Critical management studies

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Critical management studies (CMS) is a loose but extensive grouping of theoretically informed critiques of management, business and organisation, grounded originally in a critical theory perspective. Today it encompasses a wide range of perspectives that are critical of traditional theories of management and the business schools that generate these theories.


It is widely suggested that CMS began with Mats Alvesson and Hugh Willmott's edited collection Critical Management Studies (1992). Critical Management Studies (CMS) initially brought together critical theory and post-structuralist writings, but has since developed in more diverse directions.

CMS grows at the same time as the global expansion of business schools, especially in north-western Europe. Decreases in state funding, so the narrative has it, for social sciences and increases in enrolments for business schools during the 1980s resulted in many academics with graduate training in sociology, history, philosophy or related fields of study ending up with jobs "training managers" or training students who wanted to become managers.

These academics brought different theoretical tools and political perspectives into business schools. They began to question the politics of managerialism and to link the techniques of management to neo-liberalism. These new voices drew on the Frankfurt School of critical theory, and the work of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze. Later Feminism, queer theory, post-colonial theory, anarchism, ecological philosophies, and radical democratic theory also had some influence. (See Alvesson and Willmott 2003 for a survey of the field.)

The roots of CMS are contested but are connected to the series of UK Labour Process Conferences that began in 1983 and reflected the impact of Braverman's (1974) attempt to make Marxist categories central to understanding work organisations. Industrial relations and labor studies scholars have joined the CMS fold in the US and northwestern Europe, seeking new opportunities for employment as labor and trade union related programs have diminished in number. At the same time a significant strand of critical accounting studies began to develop marked by the publication of Tony Tinker's Paper Prophets (1985) and the appearance of the journal Critical Perspectives on Accounting. Feminist and Marxist work in the sociology of work and organizations also predates the term CMS.

Contrasting with the dominant origin narrative is an account which states that, along with the contributors to CMS from the intellectual traditions identified here, there is a significant - and overlapping - bloc among CMS scholars of those who have had extensive pre-University experience as workers and managers. The inconsistencies between their experiences in the workplace and the claims of mainstream managerialism, and an intention to connect those experiences to broader explanations and theorizing leads these people to CMS.

Geographical base[edit]

The main home of CMS has been in the organisation theory and behaviour parts of British, Australian and Scandinavian business schools,[1] though there are strong contributions in related fields such as sociology, sociology of education, and critical pedagogy.[2] Further, contributions stem from accounting with growing interest in other management specialisms, such as marketing, international business, operational research, logistics etc. Since the 1990s academics from North America and other parts of the world are also engaging with this body of writing and research. The CMS Division within the (American) Academy of Management (AoM), with a membership of around 800, is larger and more international than some of its other divisions.

Many heterodox scholars in various parts of the world had been inspired by the international activities of the Standing Conference on Organisational Symbolism. This latter grouping developed work which drew variously on post-structuralism and symbolic interactionism in order to develop a cultural and anthropological understanding of contemporary organizations. Others, though, were without affiliation and/or seeking new formations and alliances. Since 1999, there has been a bi-annual CMS conference held in the UK as well as workshops and a bi-annual conference held at US Academy of Management.

Today there are significant concentrations of CMS scholars in the UK at the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary, University of London, the Essex Business School at the University of Essex, the Organization Studies's research themes of Sheffield University Management School at the University of Sheffield,[3] and the Marketing Research Group at Royal Holloway. There were concentrations at the University of Leicester, and the Alliance Manchester Business School at the University of Manchester, but this is no longer the case as a result of controversial changes in research strategy. Elsewhere, Copenhagen Business School, Lund School of Economics and Management at Lund University and Istanbul Bilgi University have clusters of CMS scholars.

Many CMS scholars globally rely on conferences and journals like Tamara Journal for Critical Organization Studies, ephemera: theory and politics in organization, Culture and Organization, or Organization: the critical journal of organization, theory and society for their affiliations.

Controversy and debate[edit]

Major points of debate have focused on CMS's relationship with more orthodox forms of Marxism, on the nature and purposes of CMS critique, on questions of inclusion and exclusion (Fournier and Grey 2000), on the possibilities of social transformation from within business schools (Parker 2002), and on the development of alternative models of globalisation.

One trend in CMS has seen the incorporation of autonomist Marxist theory, first introduced to the English-speaking world by the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000). New CMS scholars using these theories have interests in proposing alternative non-capitalist forms of organizing work and life - often built around the notion of collective responsibility for the commons. Other developments include engagements with post-colonial theory and critical race theory to investigate the way management and business schools contribute to what Cedric Robinson (1983) has called "racial capitalism". Recent critical works have referred to Bourdieusian theory (structuralist constructivism)[4][5] to point to the risks of elitism[6][7] and social inequality,[8] particularly in management education. Michael Loughlin of Manchester Metropolitan University has discussed aspects of management theory as "pseudo-science".[9]

Wider impatience with market-managerial forms of organization occur commonly enough outside the business school, from anti-corporate protests to popular-media presentations of managers. CMS attempts to articulate these voices within the business school, and to provide ways of thinking beyond current dominant theories and practices of organizations.


  1. ^ Engwall, L. 2004. The Americanization of Nordic management education. Journal of Management Inquiry, 13: 109–117.
  2. ^ Perriton, L. & Reynolds, M. 2004: Critical Management Education From Pedagogy of Possibility to Pedagogy of Refusal? Management Learning 35, 61-77
  3. ^ "Research themes". 2020-09-07. Retrieved 2022-05-22.
  4. ^ Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J. C. 1977. Reproduction in education, society and culture. London: Sage.
  5. ^ Bourdieu, P. 2005. The social structures of the economy. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  6. ^ Vaara, E., & Faÿ, E. 2011. How can a Bourdieusian perspective aid analysis of MBA education? Academy of Management Learning and Education, 10: 27–39.
  7. ^ Vaara, E., & Faÿ, E. 2012. Reproduction and change on the global scale: A Bourdieusian perspective on management education. Journal of Management Studies, 49: 1023–1051.
  8. ^ Lueg, K., & Lueg, R. 2015. Why do students choose English as a medium of instruction? A Bourdieusian perspective on the study strategies of non-native English speakers. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 14: 5-30.
  9. ^ For example: Loughlin, Michael (2002). "4. The pseudo-science of management". Ethics, management, and mythology: Rational decision making for health service professionals. Radcliffe Series. Abingdon: Radcliffe Medical Press. pp. 77–91. ISBN 9781857755749. Retrieved 2016-04-19. In addition to the claim that 'quality' is somehow foundational to evaluation, such that to improve a service means to increase or improve its quality, we have seen that a key claim of management theory is that there are 'basic organisational criteria' common to all complex organisations (Berwick 1993, IHSM 1993, Laffel and Blumenthal 1993, Peters 1992). The existence of these common organisational criteria provides the basis for the claim that management is a science, a specific discipline with its own distinctive methods and principles, such that theories developed for the manufacturing sector [...] can meaningfully be applied to the project of improving such radically different practices as healthcare and education. [...] Books like The Textbook of Total Quality have as much claim to the title of a work of 'science' as Malleus Maleficarum.
  • Alvesson, M and Willmott, H (eds) (1992) Critical Management Studies. London: Sage.
  • Alvesson, M and Willmott, H (eds) (2003) Studying Management Critically. London: Sage.
  • Braverman, H (1974) Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  • Fournier, V and Grey, C (2000) 'At the Critical Moment'. Human Relations.
  • Parker, M (2002) Against Management: Organisation in the Age of Managerialism. Oxford: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-2926-1.
  • Grey, C. and Willmott, H.C. (2005), Critical Management Studies: A Reader, Oxford University Press

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