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Who do We think We are?

Just as it is difficult to generalise about CMS in terms of its work, it is also difficult to generalise about the identities of those who claim an affinity to it. The following is probably unfair to many CMS colleagues but my intention is to deliberately stress the less attractive aspects of CMS by way of critique of its assumptions about who managers are. Perhaps, as already stated, this should be read as no more than a personal confession but others have noted similar tendencies (Gabriel 2001; Parker 2002a). This being so, I have used ‘we’, ‘our’ or ‘us’ here to indicate that my critique applies equally, if not more, to myself than others. I do not wish to stand outside of CMS as a ‘superior’ commentator. I do not intend to imply either that CMS is a straightforwardly homogenous group that could use ‘we’ as a kind of Greek dramatic chorus. My autobiography in Chapter Two provides an explanation of why I also feel a sense of belonging, an identification, with CMS and, to a greater of lesser extent, have sympathy with all of the projects outlined above.

It is apparent from the foregoing analysis that CMS researchers pursue a rather contradictory existence. Our writings are frequently highly sceptical, and often very critical, of what many of us would term ‘managerialism’ (denoting management as an ideology rather than value-free instrumental technique) but this critique is produced within the very strongholds of the reproduction of managerialism and most of us remain willing, if sometimes ambivalent, participants in the hierarchical systems of titles, celebrity and preferment that are peculiar to university life.
Thus CMS academics are seeking to carve out a space for themselves as dissenters to the main currents of thought in which they work and live (Fournier and Grey 2000; Parker 2002b; Parker 2002a). Many are on the political left, taking this term in a very broad sense. The opposition to mainstream management knowledge is, therefore, part of a more generalised opposition to an increasingly globalised managerialist society. For CMS academics, therefore, a very particular identity project is being pursued, based on ‘crying in the wilderness’ or at least throwing the odd spanner in the theoretical works from the comfortable margins of business school academia. Parker (2002b) has described the allure of this peculiar identity as ‘the romance of lonely dissent’.
The reasons for this sizeable minority of left-wing dissenters in the Business school may reside in the post-war history of the UK. The decades of boom and political consensus were followed by political and economic retrenchment from 1979 (Hobsbawm 1995), a history described in more detail in Chapter Seven. In the 1960’s and 1970’s universities in the UK were expanding rapidly, much of which was accounted for by social sciences such as sociology and psychology. Such disciplines were also foci for radical critiques of society at the height of left-wing political activism. The leading figures of CMS tend to be ‘of a certain age’ and are products of this period. Since the 1980’s, the sociology departments have declined and business and management is now the largest academic discipline in terms of student numbers in the UK (HESA 2004). Thus a large number of sociologically oriented academics have ended up in management departments, teaching the sociology and social-psychology of organisations and adopting and developing the subject area of organisational behaviour in the process. These ‘sociologists in exile’, strangers in a strange land, form the core of CMS.
One should not overstate the radicalism of CMS academics. To a greater or lesser extent we have all accommodated ourselves to UK Universities PLC whilst attempting to retain some critical intellectual and political aspirations. These aspirations have themselves changed with the perceived failure of collective left-wing politics and the rise of single-issue politics and the micro-political (Hobsbawm 1995; Klein 2000). There remains an obvious irony: many continue to co-opt radical stances but as a means to pursue academic careers within a system we disapprove of. It may be not so much biting the hand that feeds us as giving it a gentle nibble to gain its attention. I sometimes fear that we are like medieval fools, our jibes tolerated only because we confirm the hegemony of managerialism by our inability to mount a serious challenge to it.
CMS also provides a sort of ‘refugee camp’ where fellow outsiders can feel part of a wider movement giving rise to a sense that CMS is only a temporary gathering place that will someday have to be dismantled and moved elsewhere. Thus it is an academic diaspora that defines itself through flight as a way of life. In other words a sense of impermanence and precariousness is an important element of CMS. To let CMS become fixed and stabilised is to be avoided at all costs. When CMS becomes mainstream then it will no longer provide a satisfactory stopping place for its professional exiles, who will then have to seek out the next credible oppositional identity that can still command a professional salary.
Seeing CMS identities as primarily based on political preferences or the iron laws of the academic employment market misses one important aspect of the CMS identity. We like to think of ourselves as extremely clever. ‘Critical’ in this sense becomes a synonym for ‘better’ or ‘cleverer’ (Cleverer Management Studies?). The Left has always thought of the Right, not just as wrong but also, sometimes deliberately, stupid. This is the basic premise behind the critiques of CMS’s favourite straw men (it usually is men) such as Peters (1987) or Senge (1999). This need for a sense of intellectual superiority extends both to more mainstream and therefore ‘un-critical’ academic colleagues and to the managers who insist on ‘believing’ in the excellence movement or business process reengineering. Both these groups become the Other by which our superior intellects are measured. This need provides a further explanation for why CMS will cease to provide such a satisfying identity if it ever becomes taken up widely by the Business School. One of the attractions of abstruse theory for CMS academics may be its very impenetrability, a test that one is a true critical believer.
What sort of identity emerges from these uncharitable and perhaps guilty speculations regarding the CMS project? To summarise this section, an identity is being suggested that is based on dissent, political opposition, partially self-inflicted marginalisation and intellectualism. All these terms are given meaning and significance by reference to ‘the Other’ of mainstream management knowledge as represented by its promulgators and consumers. The pursuit of this identity relies on the continuing existence of management and managers. If they did not exist, CMS would have to invent them in order to have something to oppose. One of the effects of this identity project is to construct an understanding of who managers are that supports such a project. The next section examines some possible features of this understanding.

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