Scholars in the humanities and social sciences have given considerable attention to the deleterious effects of neoliberal, capitalist systems; however, the critique of capitalism does not emanate singularly from these academic areas. There is also an active and growing critique of capitalist systems from within the field of business by critical management studies theorists. This essay provides an overview of the contemporary perspectives of Critical Management Studies (CMS) and, specifically, its attention to power in organizations.
The CMS body of scholarship is varied, rapidly growing, and unified in its commitment to understanding systems of domination perpetuated within and across organizations; its calls for heightened reflexivity in scholarship, and its examination of how operations of power can create oppressive systems. The reason to introduce CMS to an interdisciplinary audience is for its potential to bridge some perceived ideological gaps between those disciplines that likewise offer critique of the systems of power that perpetuate the neoliberal state. One of the stated objectives of the CMS division of the Academy of Management is “to build bridges to progressive social movements to contribute to positive change for social and environmental welfare.”ii By introducing CMS to a broader interdisciplinary audience, this essay contributes to the bridge-building and offers an example of how redeploying one view of power within a CMS framework may help yield transformative social change.
A key reason for interdisciplinary scholarship to consider CMS resources is that CMS scholars offer additional political resources for change by virtue of their academic location from within the field of business. Given this location, critique of capitalism may reach those scholars and practitioners enabling and reinforcing oppressive systems of management more directly. Though CMS’ institutionalization within business schools has been critiqued as diluting its radical, liberatory potential,iv As an example of their efforts to reinforce and expand this space, the 2013 Academy of Management (AoM) Annual Meeting, which is generally recognized as one of the premier academic conferences within the discipline of management, was entitled “Capitalism in Question?” and was organized by the CMS division.
CMS, as with other critical disciplinary studies, identifies theoretical roots from Critical Theory and scholars of the Frankfurt School.ix This interdisciplinary base provides multiple opportunities for interdisciplinary scholarship.
CMS is also explicit about its political commitments, which align well with interdisciplinary scholarship concerned with emancipatory politic. CMS can trace its origins out of the Labour Process Theory (LPT) scholars with its distinct, leftist political tradition. This leftist political commitment remains visibly evident as a tenet of CMS as reflected in their current goal statement:
We observe that management of the modern firm (and often of other types of organizations) is guided primarily by the interests of shareholders and other elites. We are critical of the notion that the pursuit of profitability will automatically satisfy society's broader interests. Such a system extracts unacceptably high social and environmental costs for whatever progress it offers. We believe that other priorities, such as justice, community, human development, and ecological balance, should be brought to bear on the governance of economic and other human activity. The overall goal of our research, teaching, and extra-curricula activities is to contribute to the creation of better organizations, more humane societies, and a viable world system.x
However, CMS is a highly contested arena for scholars and practitioners, particularly with regard to the current state of its political efficacy in creating actual social change. Simply put, critics question the applicability of CMS solutions to real, contemporary issues. Other, related critiques of CMS frequently comment on the inaccessibility of the language by scholars, a lack of self-reflexivity of CMS by CMS, the institutionalization and power relations of CMS, the lack of politically actionable outcomes, and lost relevancy to lived experiences.xi
Generally, CMS subdivides its broad field according to the epistemological premises of the scholarship (i.e., standpoint epistemology, poststructuralism, or critical realism), and then further by its radical or reformist aims.xiv With this backdrop in mind, this essay’s purpose is twofold. First, I aim to provide a general introduction of CMS to an interdisciplinary audience that is well equipped to engage in and further the discussions of power and domination central to CMS, particularly as connected to the impact of global capitalist systems. Second, I briefly present one possible intervention to address the critique of CMS, namely its lack of applicability.
One particular criticism of CMS has been its inaccessibility and its inability to create actionable, practical workplace impact, due in part to the esoteric language and theory deployed by post-structural scholars, but also from the privileging of an academic “publish or perish” mentality over transference of CMS through public practice.xvi
2. The Historical Overview and CMS Streams
A common attribution for the “moment” around which CMS seemed to have coalesced, at least as a branding acronym or acknowledged label, is the 1992 release of the Alvesson and Willmott edited book, Critical Management Studies.xviii This book entered as a counter to the instrumentalist approach of managing people singularly to achieve ever more efficient, productive outcomes, which had become the pervasive unquestioned paradigm in both theory and practice as reflected in the late 1980s adoption of the term “human resources” in the field and emergence of “managerialism” in the academy. To this end, scholars from around the world, though particularly concentrated in the United Kingdom, resonated with the call for a radical critique of the discipline of management under the label CMS put forward by Alvesson and Willmott, and gained cross-disciplinary steam throughout the 1990s, becoming an established presence in the United States by the late 1990s.
The CMS presence continues to be stronger in the U.K., though it has established a solid, if more tenuous, presence in the U.S. today.xxi However, Fournier and Grey’s work remains critical in the CMS body of literature in establishing a framework within and against which the field has responded, and in so doing, further institutionalizing CMS as a legitimate field of inquiry.
Establishing the aims of CMS is also a challenge because of the breadth of the scope under its “big tent,” although multiple authors have explicitly addressed this project.xxvi
Although this section presents a somewhat cohesive goal for CMS proponents, it is by no means a cohesive, uncontested field. As a basic tenet, CMS encourages a breadth and diversity of interpretations for pursuing these lofty ambitions that, at its extreme end, intend nothing less than the dismantling of “business” as an academic discipline and the deconstruction of the current capitalist economy. At the other extreme, the CMS strategy is dedicated to change through a reformist critique that challenges existing capitalist structures from within the same systems of domination.xxvii
Though still a relatively small area within the broader field of management, the speed with which CMS appears to have made inroads into the global academic organizational and business communities is remarkable. Although the United Kingdom is generally recognized as the hub of CMS scholarship, there has been significant growth around the world, even in the United States where the commitment to the assumptions of the capitalist economy remains strongest. For example, the CMS interest group in the Academy of Management (AOM) is the fastest growing.xxx
Independent of, yet related to, this concern about CMS’s institutionalized situatedness, the key authors in CMS are reluctant to define CMS as a “field,” as this process in itself is antithetical to the radical critique intended to broaden and transform the academic disciplines engaging in organizational and managerial theory and practice. Nevertheless, recent attempts have been made to synthesize the greater body of CMS works. This synthesis reveals a field that is multidisciplinary and pluralistic and encompasses a broad range of perspectives. Nevertheless, these perspectives tend to reflect distinct, identifiable streams within the CMS literature.xxxi
The influence of Fournier and Grey can still be seen in the common CMS streams, though they have broadened to reflect the expanding scope of the field. According to the overview of critical management studies in The Academy of Management Annals (2007), these common themes include: “Challenging Structures of Domination” (e.g., feminist scholars, critics of bureaucracy and market structures, critical realists), “Questioning the Taken for Granted” (e.g., neoinstitutional theory, de-naturalization, critical theory), “Beyond Instrumentalism” (e.g., non-performativity), “Reflexivity and Meaning” (e.g., critical epistemology), and “Power and Knowledge” (e.g., critical scholarship, critiques of managerialism).xxxiii
It is worth noting that, arguably, the most significant, recent, theoretical cleavage within CMS is between those scholars aligned with poststructuralist versus Marxist theoretical and political traditions. Furthermore, many of the divisions within CMS mirror the same debates and divisions of the same theoretic camps within the social sciences.xxxiv As critical as these theoretical themes are to understanding CMS, it is perhaps more important to emphasize CMS scholars’ commitment to a different epistemological grounding than that of the predominant, noncritical, management scholarship because it is upon this different epistemic foundation that CMS deploys its theoretical approach.
3. Epistemological Considerations for CMS
A primary consideration for CMS proponents is the epistemic assumptions upon which authors premise their transformational critiques. The notion of radical critique within CMS is itself a contested notion, and this is reflected in the epistemic positions evident in the resulting scholarship. Despite differing epistemic positions, all of the primary epistemological approaches of CMS in some way seek to interrogate and complicate the notion of unquestioned “neutral” knowledge that emerged from the positivist and liberal tradition of scientific knowledge and that the management scholarship of the 1970s and 1980s embraced.xxxv This most certainly can be identified in the predominant discursive streams in the business literature. In their overview of the CMS literature and trends, Adler, Forbes, and Willmott assert that there are primarily three epistemological approaches for CMS work: standpoint, poststructural, and critical realism (2007). Although fundamentally different approaches, each calls into question notions of scientific objectivity that ultimately reveals “Truth” through a scientific approach based in “facts.” Nevertheless, each epistemic position enables fundamentally different critique and can lead to outcomes that vary from radical to merely reformist in the pursuit of undermining systems of domination.
Put differently, each set of epistemic assumptions provides both strength and weakness to CMS’ ability to serve as a resource for the transformative actions that undermine systems of domination, such as neoliberal forms of capitalism. To that end, the power analysis in the final section of this paper is situated in a poststructural epistemological approach to CMS through the work of Stewart Clegg’s Circuits of Power model; however, it is moderated by a nod toward a critical realist epistemology, which will be addressed later.
Poststructural epistemology primarily engages notions of language and its role in power constructions; the shift in understanding of the subject/object of knowledge as well as the contextual positioning of the “knower,” and a position of anti-essentialism characterized by “modesty of truth claims and reflexivity about the position of the observer world.”xxxvi Although this too is contested, this was the basic framework that was intended to enable CMS to access new views into organizational and managerial theories and provoke opportunities for “radical critique” that would break the bounds of traditional epistemic conditions.
This epistemic position is appropriate for a consideration of CMS and power analysis for several reasons. First, poststructuralist epistemology decenters the knowledge production process to enable a better understanding of the whole by actively engaging the view from the margins. The margins are those moments that become available through the deployment of proximal rather than distal thinking in methods. Essentially, proximal thinking undoes the assumptions of a structured, “fixed” organization and mobilizes the notion of an organization as existing in a state of becoming [from Cooper (1986) as described in Adler et al, 2007]. This shift enables a richly contextual, temporal and contingent understanding of power in its particular circumstance. Second, the use of discourse analysis is critical to understanding not only episodes of power (to be discussed in the circuits of power) but also how the use of discourse continually constructs the broader network by which any power episode is governed and interpreted. Finally, poststructuralism pays explicit attention to the infusion of power throughout a knowledge system. It epistemically “centers” power, not other organizational signifiers that represent the status quo.xxxvii
For all its benefit, much scholarship based in poststructural epistemological approaches has been roundly criticized for the inaccessibility of the language as well as relativistic and highly theoretic findings that do not produce actionable outcomes applicable to lived work experiences.xl To this end, I see a bridging of poststructural and critical realist epistemic positions as important complements in addressing the criticism that CMS scholarship generates theory with little, to no import for real, transformative change.
Based on this epistemological frame, I suggest that by deploying the Circuits of Power Model, as introduced by Clegg, within this epistemic frame, CMS can address the criticism of public applicability and accessibility.
4. Circuits of Power
As stated earlier, CMS is characterized by the breadth of ideas it attempts to address within the landscape of critical thought. Therefore, individual scholars have attempted to enhance the utility of CMS by finding additional theoretical and methodological approaches that, when combined with CMS, provide a new lens of analysis otherwise inaccessible through current CMS scholarship. Analysis of networks of power through a CMS lens could be enhanced through the application of Clegg’s Circuit of Power model. Stewart Clegg presented the full conceptualization of his Circuits of Power model in 1989 in his book Frameworks of Power.xlii However, I argue that the intention and design of this model is an exemplar of what CMS might represent in considering organizational power relations.
By adopting the epistemic positioning of both poststructuralism and critical realism, Clegg’s Circuits of Power becomes a lens through which CMS goals might be achieved. This model interrogates the systems of power by beginning with recognition that the fundamental unit of analysis, an episode of power, is part of “complex and evolving” systems that are richly contextual. Therefore, the question becomes “whether episodic outcomes tend rather more to reproduce or to transform [my emphasis] the existing architectonics – the architecture, geometry and design – of power relations.”xliii This explicit interest in the transformation of existing power relations places this approach within the broad interests of CMS and potentially aligns with the transformational goals suggested by CMS within a poststructural epistemology.
The circuits of power model, which is designed to consider power at a specific “focus” and a particular “level of circuit,” specifically engages situational and contextual elements required to integrate individual agency as well as capture the broader power implications at social network levels. Clegg’s interpretation of power is both a critique of the prevailing organizational theory scholarship of the time (in the late twentieth century), and a critical response to the development of power concepts more broadly. Clegg conceived of power as the variable outcome of the organization of social relations. It therefore only exists within “a relational field of force.” In other words, agents can only “’possess’ power in so far as they are relationally constituted as doing so.”xlvii In Clegg’s conception of power, relations of meaning, in addition to relations of production, are also of central concern.
However, Clegg parts company from neo-Marxian approaches that assert that the division of labor is an outcome of historical power processes and serves as a causal mechanism, that is typically ahistorical. Instead, Clegg states “almost any phenomenon can be a resource [for power] in the appropriate context.” Furthermore, Clegg does argue for an embodiment of power relations through the translation of the Marxist ‘species-being’l
It is important at this point to avoid overstating a theoretically “ecumenical” approach here. Though Clegg sees potential connections in a variety of theoretic traditions, Clegg’s understanding of power is fundamentally Foucauldian, and this is infused in the Circuits of Power model. In particular, Clegg’s notion of power is deeply affected by Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Foucault argues that the power of “the gaze” creates embodied knowledge that then disciplines the actors of the society without physical intervention from the institution/state.lii
Deployment of Clegg’s approach could achieve the goals of CMS by questioning the accepted role of power relationships within existing structures that constitutes the epistemic foundation of much organizational scholarship, while also addressing some of the existing critique. One of the criticisms of CMS has been its “esoteric post-structuralism” that serves only to cloud organizational issues in incomprehensible, and circuitous theories that lead away from productive discussion of workplace power struggles. This theoretic obfuscation creates barriers to a leftist politic. A group of scholars associated with post-Braverman Labour Process Theory (LPT) has been vocal in their view that CMS, particularly in the streams that emerged in connection with Michel Foucault, is guilty of “fetishization of managerial dominance at the cost of meaningful study of employee agency.”liv
By displacing this notion of perpetual power construction, another criticism of CMS is addressed – its applicability. CMS is tenuous as a field in part because of its current failure to move out of business schools and into public discourse.lv This challenge has emerged from the inability to translate post-structural rhetoric into both methods and language that can make sense to the public about publicly observable phenomena (e.g., the global financial meltdown or corporate environmental damage). The circuits of power model creates frameworks for analysis that a skilled practitioner or a serious student of business can actually work with in order to assess the power structures that limit or enable the actions of an agentic actor, organization, or network of organizations.
Since its introduction in 1989, scholars from a variety of fields have redeployed the circuits of power model to analyze and explain organizational power issues at multiple scales. Hutchinson et al. used the circuits of power model to explain how episodes of power within a particular workplace of nurses created and perpetuated systemic workplace bullying.lvii To demonstrate its potential utility to CMS, I briefly consider a planning study originally conducted by Bent Flyvbjerg in Aalborg, Denmark, which was reanalyzed by Clegg et al. through the circuits of power model.
The original study analyzed the 1977 Aalborg Project, which was a plan by Aalborg officials to limit car use. This Project ultimately generated significant conflict among multiple stakeholders with the ultimate result leading to wholly negative outcomes such as increased car traffic, disconnected bicycle paths, and increased fatalities in car accidents. Flyvbjerg concluded that the greater the power of a stakeholder, the lesser the need for rationality in decision making. Clegg et al. further analyzed the same case through the circuits of power model to determine how the outcomes identified by high-level Aalborg officials were changed through the process. In so doing, Clegg et al. reveals how within individual episodes of power, the habitus of agents (i.e. city officials and other stakeholders) leads to reproduction of power systems, rather than enabling attention to transformative possibilities (i.e., stated goal of reduced car use).lviii
The outcomes of this analysis have potential connection to the emancipatory aims sought by CMS scholarship. For example, one of Flyjberg’s key findings was that there are ramifications for agencies when power and knowledge are intertwined. Specifically, the “means justified the ends” and power holders had less responsibility for rational grounding for their actions.lix CMS scholars could use the findings about power revealed in this case to consider impacts on civic policy and discourse, and to develop theoretical as well as pragmatic methods for identifying and disrupting hegemonic discourse as manifest in episodes of power. This could lead to political and social activism by CMS scholars in ways that directly address criticism of the field.
Another project based on these data could be research about the creation of new forms of engagement that enter into a circuitry of power with emancipatory intention. This could have immediate relevance, for example, in the mobilization of community voices in “Public Meetings” that are used to collect opinions of coming public projects, by centering the voice of the community, rather than centering the position and response of the government, developer, or other powerful interest group. These suggestions would build on the understanding of power as being layered, richly contextual, and dependent upon the discursive constructions built by a community.
Another opportunity for CMS is the expansion of its consideration to move beyond management of a single organization and into the realm of the management of resources, networks, and institutional systems.lxi The identification of the actors influencing power outcomes affords the possibility of new strategies to affect better outcomes for justice.
CMS has a potentially important voice to offer in management studies because of its inherently critical consideration of normalized assumptions of organizations that reflect the aims of economic capitalism. However, unless these theoretical critiques can migrate into publicly accessible impacts, the future of CMS is vulnerable to marginalization through the same processes that have enabled its rapid emergence on the organizational scene. Further, the critical moment for CMS to make this move may be now, in the face of evidence of global capitalist meltdown that gripped the U.S. and many Western-European countries. There is potentially a distinctive receptivity to this critique in the academic community at this moment. CMS could be a vehicle, from within the business disciplines, for providing analytical focus on and accessible public voice to the implicated nature of power structures of domination that populate the capitalist market system.