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Critical Theory

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Abstract

Critical theory is a school of thought which challenges dominant ways of exploring and explaining organizational phenomenon. It has its origins in the so-called 'Frankfurt School' and includes the work of scholars such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas. The core of critical theory involves exposing existing modes of domination and oppression and offering alternative possibilities which emancipate those once excluded and silenced.
For Review Only
critical theory
Journal:
Encyclopedia of Management
Manuscript ID:
WEOM-V11-R-0042
Wiley - Manuscript type:
Short entry
Date Submitted by the Author:
15-Aug-2012
Complete List of Authors:
Harney, Brian; Dublin City University, Business School
Keywords:
Critical Theory, Frankfurt School, Critical Management Studies, Reflexivity
Abstract:
Critical theory is a school of thought which challenges dominant ways of
exploring and explaining organizational phenomenon. It has its origins in
the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’ and includes the work of scholars such as
Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas.
The core of critical theory involves exposing existing modes of domination
and oppression and offering alternative possibilities which emancipate
those once excluded and silenced.
Encyclopedia of Management
For Review Only
Critical theory
Brian Harney
Dublin City University
Dublin
Ireland
Critical theory
Critical theory denotes a school of academic thought which challenges dominant ways of
exploring and explaining organizational phenomenon (Scherer, 2009). While having a long
legacy and being far from being a single body of thought, critical theory is typically associated
with the Institute of Social Research at Frankfurt University. The so-called ‘Frankfurt School’
emerged in the 1930s and included such scholars as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert
Marcuse, and somewhat later, Jürgen Habermas. A key theme of critical theory is to destabilize
dominant modes of understanding by surfacing underlying assumptions and rendering power
relations explicit. As Adorno and Horkheimer capture in the Dialectic of Enlightenment “what
men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order wholly to dominate it and other men”
(1972: 4). Drawing on diverse intellectual traditions, critical theory seeks to expose the
domination, control and suppression that hides behind that which at first appears neutral,
progressive and necessary. Exemplifying this tendency, the logic and purpose of positivism is
frequently a core object of critique for critical theorists. Allied to this is an emancipatory intent;
critical theory not only reinterprets existing orders but offers alternative modes of understanding
and being which liberate those silenced and shackled by conventional theory. In Horkheimer’s
terms the theory is critical in so far as it seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances
that enslave them” (1982: 244).
In providing enriched understandings of power and competing interests critical theory has
informed the emergence of Critical Management Studies (Adler, et al., 2007). Critical theory
provides a solid foundation from which to question neutral performative intent and explore the
dehumanizing effects of managerial control. The legacy of critical theory suggests inclusivity
through the democratization of control and decision making (Marcuse), while also drawing
attention to communicative processes and how certain ideas have been created and sustained
(Habermas). Critical theory thus opens up possibilities for analysis of power, discourse and
historical understandings. In so doing critical theory mandates reflexivity in research and writing,
attuning researchers “to the assumptions underlying their own busy empiricism” (Agger, 1991:
111). That said the appropriation of critical theory into organization behaviour has not been
without difficulty. First, in opening up to alternative voices, a key question remains as to how
those drawing upon critical theory can speak or know the interests of ‘others’ without themselves
articulating a privileged account or ideologically informed alternative. Thus Critical
Management Studies has been recently challenged on the count that “if it [CMS] looks itself in
the mirror, it will find a white, heterosexual, most probably western, ablebodied man staring
back” (Tatli 2012: 26). Second the term ‘critical’ risks becoming colonized by the mainstream
where it is applied in a superficial manner absolving the theory of its critical logic, silencing its
emancipatory intent and ignoring its rich theoretical foundations.
Page 1 of 2 Encyclopedia of Management
For Review Only
Adler, P., Forbes, L., & Wilmott, H. (2007) Critical Management Studies. Academy of
Management Annals, 1(1): 119-179.
Adorno, T. W., & Horkheimer, M. (1972). Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and
Herder Inc.
Agger, B. (1991) Critical theory, poststructuralism, postmodernism: Their sociological
relevance. Annual Review of Sociology, 17: 105-131.
Horkheimer, M. (1982). Critical Theory. New York: Seabury Press.
Scherer, A. G. (2009) Critical theory and its contribution to Critical Management Studies. In M.
Alvesson, H. Wilmott, and T. Bridgman (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Critical
Management Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 29-51.
Tatli, A. (2012) On the power and poverty of critical (self) reflection in critical management
studies: A comment on Ford, Harding and Learmonth. British Journal of Management,
23: 22-30
Page 2 of 2Encyclopedia of Management
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Article
Full-text available
Critical management studies (CMS) offers a range of alternatives to mainstream management theory with a view to radically transforming management practice. The common core is deep skepticism regarding the moral defensibility and the social and ecological sustainability of prevailing conceptions and forms of management and organization. CMS's motivating concern is neither the personal failures of individual managers nor the poor management of specific firms, but the social injustice and environmental destructiveness of the broader social and economic systems that these managers and firms serve and reproduce. This chapter reviews CMS's progress, main themes, theoretical and epistemological premises, and main projects; we also identify some problems and make some proposals. Our aim is to provide an accessible overview of a growing movement in management studies.
Article
Full-text available
The aim of this chapter is to provide an outline of the development and basic ideas of critical theory (CT), one of the most prominent philosophical foundations of critical management studies (CMS). CT has perhaps had even more influence on the development of CMS than related theoretical foundations, such as labor process theory, post-structuralism, or critical realism, which will be described in subsequent chapters of the Handbook. CT has a unique philosophical tradition and distinct paradigmatic characteristics (Rasmussen 1994; Rush 2004); and, in order to demonstrate how CT has been used to study organizations, we will describe these characteristics and show how they have impacted CMS. Since a number of good historical overviews already exist (see, e.g., Held 1980; Wiggershaus 1994), we will consider the history and development of CT only in so far as it is of direct relevance to the understanding of the emergence of CMS. The chapter focuses mainly on the principal contributors of CT - here equated with the Frankfurt School and the writings of authors such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Jurgen Habermas, as well as authors of the younger generation. We will review a number of criticisms leveled at CT, from the aggressive to the more sympathetic types of critique, and show how these are relevant to CMS research. We also refer to Habermas's more recent work on political philosophy and deliberative democracy, as it is relevant for correcting dated understandings of his position and may suggest new directions for future work in CMS.
Article
This article examines the main theoretical contributions of critical theory, poststructuralism and postmodernism. It is argued that these three theories offer related perspectives on the shortcomings of positivism as well as new ways to theorize and study contemporary societies. Empirical and conceptual applications of these perspectives in sociological research are discussed. Some of these applications include work in the sociology of deviance, gender, media and culture. Finally, implications of these three theoretical perspectives for the ways sociologists think about the boundaries and territoriality of their discipline are discussed.
Article
Ford, Harding and Learmonth in their paper in the March 2010 special issue of the British Journal of Management ask ‘who is it that would make business schools more critical?’ Commenting on their paper, I argue that although they raise a very important question they do not deliver rigorous answers because their critical reflexive gaze fails to fall upon the mechanisms of hierarchy and exclusion that operate within the critical management studies (CMS) community. First the reflexivity debate in CMS and Ford, Harding and Learmonth's contribution to this debate is explored. Next institutionalized orthodoxies in CMS, such as the tendency to close ranks for those with different perspectives and the lack of demographic diversity, are problematized, and Ford, Harding and Learmonth's contribution is situated across these orthodoxies. Finally, the commentary offers some alternatives and solutions for CMS to take the step further from verbalism to critical praxis. It is suggested that the solution lies in exercising critical self‐reflection which acknowledges the embeddedness of CMS in structures and relations of power and hegemony and recognizes the role of CMS scholars in sustaining and reproducing these structures in their own institutions and communities.
Oxford Handbook of Critical Management Studies
  • A.G. Scherer