The Evolution of Critical Management Studies?

13 Aug

Here’s a post I helped write with Marton Racz about a PhD conference were helping organise at the University of Leicester on the 16th and 17th of September.

It is just over three years since Martin Parker and Robyn Thomas published their influential description of the concerns which a critical academic journal should have. Parker and Thomas – renowned critical scholars both – then and until very recently presided over Organization, within which the piece was published, as editors-in-chief. Just like their predecessors, they understood themselves to be developing and maintaining a critical tradition of scholarship by developing and maintaining the journal Organization. So within the hall of mirrors predicament that is reflexive manifesto making, as anybody who reads the article can see, a disgruntled form of modesty evidently prevails. So too, one can also read, does evolutionary imagery:

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and smells like a duck, then it’s probably a duck, even it likes to claim that it is a velociraptor (p. 424).

‘What the hell do ducks and velociraptors have to do with CMS?’, you might well ask. The point Parker and Thomas were trying to make, we think, is principally opposed to a naïve evolutionary logic which finds the existence of ducks surprising. Ducks, this chain of reasoning goes, must want to be eaten. If they didn’t, the argument continues, they would much more closely resemble velociraptors, which we know must not want to be eaten by virtue of the fact that they rarely (if ever) were. And so, if it follows that ducks do want to be eaten while velociraptors don’t, why is it that ducks thrive in being routinely gobbled while velociraptor à l’orange cannot be found for love or money? For Parker and Thomas, it is the logic of institutionalization which sees to it that the tasty can thrive while the terrifying must perish.

CMS confSo, the analogy which they draw from this peculiarly effective imagery goes, has the two decade long institutionalisation of CMS, rather than bringing about just so many sharp-fanged critics, paradoxically brought about just so many sitting ducks? That is to say, has critique become little more than a technique in CMS which has subsequently been co-opted by mainstream management education too? Has critical thinking become just another implement in the managerial tool box? Rather than a heterodox tradition within management studies being understood as critical, perhaps CMS is better labelled as clinical, or even as cynical, comfortable, and/or constructive. Has critique, as the sociologist Bruno Latour before them put it, finally run out of steam?

In an effort to re-discover the velociraptors, and in response to sporadic conversations about the meaning of ‘critical’ with other PhD students at various events, we have organized a doctoral conference entitled “What is so critical about your critical management studies PhD research?”. The conference brings together 50 international PhD students for the sake of discussing the role given to critique within their various projects. Looking through the abstracts, it is plain to see that CMS has evolved substantially. Only two of the submissions we received, for example, adopt the Frankfurt School Critical Theory emphasised in Alvesson and Wilmott’s seminal contribution to the field. What is more, only one adopts the traditionally influential psychoanalytic perspective while only a small handful applies the Foucauldian ideas which had become something of a rite of passage. Postcolonial perspectives, Laclauian discourse theory, and science and technology studies, on the other hand, are now drawn upon extensively. Beyond the theoretical approaches used, we are keen to explore whether (or where) criticality lies in research design, in political goals, or the communities with which, and topics on which, research is being conducted. The forthcoming conference provides an ideal space for us to do so.

What of institutionalisation? The content of any individual (PhD) research project and the political aims that underpin it are by no means separate from such broader considerations. Building upon recent efforts to provoke an evolution in publication and gender diversity, we see the organisation of this conference as a critical-political project in its own right. We have, for the sake of broadening participation, offered travel grants to those without institutional support. For this we are thankful to the School of Management for providing the funding as well as to the 20 participating academics who pledged not only their time and ideas but also their financial support to the cause. We have also offered childcare facilities to participants who might otherwise not have been able to attend. The frustrating process of negotiating this provision though the University’s financial regulations has thankfully resulted in its becoming more committed to progressive initiatives like these. Institutions don’t just act upon us; we can also act upon them.

So do we want to be velociraptors? We have implicitly posited them here as a superior species to challenge that the idea that the way the world currently is is precisely how it should be. Critique continually evolves and the considerations underpinning the organisation of this conference are a case in point. Velociraptors, however, are merciless feathered nocturnal predators that competitively prey on and scavenge any bit of knowledge they spot. This is hardly a noble model for intellectual aspiration! The time may have come, as quite a few already argue, for us to consider slowing down and sizing down in the name of critique. Perhaps it is the model of the sloth, rather than that of the velociraptor, which advocates of a critical approach to management and organisation should be adopting.

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