony to present a version of the work in society which denies oppressive realities. Cultural domination is completed when consumption is manipu- lated so thoroughly that consumers feel compelled to frenetically buy and use the cul- ture industry’s latest products, even though they see through them. Workers are anesthetized by the persuasive rationalizations readily accessible in mythical structures and by manipulated, diversionary consumption, such that the injuries of class are neither perceived nor felt. (1985: 75)

In the second, darker version, Jermier draws on the dialectical Marxist version of alienation and we meet a very different Mike. Gone are the trappings of happy materialism and instead we meet a worker caught in the daily grind of an unhappy work life in a dehumanizing job. He tries to fight back but feels hopeless and frus- trated in the face of the power and seemingly unassailable arguments of his fore- man. He longs for something else but cannot imagine what that alternative might be. He is deeply alienated and experiences that alienation but sees no alternative:

Dialectical Marxists characterize the ordinary worker as subjectively alienated (falsely conscious), but engaged in responsible, meaningful protest and new forms of class rad- icalism. Thus, workers are capable of understanding the actual operation of the system and there is an awareness of deprivation and disadvantage, even though this awareness rarely fosters revolutionary motives. Individual workers are not psychologically domi- nated by property-based power dynamics to the point of mystification or resignation. (1985: 78)

Jermier’s work provides an interesting contribution for several reasons. First, he adds a challenging view of work, and particularly the subjective experience of work, to the rather limited and undertheorized discussions of self-actualization and quality of work life that are common in the management literature. His dis- cussion of alienation challenges researchers to look at the broader context of work, rather than just the narrow conditions of work, in thinking through the subjective experience of work. Second, his choice of fiction as a methodology provides a very different approach to the presentation of empirical work in management (see Phillips (1995) for a more developed discussion of fiction in management research). Third, he draws on critical management to deepen the discussion of a central theme in the management literature.

4. Manufacturing consent theme

One significant US-based writer who has made a contribution to CMS is Michael Burawoy, a British trained anthropologist who moved from researching labor in copper mines in Africa to labor in a plant in Chicago, which turned out to be the same plant in which Donald Roy (1958) had done his pioneering ethnographic work. Burawoy’s theoretical inspiration is drawn from the work of the Italian the- orist Antonio Gramsci (1971) and his theory of hegemony, which we have encoun- tered in Chapter 7. Gramsci sought to account for the collapse of the Western working-class movements during the post First World War years. The reason, he concluded, could not be found within either the state or the capitalist economy; rather, the key lay in the institutional fabric of civil society, which in the West suc- ceeded in eliciting the ‘spontaneous consent of the masses’ to the status quo (1971: 12). Burawoy took from Gramsci the importance of ‘managing consent’ for main- taining orderly legitimated power relations in organizations. In essence, the research question was why the Western working classes had not revolted as Marxist theory would have expected them do, under the burden of exploitation and the economic contradictions of late capitalism. The answer, said Burawoy, was that in their everyday working lives managers and workers manufactured consent to the dominant relations of production. Of course, the question only makes sense if one assumes that the hypotheses of Marxist theory are correct: that is, if one assumes that what needs to be explained is something that should have happened but did not. The question then becomes why it did not happen.

It was not a unique question: earlier versions of it had been asked by a number of industrial sociologists, but their answers were a little different from Burawoy’s. For instance, the emphasis on cultural or normative domination is to be found in the classic text of William Whyte, The organization man (1960), which warned that cor- porations no longer sought merely the worker’s labor (the main concern of indus- trial and organizational analysis at that point). Following Follett, whom we met in Chapter 3, he argued that they now wanted the worker’s soul in terms of the willing- ness of the employee to identify with the company. British researchers had developed the theory of embourgeoisement, which saw the Western working classes as adopt- ing middle-class values of acquisitiveness and individualism in place of an older class-based culture (Abercrombie et al. 1980; Goldthorpe et al. 1969).

Burawoy introduced a new spin on these accounts by hooking up these ‘domi-nant ideology’ accounts to Braverman’s (1974) labor process analysis. He sought to identify the labor control systems that elicited workers’ consent. Burawoy (1979; 1985) discerned several species of hegemonic factory regimes, each of which invites workers to align their interests with those of their employers; closely related, Richard Edwards (1979) saw corporations maintaining control over white-collar workers and increasingly manual employees through the spread of ‘bureaucratic controls’ encouraging workers to identify with the organization to a greater extent than any union or class affiliation (Joyce 1980; Vallas 1991). In particular, Burawoy stressed the importance of small everyday things in the life of the factory, the ritu- als and games, that made work tolerable and allowed the employees to distantiate themselves from the mind-numbing ordinariness of work. Thus, rather than see the explanation for their attitudes to work as arising from the orientations they brought to work, as did the Cambridge researchers of the embourgeoisement the- sis (Goldthorpe et al. 1969), Burawoy, following Roy (1958), saw them arising from the nature of social relations in work.

The hegemonic thesis has been developed further by a number of people. For example, Guillermo Grenier (1988) conducted fieldwork at Johnson and Johnson’s medical instruments plant in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He saw that initiatives such as quality circles, by imbuing work relations with the trappings rather than the sub- stance of participation, chilled out dissent and implicated workers in enforcing managerial norms as a part of their everyday work. Barker (1993) provides an ethno- graphic account of ISE, a small electronics assembly plant spun off from a large corporation which adopted self-managed teams to ensure its competitive success. Workers were encouraged to embrace team principles and willingly assumed respon- sibility for mutual discipline and control. Kunda (1992) provides an ethnographic account of a computer engineering organization that systematically developed a sys- tem of ‘normative control’, which it used to gain the professional employees’ consent. In all these studies, the manufacture of consent is seen to be an important aspect of what is done as a normal part of everyday work as it is shaped by various manager- ial devices, such as teams, quality circles and so on. Thus, the focus on power is ded- icated to explaining the relative quiescence of employees and the ways in which their goals become closely aligned with those of management.

5. Dialectical change theme

In our final example of the application of Critical Theory concepts in manage- ment, we will consider Carr’s (2000) discussion of a dialectical approach to the study of organizational change. Carr begins with an introduction to Critical Theory and focuses on the idea of dialectics as developed by the Frankfurt School. As we discussed above, the concept of the dialectic in Critical Theory refers to the notion of interconnected oneness of thesis and antithesis in both thought and social institutions. Carr (2000: 214) argues that the concept has been used in ‘a somewhat loose and “undisciplined” manner’ in management and that much of its analytical power has been lost. He calls for a radical rethinking of dialectic and for a return to the much deeper notion of this fundamental dynamic.

The ramifications of a return to a more developed notion of dialectic are signif-icant. Carr goes on to argue that many organizational processes are better under- stood as dialectical where managers are an integral part of a process and not simply influencing processes in organizations:

The manager/administrator should not simply become aware of dialectical relation- ships between structures and actors but become more critical in the appraisal of the options in carrying through their tasks. Instead of being preoccupied with control (and largely preserving the status quo), a dialectically aware manager/administrator would recognise, and work through, the tensions and strains that inevitably arise from contra- dictions, oppositions and negations. Dialectical sensitivity leads the manager/adminis- trator to recognise that they are not only part of the transforming ‘process’ but themselves are also being acted upon. (2000: 14)

Carr’s work again links important issues in management research and practice to the concerns and theoretical frameworks of Critical Theory. The resulting perspective provides interesting and unexpected insight into, in this case, organizational change and its relation of managerial action. As in the previous two examples, this example highlights the practical nature of Critical Theory and how its focus on engaging with the empirical world fits well with the pragmatic view of much of management theory.

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

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