The Story of Critical Management Studies

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The Story of Critical Management Studies

I need to start this section with a caveat. I have already pointed out that biographies tend to be implicit authorial autobiographies and a ‘biography’ of CMS is no different in this respect (Stanley 1992). I am drawing heavily in this chapter on my own, inevitably partial, direct experience as a participant in CMS. This experience consists of reading published work and listening to papers presented at conferences but it also consists of conversations with others who are part of CMS and of relationships with them. I have been anxious to find my ‘home’ within this group and there is the danger of simply projecting my own history and attitudes onto others.

This chapter can then be read in different ways, as a confession, a cautionary tale, a claim to be a dissenter’s dissenter or more reflexive than thou, or some combination of them all. As with other authors I have no control over how this story will be read but at least I can alert the reader to my own predilections so that they can apply their own compensatory judgement. The autobiography in Chapter Two might provide a useful indication of my idiosyncrasies in this regard. I have also attempted to make my argument more plausible by supporting it with illustrations from the work of others, which at least reassures me that I have not entirely run aground on the reefs of solipsism (Sartre 1943/1957). One important limit to my experience is that my remarks apply largely to CMS in the UK. Whilst there are considerable numbers of academics in continental Europe, the US, Australasia and elsewhere, who align themselves with many aspects of the CMS project, there are also important distinctions which I do not have the space to devote much attention to here.
To begin my story then, CMS is mostly located within university departments of management and business. If one includes Labour Process Theory (LPT), then one can plausibly date the origins of CMS to Braverman’s (1974) seminal writing on the degradation of work. If one makes a hard distinction between LPT and CMS, as Parker (2002a) does, then its origins, as an identifiable phenomenon, start with the publication of Alvesson and Willmott’s book ‘Critical Management Studies’ (1992), although the first conference dedicated to CMS took place only in 1999. CMS has established itself rapidly in the world of the Business School, there is now an international CMS conference and CMS workshops/sub-groups at both the American and British Academies of Management. The number attending the 2001 CMS conference actually outnumbered those attending that years British Academy of Management conference, the primary gathering for ‘mainstream’ management academics in the UK (BAM 2002). Entire UK university departments such as those at Leicester or at Keele, are dominated by CMS approaches to management research. CMS is thus a dissenting minority but one that has increasing visibility on the academic scene. So what does it write about and how does this make it a distinctive sub-discipline? I shall go on to answer this question next, starting with CMS’s troubled relationship with LPT.
Broadly speaking, up until the 1970’s, Marxism and its later variants were the only significant oppositional theoretical frameworks available to radical academics. The most obvious area of Marxist influenced work relevant to this discussion is that of LPT. LPT has been an important influence on the development of CMS and there are few leading figures in CMS who have not been active contributors to debates within LPT, but there has also been something of a schism, with each side accusing the other of apostasy to the true critical faith. This is not to say that LPT has remained stuck in the age of heroic Marxist ethnography as exemplified by Beynon (1975) but it does remain committed to analysing organisations and work in terms of categories such as class, resistance, ideology, inequality, exploitation and alienation derived from Marxist theory (Smith and Thompson 1998).
This schism makes the inclusion of LPT in an account of CMS problematic and other surveyors of CMS exclude it (Fournier and Grey 2000; Parker 2002a). LPT preceded the emergence of CMS and, to an extent, provided it with its critical theoretical beginnings. Notwithstanding this, Thompson (2001), a leading figure in LTP, lambastes CMS for being no more than a sectional ‘brand’ identity for post-structuralist theoretical isolationism, contrasting it with LPT’s continuing relevance and its commitment to a broadly Marxist approach. Thompson’s critique is, perhaps, a little disingenuous given that there is still Foucauldian work within LPT and Marxist work within CMS. See Worthington (2000) for the former and Harley (2003) for the latter, for example. A casual glance at the abstracts for the two conferences associated with each area does suggest though that post-structuralism, mainly based on Foucault’s work, has become a defining characteristic of CMS. The declining influence of Critical Theory, despite Alvesson and Willmott’s (1992) debt to Habermas, makes Thompson’s (2001) claim perhaps more plausible now than it was at the beginning of the 1990s.
There is also a claim that CMS and LPT can be distinguished by a respective bias against and for empirically based research (Smith and Thompson 1998; Thompson 2001). Again this claim can be overstated but it does have has some plausibility. For example, compare empirical LPT work such as Bolton (2000); Munro et al (2000); Pratschke (2000); Taylor and Tyler (2000); and Wray (2000), with more theoretical CMS work such as Willmott (1993); Parker (1998); Hancock (1999b); Rehn (1999); Weiskopf (1999); and Brewis (2001).
Thompson’s critique of CMS does, I think, miss the mark. I do not believe that CMS is simply a Foucauldian Society nor would it necessarily matter greatly if it was. There ought to be room for diverse critical traditions enriching and challenging each other rather than seeking to suppress each other. Nevertheless, the undoubted influence of post-structuralist theory on CMS and its emphasis on theoretical writing can be read as a indicating a preference for a certain sort of academic identity which I return to below.
Two further areas that are usually included as being part of the broad CMS church are work on gender and Critical Management Pedagogy, or CMP, to expand the three letter acronyms that seem to be taking over this chapter. The application of feminist theory to an understanding of management and organisations only partially shelters under the CMS umbrella, (see Kerfoot and Knights 1994; Marshall 1995; Collinson and Hearn 1996; Acker 1998; Kerfoot and Whitehead 1998; Brewis 2001; Oseen and Senda 2003, for example), and much of this work is again indebted to post-structuralism in general and Foucault in particular. It should also be pointed out that, although there was a separate stream for work on gender at the last CMS conference (2003), it represents a relatively small proportion of its total research output. Indeed I have heard several female colleagues complain about how much of a ‘boys club’ they find CMS, with its atmosphere of macho intellectual competitiveness. Most of the ‘CMS’ output on gender and management is in fact to be found at conferences such as ‘Gender, Work and Organisation’ and its associated journal.
CMP can also be viewed as closely associated with CMS but not altogether contained within it. CMP is a site of academic endeavour where the transformative potential of CMS approaches is explored by those who wish to engage with managers through their teaching. In this regard CMP indicates that a sizeable part of CMS see this form of engagement as an important and integral part of the CMS project. The theoretical basis of CMP is shared with CMS and feminist approaches to organisation but humanism (both in its liberal and radical guises) has remained a stronger component than with CMS because of influential radical educational theorists such as Illich (1976) and Freire (1994). For more detailed general surveys of CMP, see Burgoyne and Reynolds (1997) and French and Grey (1996).
What then emerges concerning CMS from this discussion of its theoretical components? CMS appears to consist of a loose federation of dissenters to more mainstream approaches to management theory, mostly working within the Business School. There are distinctions between those adhering to Marxism or to post-structuralism, which some consider significant enough to provide a boundary between LPT and CMS. CMS can also be characterised as having a bias towards theoretical as opposed to empirical research. CMP and work on gender and management are important components of CMS whilst retaining separate disciplinary identities. Does any of this suggest, though, that there is an identifiable CMS project?

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