Irony in the academy

1. CMS and the emergence of ‘critters’

So where did CMS come from? While this may seem like something of an odd question, it is an important one in terms of understanding the potential of the philosophical framework that CMS represents. Charles Perrow, for example, has described CMS as ‘an oxymoron’, alluding to the internal tension, if not outright meaninglessness, of the term (Zald 2002: 365). If, as some critics have suggested, it is simply a political move by those disaffected with mainstream approaches to man- agement studies, then it may well have little to offer as a coherent stream of litera- ture (although this says nothing about its potential as a political movement) and is really of little interest to us here. If, on the other hand, we can discern a theoretical perspective shared across at least a subset of approaches, then there may be a case for more optimism in the future of CMS. Even more, if we can identify a coherent approach to power in organizations, then this becomes of great interest to us here. CMS has become increasingly visible in the United States as a result of events at the Academy of Management Meetings over the last five or six years. While these events have resulted in the formation of a discernible public identity for American critical management scholars (including the rather unfortunate innovation of the label ‘critter’ which some have adopted), they have also created something of a cri- sis of purpose among CMS scholars more broadly. In particular, the development of a CMS interest group,2 and the way it developed, have had implications for the nature of CMS as it had already been developing in Europe and Australasia.

2. CMS divided by a common language

It is useful, perhaps, to begin with a brief discussion of the differences between management studies as it has developed in North America and as it has developed in the rest of the world, particularly Europe, the UK, and Australia. While business schools have been a part of the American university system for over 100 years, they are relatively new phenomena in other parts of the world. In the UK, for example, the first business schools were only founded in the 1960s, and only two were founded in that decade (Fournier and Grey 2000), one of which, London Business School, was designed to be in many respects more American in its orientation than British. The same might be said of schools established elsewhere on the same model, such as the Australian Graduate School of Management in Sydney. These particular schools carefully screened and recruited their staff for prior business school experience and orientation.

In contrast to the elite schools, however, many of the academics who joined other schools moved from cognate social science departments in universities as business schools were founded and staffed through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Many of these newcomers were escapees from areas in decline, such as sociology. They brought with them a broad social theory perspective that imbued UK business schools with an eclectic theoretical and methodological perspective. By contrast, scholars had existed for many generations in the elite American business schools, in which they had developed their own very clear managerial perspective, and partly as a result of this, their points of contact with social science more broadly were highly attenuated. One consequence was that the methodological and theoretical perspec- tives common to these schools were much narrower and much more ingrained, with less infusion of vitality from broader debates in the social sciences.

One index of the major difference between the corporate disposition of British universities and US universities in the 1960s was that in Britain they still had resid- ual elements of fourth-estate radicalism. For instance, the close ties of the new Warwick Business School, founded in 1967, with the Rootes automobile company, were the subject of a trenchant critique by one of the employees of Warwick’s History Department, E. P. Thompson (1970). A critique of corporate complicity and corruption of knowledge by too close a relation to big business must have struck many US readers, even then, as quaint. Today almost everyone would find it so, inured as we are to developing close links of this kind. Thompson’s critique indicated that the encompassing university environment for business schools in the UK (and Australasia, one might add) was characterized by very different political and social dynamics from their American counterparts. 3

The difference in attitudes between the UK and the US was reflected in different approaches to scholarship and research. In the UK the strong labor movement and the corresponding attention paid by management scholars to areas like labor process theory and industrial relations added a concern with the dynamics of power in the workplace rooted in a framework that recognized the opposed and conflicting interests of management and workers. During the 1980s the assump- tions of this framework, which viewed plural and conflicting interests as the nor- mal situation in the workplace, with these interests split between capital and labor, bosses and workers, management and the unions, came under challenge from a changing political environment.

In the UK, the rapid changes in the political environment concordant with the rise of Thatcherism, and what was perceived as its more American neoliberal approach to economic and social policy, created an impetus for a whole discourse of analysis and critique of what was seen as a rising managerialism in government and politics, one which sought to obliterate these entrenched traditional sources of difference. For those British academics in industrial relations, industrial sociology and organization theory that were politically opposed to Thatcherism, areas such as labor process theory provided an opportunity to align their theory with their political interests. An annual labor process congress was held from the early 1980s onwards, at which many of these ideas were developed. In addition, there existed a long tradition of critical approaches in other subjects, such as accounting, all of which made a general CMS more legitimate (Tinker 1985; Cooper and Hopper 1988; Hopwood and Miller 1994). While there were earlier roots, such as the production of an edited collection on Critical issues in organizations (Clegg and Dunkerley 1977) and a textbook Organization, class and control (Clegg and Dunkerley 1980)4 that developed a crit- ical perspective, the arrival on the European scene of something actually called CMS was shaped and aided both by the climate that developed after the emergence of Thatcherism and by some shifts in theoretical emphasis that accompanied it. Internal tensions arose among people committed to labor process theory, as fac- tions developed in what had been a broad-based critical approach. Some adher- ents, who were more focused on the classical texts of Marxism and its more recent development in Braverman (1974), were aghast at the incorporation of fashionable French theory from evident non-Marxist scholars such as Foucault (Thompson 1990; 1993; Thompson and Ackroyd 1995). From this split came the genesis of CMS as a platform and legitimate interest area (Fournier and Grey 2000: 9). Thus, in the UK CMS was a platform for developing theoretical issues alien to more orthodox labor process and industrial relations theories. In particular, there was a concern with issues of subjectivity and identity, conceived in much broader terms than those of class identity and class politics, to which Knights and Willmott (1987) and Willmott (1997) provide good guides.

The first major work drawing together writings under the banner of CMS was Alvesson and Willmott (1992a) who made an explicit link between a growing area of management studies which they called CMS and the work of the Frankfurt School and associated thinkers, often referred to as Critical Theory:

[T]his collection contributes to a rapidly expanding body of knowledge that questions the wisdom of taking the neutrality or virtue of management as self-evident or unprob- lematical. From the standpoint of Critical Theory … management is too potent in its effects upon the lives of employees, consumers and citizens to be guided by a narrow, instrumental form of rationality. (1992a: 1)

In Europe, then, the link between a particular set of concerns and theoretical approaches and CMS was clearly made and, while there was much ‘fraying at the edges’, this connection to the concerns and approaches of Critical Theory more broadly formed an important anchor for CMS. While the concern may be with cri- tiquing management theory and practice and the relations of power that charac- terize it, the theoretical roots are clearly visible.

In North America, in contrast, the term ‘CMS’ took a very different turn with the founding of the Critical Management Interest Group at the Academy of Management. Their founding statement provides some insight into the very different understanding of the meaning of CMS. It reads, in part, as follows (http://aom.

Our workshop is open to a broad range of critical views. We aim to foster critiques coming from labor, feminist, anti-racist, ecological, and other perspectives. We are open to critiques formulated from a broad range of theoretical standpoints. In particular, our use of the term ‘critical’ is not meant to signal a specific commitment to any particular school of thought such as Frankfurt School critical theory. Rather we include propo- nents of all the various theoretical traditions that can help us understand the oppressive character of the current management and business system. To use some of the labels ready at hand, these traditions include, but are not restricted to: marxist, post-marxist, post-modernist, feminist, ecological, irreductionist, critical-realist, post-colonial.

The idea of CMS suggested here is therefore a much broader one than that proposed by Alvesson and Willmott (1992a). It is not a moment of critique founded in a particular theoretical tradition but something much broader, bound together by a political interest rather than either an empirical topic or a theoretical tradi- tion. And, furthermore, the tension between them is clear. The sort of CMS envis- aged by the founders of the Critical Management Studies Interest Division is a broad category of work that is joined together by the simple act of critique. Their inclusiveness is in stark contrast to the theoretical program of CMS in Europe and also to the ethos of management studies more broadly. The result is more of a political movement to foment change in management studies (and perhaps man- agement practice) broadly and less a coherent theoretical platform for analysis. American CMS, one might say, tends to be more fragmented, less theoretical and more activist in its orientation.

Why is all of this important? It is important for the simple fact that ‘CMS is a com-posite beset by internal strains and tensions, not a unified movement’ (Grey and Willmott 2002: 411) and our discussion needs to reflect this. The tension between political program and field of study is integral to understanding CMS and its ten- sions. Our challenge in the remainder of the chapter will be to straddle this divide somewhat and try to glean some coherent picture of CMS as a discipline. Our start- ing point will be the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School in the next section, because if CMS has a theoretical distinctiveness then it is from this work that it will be built, as was envisaged by Alvesson and Willmott (1992a). At the same time, we will stray somewhat from their narrow view without being tempted to simply adopt the ‘any critique is CMS’ approach which is more prevalent in the US. The result is somewhat fragmented but provides a useful view of management and organizations that offers a functional platform for examining power in organizations.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *