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The Role and Place of the “Critical Management Studies” Michał Zawadzki



he “Critical Management Studies” is a transdisciplinary field of humanistic critical reflection focused on the theory and practice of management and organization. This stream was institutionalized in the early nineties of the twentieth century – a landmark date is 1992 when publication edited by Mats Alvesson and Hugh Willmott containing a collection of critical texts under the title “Critical Management Studies” appeared [Alvesson, Willmott, 1992a]. Since then, a number of publications written from the perspective of critical studies in management sciences have been published, a lot of critical conferences around the world have been organized, separate research and expertise related to the critical mainstream have appeared as well as the separate spaces in the public discourse1. Although CMS is becoming increasingly popular in the western management sciences, in Polish – as well as in all of Central and Eastern Europe – is relatively poorly recognized [Sułkowski, 2006, 2009, 2010; Zawadzki, 2009b]. Therefore, it is necessary to characterize this extremely interesting, although controversial research field. The paper presents main characteristics of CMS: the reasons why this trend was established and main epistemological, normative and methodological assumptions of it. It will make possible to show CMS as a separate stream of the research, constituting a critical perspective for research activities undertaken in management sciences.



ne of the reasons of a historical nature, which decided about institutionalization of the critical reflection in management was – visible from the eighties of the twentieth century in England – the phenomenon of “managerialization” of public sector, related to the adaptation of the principles of economic management to the field of public management [Fournier, Grey 2000, pp. 10-11]. It was associated with increasing awareness of the political nature of management (management as a normative activity), as well as with stressing the importance of the particular role of a manager, who came to be regarded as a holder of expertise knowledge which allows to increase the quality of the processes of democratization in the public services. With growing importance of management in the public space, it became the object of particular analyses and diagnoses. At the same time, a kind of internal crisis of management itself as a scientific discipline could be noted. From the seventies, it was connected with increasing awareness of the lost battle by the U.S. management (which is a dominant model for the management of the West in general) with the Japanese management, which was connected with a victory of Japanese organizations competing over U.S. As a result, the status of management as a science was weakened, and the number of publications connected with a popular science, which were designed to explain the phenomenon of Japanese management, increased. For example, publications

1 Particularly worth noting is the creation of a separate division “Critical Management Studies” in the American association “Academy of Management”. In Europe, since 1999 there is a biennial conference of CMS (in 2011 for the first time outside the United Kingdom – in Naples), a similar conference is organized in the United States by the “Academy of Management”. At the University of Lancaster you can get a degree “Master of Philosophy” in the field of “CMS”. Moreover, a number of websites which contain resources for critical mainstream have been created, such as

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Michał Zawadzki Sociologist and philosopher, in 2011 he defended his doctoral dissertation “Organizational culture in the perspective of the Critical Management Studies” at the Faculty of Management and Social Communication ( Jagiellonian University in Cracow). He is the author of several articles and book chapters published in established Polish journals and with respected publishers. The publications take up a range of topics within the area of Critical Management Studies, such as critical approaches to culture management, Critical Theory and its contribution to management sciences, Critical Management Education and about relation between music and management. He has also been active within the international academic community as reviewer for JCR journals such as Management Learning and the Journal of Organizational Change Management. He works in the Institute of Culture ( JU). He plays drums in a jazz-rock band UDA.

such as “Theory Z” [Ouchi, 1981], “Corporate Culture. The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life” [Deal, Kennedy, 1982], “In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies” [Peters, Waterman 1982] are worth mentioning here. These publications, which are situated in opposition to the modernist vision of management (recognized then as scientific) and which promote a strong interpretive-symbolic orientation [Hatch, 2002, p. 205], also contributed to the demythologization of the scientific status of the role of a manager. A manager came to be seen as a charismatic figure endowed with specific practical skills that can not be reduced to scientific principles [Fournier, Grey, 2000, p. 12]. The weakening of the scientific status of management discourse – and the ensuing change in the status of the role of a manager – led to the defragmentation of this discourse. This situation led researchers from the discipline of management, as well as managers to realize the shortcomings of current management knowledge, and management as a science became even more vulnerable to criticism. Calling into question the scientific status of management which is based on the vision of science as a modern project is the result of ongoing – since the mid-twentieth-century –criticism of positivism and functionalism in the social sciences. Undermining the objective status of science in the philosophy of science by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 in the book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” [Kuhn, 2009], “language turn” with increasing interest of phenomenology resulting in the concept of constructivism presented in the book “Social construction of reality” published in 1966 and written by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann [Berger, Luckmann, 2010] and finally the formation of the identity of postmodernism in social sciences (for example through the book “The Postmodern Condition” written by JeanFrançois Lyotard and published in 1979, Lyotard 1997) – are the most important (although not the only ones) key moments which lead to the anti-positivist turn. Interestingly, anti-positivist trends in management sciences (and generally in the social sciences) were stronger in England than in the United States. It could be due to increased availability of critical intellectual resources of humanist thought (such as Marxism) in Europe. More important, however, is the fact that in the United States after World War II there was big emphasis laid on reforming the business school (existing there since the end of the nineteenth century) by incorporating scientific

rigor based on the positivist orthodoxy. In England first business schools were created only in the sixties of the twentieth century, but their rising in the eighties was associated with energizing them by the critical scientific humanist thought. That powering was connected with the fact that humanists were moving to business schools due to funding cuts affecting English universities, as well as the institutional assignment of these schools to universities (and the creation of separate departments of management), which on the one hand guaranteed a cash injection for the universities, and on the other hand, it was associated with the linking of business schools to social sciences [Fournier, Grey, 2000, p. 14]. Moreover, business schools in the United States were strongly subordinated to commercial funding by private companies, whereas in England – due to institutional links with universities – studying and working in these schools remained more independent [Fournier, Grey, 2000, p. 28, footnote 3]. As Mats Alvesson, Todd Bridgman and Hugh Willmott noted in this context: When located in universities where a reputation for independence is prized and guarded, business school deans cannot simply hire consultants or gurus as professors, even though this might be the preference of some corporate patrons and students (Alvesson, Bridgman, Willmott, 2009a, p. 18).

In summary, despite the fact that management mainstream in England remained under the influence of positivist trends, in the eighties there were conditions that constitute a critical stream. Researchers who were engaged in this stream were usually well recognized in the international scientific community and they were publishing articles in the most prestigious journals – and this fact facilitated the way for the institutionalization of the CMS in the nineties.



he intellectual sources of “Critical Management Studies” are very broad and include primarily the critical theory of Frankfurt School [Scherer, 2009], radical pedagogy [Contu, 2009], postmodernism [Alvesson, Deetz, 2000, 2005], poststructuralism [Campbell, 2009], critical realism [Reed, 2009], Labor Process Theory [O’Doherty, Thompson, 2009], cultural studies [Martin, 2005] and feminism [Ashcraft, 2009; Pringle, 2005]. It seems possible to distinguish a number of common features,

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which are a kind of guiding themes that form the basis for scientific efforts taken in CMS. CMS based on the assumption of the need to take care for a human as a member of the world of organization is particularly focused on the diagnosis of social and cultural conditions of the relationship of domination or oppression in the organization, which are often the result of management processes. These conditions are considered elements of cultural pathology, such as ideology of managerialism, the instrumental approach to a human or the hegemony of economism [Sułkowski, 2006, 2010]. In connection with the critical and humanistic orientation, the central issues are: the concept of rationality and progress, technocracy and social engineering, autonomy and control, communicative action, power and ideology, as well as fundamental epistemological issues [Alvesson, Bridgman, Willmott, 2009a, p. 6]. Conducting research on these issues, researchers are guided by the intention of humanizing the discourse of management, as well as the intention of improving working conditions with care of the reflective and emancipatory dimension of a human being in the organization. Scientists engaged in CMS diagnose and call into question dominant texts of management in discourse and daily practices of organizing and management, seeing them as preservative forms of exploitation and oppression, which thus institutionalize the status quo. Management is not only diagnosed on a general level, but critical reflection applies to issues connected with specific specializations in the management sciences, such as accounting, marketing, human resource management or organizational culture [see: Alvesson, Bridgman, Willmott, 2009b]. CMS is characterized by specific features that allow to distinguish between critical research in management sciences and research without critical attitude (despite their often alleged critical orientation). These are: denaturalization, antiperformativity and reflexivity [Alvesson, Bridgman, Willmott, 2009a, pp. 9-11; Fournier, Grey, 2000; Grey, Willmott, 2005], as well as the idea of involving ​​ the research in the process of social change by virtue of processes of emancipation [Caproni, Prasad, 1997].

3.1. Denaturalization Denaturalization is a research strategy focused on the impeachment of the elements of organizational reality, which are widely regarded as natural and obvious. It is emphasized that various orders of organizational and

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management practices are being subjected to the processes of naturalization and legitimization by reference to the concepts of necessity and nature, becoming immunized to criticism. Examples of an element of the organization which is strongly subjected to the naturalization process are the organizational hierarchy and values such ​​ as greed and competition, which often appear to be neutral or even normatively desirable state of affairs. This situation applies particularly to the positivist oriented discourse of management in which dominant cognitive orientations are being naturalized and appear to be generally applicable and those for which “there is no alternative” [Fournier, Grey, 2000, p. 18]. Researchers from CMS make an effort to call into question and denaturalize phenomena and processes related to management and organization – both those in management texts, and at the level of organizational reality – which are shown in the mainstream as the natural, displaying their dependence on particular contexts and interests.

3.2. Anti-performativity Anti-performativity (or non-performative stance – Fournier, Grey, 2000, p. 17) can be defined as a special case of denaturalization – a stance which denies that social relations should be seen as merely instrumental, that is analyzed in terms of maximizing results with specific means [Alvesson, Bridgman, Willmott, 2009a, p. 10]. As Alvesson, Bridgman and Willmott noticed, This element of CMS is important because most knowledge of management presupposes the overriding importance of performativity. It is taken to be the acid test of whether knowledge has any value. Knowledge of management is assessed to have value only if it is shown how it can, at least in principle, be applied to enhance the means of achieving existing (naturalized) ends [Alvesson, Bridgman, Willmott, 2009a, p. 10].

The term “performativity” is used in critical studies to identify the organizational conditions in which dominant means-ends orientation inhibits efforts to call into question the validity of going to meet specified goals. These conditions are characterized by the fact that their dominant social and cultural order is treated as natural and obvious and all problems are treated in terms of potential to overcome the shortcomings in order to pursuit the predetermined objectives, and if it

is not possible to overcome them – as an unavoidable natural elements in the order. In connection with naturalization of instrumental rationality, deeper ethical and political issues such as distribution of life chances in the organization or the degree of democratization of human relations are either considered to be negligible due to the need for implementation of the objectives, or masked for example through the use of consulting and training programs aimed at increasing employee’s satisfaction and diverting their attention from the pathologies [Alvesson, Bridgman, Willmott, 2009a, p. 10]. In this situation, all efforts to correct organizational deficiencies are reduced only to eliminate elements considered dysfunctional in such a way that the dominant priorities and preference orders are still retained. Anti-performativity as a second core feature of CMS is connected with struggling with these forms of the theory and practice of management and organization which limit the ethical and political questions and issues in order to reproduce the status quo. This term relates to the critique of subordination of knowledge and truth to the rules of effectiveness [Fournier, Grey, 2000, p. 17]. However, in this case, it is not the denial of the practical utility of the knowledge of management, but a critique of reducing the practicality of knowledge only to the dimension of efficiency.

3.3. Reflexivity Reflectivity as a third core feature of CMS refers to the ability to see all aspects of organization and management as mediated by the particularistic tradition of their authors [Alvesson, Bridgman, Willmott, 2009a, p. 10]. A common feature of the intellectual traditions connected with the CMS seems to be a denial of the claim that the theory and practice of management in the normative sense are constituted by a technical imperative; therefore, that the role of management is only the desire to increase economic efficiency of organization, which is to be justified by the scientific diagnosis of how things really are. It is connected with deep skepticism concerning the possibility of an objective and neutral normative basis for constitution of any knowledge. What is characteristic of mainstream positivist paradigm of management is a separation of the subject from the research process – in CMS it is replaced by a view of knowledge as a social

construction. Therefore, looking for knowledge and truth as objective and authoritative result of single scientific rationality is replaced by epistemological relativism and pluralism [Duberley, Johnson, 2009, pp. 345-346]. CMS points to inevitability of adopting certain values at every stage of research in management sciences, while stressing that the separation of values from facts in order to meet the conditions of the objectivity of the research process is a positivist illusion which is impossible to meet [Alvesson, Deetz, 2000]. The researcher is not a neutral observer, but he always inevitably involves personal values in the research process ​​(even if he claims that he remains normatively neutral) that affect the process and the results of research. Therefore, reflexivity is mainly a kind of criticism of objectivity and scientism in scientific discourse of management. Thus, representatives of CMS deny the positivist thesis of normative neutrality of knowledge and capabilities to universalize it: this thesis is considered a part of the ideology of fundamentalist research, which neglects particular involvement of the studies in the theoretical and socio-cultural context, and at the same time denies in a persuasive way that these studies lead to naturalization of the status quo. As CMS representatives diagnose, positivist-oriented researchers tend to develop rather more correct (in their opinion) knowledge of the organization and management without taking into account the problems of inequality, domination or other aspects of a political nature, which always affect work conditions in the organization. CMS draw attention to the fact that studies engaged in ideology of neutrality and universality are characterized by a lack of sensitivity to the values that ​​ always direct not only the scope of what is studied, but also how the research are conducted [Alvesson, Bridgman, Willmott, 2009a, p. 10; Duberley, Johnson, 2003a]. Therefore, discovering, testing and calling into question normative assumptions and interests which conduct the production of knowledge in the discipline of management is one of the key tasks posed by CMS. This task takes the form of critical selfreflection about its own assumptions of CMS and about entanglement in the tradition and sociocultural context of the studies.

3.4. Emancipation Commitment to the praxis is one of the most important assumptions about the production of knowledge in CMS and it constitutes the possibility

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to achieve emancipation [Caproni, Prasad, 1997]. The desire to change the reality is one of the main features that distinguishes critical theory in CMS from other concepts and critical theories. Therefore, the purpose of CMS is not only to make a different, critical look at the world of management, but also striving to make changes in theory and practice of management and organization [Duberley, Johnson, 2003b, p. 124]. The fundamental assumption in CMS concerns emancipatory power of reason. It points to the need to overcome passive participation in the socio-cultural realities (including organizational) related to mindless reproduction of reality for the development of consciousness of our role in shaping this reality and the possibility of intervention in the course of its development. Therefore, emancipation is considered here at the micro-level: as the increase of awareness of the fact that it is not necessary to live and work under adverse conditions in organization which is a prerequisite for further action to be associated with conscious concern for each other. Microemancipation is possible thanks to stimulation of critical self-reflection of social actors working in an organization. It is noteworthy that the understanding of emancipation in CMS derives mainly from the idea of ​​emancipatory interest by Jürgen Habermas [Alvesson, Willmott, 1992b; Habermas, 1972]. Emancipatory perspective on the role of an individual in the organization is in contradiction to these concepts in the theory of organization and management which are mounted on the functionalist paradigm and derived from the positivist orientation [Donaldson, 2005]. These assumptions ignore the political aspect of the organization treating management only as a technical activity and assigning normative neutrality to the management knowledge because of its scientific status. As a result, management obtains the status of a privileged and not subjected to criticism, and organizations are seen as a unified whole in which goals of managers and management objectives should be considered by all employees as their own [Duberley, Johnson, 2003b, p. 127; Willmott, 1995]. The real emancipation must be based on a never ending process of critical self-reflection and should result in a real transformation at the level of subjects’ awareness and lead to changes in the structural conditions determining the existence of entities but also has to be constituted by their conscious or unconscious activities.

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ormative assumptions in CMS determine the need for methodological openness in the context of undertaken research problems. It requires an attitude of methodological pragmatism, without limiting research to predetermined research methods and techniques. Therefore, it is possible to use interviews, observations, documents analysis, historical reconstruction, ethnographic interpretations, critical discourse analysis or deconstruction. Openness does not mean, however, arbitrariness: methodological pragmatism involves the assumptions of a moderate version of ontological realism, according to which specific research problems need to determine the preference of the methods and techniques [Duberley, Johnson, 2003b, p. 133]. A constructivist stance of CMS allows to design research and research methodology towards meeting the demands for empowerment and emancipation [Duberley, Johnson 2003b, p. 136]. These demands are realized in relation to three major fields of discourse and target groups: a field of scientific discourse (management scientists, researchers), a field of the organizational discourse (organizational employees, including managers) and a field of discourse of management education (students with teachers).

4.1. Scientific discourse of management (scientists, researchers) Orientation of CMS on scientific discourse is primarily focused on the diagnosis of the epistemological field of management sciences, where the main subject of critical research is assumptions that constitute the knowledge of the management and organization [Alvesson, Deetz, 2000; Duberley, Johnson, 2003a, 2003b; Sułkowski 2005, 2009]. Using a constructivist perspective, researchers situating their research in the CMS point out that the very construction of knowledge in the discipline of management sciences influences the management discourse, shaping not only the assumptions which form the basis for research but also consciousness of management consultants and scientists, and finally, the functioning of the organizations [Czarniawska, Gagliardi, 2003; Czarniawska, 2010; Harding, 2003]. Scientific discourse of management sciences is the driving force behind the social and cultural constructions, maintaining dominant ideologies of management among researchers and organizations and also being institutionalized by affect-

ing the cognitive and normative orientations of those involved in organizational activities [Duszak, Fairclough, 2008]. This denaturalization of management scientific discourse allows calling into question dominant theoretical assumptions, showing them often as oppressive and destructive for the organization, though hidden behind a mask of normative neutrality, scientific rationality, functionality and economic efficiency. Critical diagnosis of the discourse of scientific management sciences is institutionalized in a form of construction of scientific knowledge which is distributed in the scientific research of management discipline, what constitutes the emancipatory dimension of science by increasing awareness of and sensitivity to critical reflection. In addition, research embedded in CMS take the form of self-aware criticism: the researchers who positioned themselves in CMS seek emancipation through development of their awareness of ideological and epistemological assumptions that determine their own processes of sense-making. Making continuous defamiliarization of their own views, they try to deal with the issues in the broadest context of openness to different points of view and to criticize their beliefs.

4.2. Organizational discourse and staff Research in CMS can also be made directly ​​ in the organization. They most often take the form of critical ethnography which is focused on the processes of denaturalization of the order and critique of the dominant ideology [Duberley, Johnson, 2003b, pp. 133-135]. These processes are directly related to the purpose of emancipation which is connected with critical research: they not only aim to design useful knowledge from the diagnosis of research problems and analysis of reality, but are also designed to influence the attitudes and awareness of human beings who are involved in the research process. In participatory research (participatory “action research”) respondents are encouraged not only to answer the questions formulated by the researchers, but also to discuss those questions and also problems and research topics [Duberley, Johnson, 2009]. In this way, the respondents become convinced of their own responsibility for the results of research. It leads to legitimacy of knowledge and, consequently, to empowerment and emancipation of lower-level employees as well as managers who – because of the contact with the researcher – can debate the merits of management methods

and begin to relate to the existing conditions in a more reflective way. It is worth noting that the emancipatory dimension of CMS methodology differs from the typical assumptions of positivist methodology, which gives a privileged role of the researcher, and the research process is intended only for collecting desired data.

4.3. Management education and students with teachers In CMS the concern for reflective and emancipatory dimension of being in the organization is also connected with critical in-depth reflection on the field of management education, fulfilling a key role in equipping human beings with cultural competences, determining capacity for advocacy of (their or other entities) emancipatory dimension of being in an organization. Therefore, critical studies of emancipatory dimension of participation in the organization are fed by a critical reflection on management education and involve using “Critical Management Education” [Contu, 2009; Czarniawska, Gagliardi, 2006; Grey, 2004] which is based on radical pedagogy [Freire, 2001; Giroux, Witkowski, 2010]. Crucial ideas in this context are the concept of flowing cultural ideas and the concept of empowerment which indicate that the quality of implementation of the cultural mission of education in implementation of individuals to participate in the culture depends on the realization of emancipatory dimension of the public sphere [Zawadzki, 2009a]. Emancipatory interest of CMS in the context of education is focused on the process of empowerment of both students and teachers, and management education is analyzed from the perspective of potential for emancipation [Contu, 2009]. Critical research may involve both theoretical possibility of realizing the conditions that constitute civic education, they can focus on the analysis of curriculums (including educational content used) and can rely on the diagnosis of the quality of communication implemented in the teaching process. The greater critical openness to raised problems and to analyzed texts in the teaching process and the greater a degree of openness to critical discussion, the greater chance to develop the emancipatory potential on the field of management education [Zawadzki, 2010]. Great importance is attached to texts used in the educational process, which should stimulate reflection, and not in an authoritarian manner determine the closure of the

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negotiation of interpretation of their significance by the “prescriptive power of description” [Chiapello, Fairclough, 2008, p. 394; Zawadzki, 2010].



n conclusion, it should be noted that the quality of research in CMS should not be linked to the ability to tell a good story (or to construct a good narration), but to the ability to take into account issues connected with a struggle for human dignity and subjectivity [Duberley, Johnson, 2003b, pp. 133-135]. A good critical text is one that creates a multi-dimensional space and transdisciplinary reflection not limited to assumptions characterized by particular discipline, revealing (under the diagnosis of the current situation or under the counterfactual research) hidden dimensions of existence under adverse conditions (organizational) or discovering and diagnosing the interests

which conduct the cognition in the construction of knowledge in the discipline of management [Habermas, 1972, 1983; Nord, Stablein, 1985; Willmott, 2005]. Assumptions which are characteristic for CMS should not lead us to the statement that the “anti-management” perspective is accepted in its framework. It is more about highlighting the importance of values involved in the process of knowledge construction that affect the understanding and studying reality. In this sense, CMS indicates the need to open up for the multifaceted organizational reality and not to focus only on the diagnosis of a potential conflict between managers and employees. Intent of CMS is not to eliminate management processes or managerial elite and to make a revolution of the proletariat in the Marxist sense, but it points to the need for critical empowerment of all people involved in organizational activities, as well as those involved in (scientific and/or in practice) management.

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Michal Zawadzki, The role and place of the “Critical Management Studies”  
Michal Zawadzki, The role and place of the “Critical Management Studies”  

Culture Management 2012, No. 4: Michal Zawadzki, The role and place of the “Critical Management Studies”