Critical Theory refers to a body of critical analysis otherwise

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Critical Theory refers to a body of critical analysis otherwise

Sage Dictionary of Qualitative Management Research

Entry : Critical Theory

Author : Hugh Willmott

    Critical Theory (CT) refers to an intellectual movement also known as the Frankfurt School whose central figures include Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm and, of greatest contemporary importance, Jürgen Habermas. It forms a central part of a wider, radical tradition of politically engaged analysis that stands in direct opposition to various forms of leftist and rightist dogma and tyranny. The diversity of CT - in terms of its members' indebtedness to a wide range of critical thinking (e.g. Marx, Freud, Nietzsche) - is connected by a concern to apply elements of sociology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, economics and psychology to critique the necessity, and challenge the basis, of contemporary forms of alienation and oppression.

    At the core of CT is a concern to develop more rational, enlightened social relations from the interpersonal to the international - through a process of critical reflection upon, and transformation of, existing institutions. CT has had a deep and extensive impact upon the development of social science, including the study of management where it has been a significant contributory influences in the formation of Critical Management Studies (Alvesson and Willmott, 1992). However, CT’s impact upon social science has occurred as a consequence of being imbibed as a deep and refreshing reservoir of ideas rather than as an approach that has been seized upon as a blueprint, or unified standpoint, for conducting research. There are, for this reason, rather few students of management who are devoted advocates or followers of CT but many who have been touched by its far-reaching influence.

Methodology : Social Science for Emancipatory Change

    At least since the Enlightenment, the powers of critical reasoning have been applied to challenge and overturn oppressive institutions - including witchcraft, slavery and, more recently, the patriarchal denial of universal suffrage. In common with other contemporary strands of critical thinking (e.g. Foucauldianism, poststructuralism), CT draws upon this legacy to scrutinise the rationality of contemporary practices - such as the rationality of relentless economic expansion as it feeds upon and magnifies acquisitiveness, divisiveness and destruction. Since management theory and practice are centrally implicated in advancing and legitimising such developments, they become relevant targets of CT-informed analysis.

    In terms of methods, CT is pluralist. It can accommodate almost any method of data collection and analysis, whether quantitative or qualitative, so long as it is self-critically applied with respect to its claims to objectivity and is mindful of the human purpose of knowledge production with respect to its emancipatory and/or enslaving conditions and consequences. The orientation of CT to methodology is therefore fundamentally critical and political. Amongst key and interrelated themes of CT are (i) the critique of positivist science; (ii) the critique of technocracy; (iii) an emphasis upon communicative action; and (iv) the critique of one-dimensionality and consumerism.

The critique of positivist science. A rosy view of science, pictured as the

    benevolent agent of enlightenment, was forcefully challenged by Horkheimer and Adorno (1947) in The Dialectics of Enlightenment where they argued that modern

    civilization has become progressively mesmerised by a one-sided, means-ends (instrumental) conception of reason. Whenever the connection of scientific knowledge to an interest in emancipation is lost or taken-for-granted, science becomes an ideology that operates as a force of domination - for example, in the ruthless exploitation of scarce natural resources and in the pursuit of scientific knowledge for dehumanising and destructive purposes. It is not difficult to see how a positivist conception of `objective knowledge' has filtered into the field of management through processes of quantification and the development of seemingly impartial means of legitimising instrumental rationalizations - from Scientific Management through Human Relations to Business Process Reengineering.

    The critique of technocracy. Technocracy is distinguished by its denial of the role of moral-practical concerns in processes of social development such that the ends of human existence are assumed to be self-evident or to be beyond rational debate. In the (technocratic) selection of means, decision-making is deemed to be the province of experts (technocrats) who, because they are considered to be most knowledgeable or best informed, are assigned responsibility for identifying the most efficient and/or effective way of achieving given ends. The absence of industrial democracy and the associated formation of managerial elites that are unaccountable to subordinates is symptomatic of technocracy - whether capitalist or socialist in inspiration. Technocratic consciousness is criticised because it fails to acknowledge that, far from being value-free or neutral, it is constitutive of a particular kind of social order in which non-experts are effectively disenfranchised : there is no debate about ends; and experts determine the means. To counter the tendency for (bourgeois) democracy to degenerate and drift towards technocracy, Habermas stresses the importance of distinguishing communicative rationality, which exposes and removes restrictions upon

    communication (see next section), from instrumental rationality which serves

    solely to develop and strengthen (technocratic) systems of purposive-rational action.

An emphasis upon communicative action. Habermas contends that all

    communication, including that which facilitates instrumental rationality, depends upon a structure of understandings (e.g. the understanding that utterances will be truthful which can nonetheless be doubted in the process of communication) that makes possible processes of dialogue through which it is possible to reach a rational consensus. Habermas understands this `universal pragmatics' to be a condition of communication; and that practical realization is anticipated by its embeddedness in the very structure of language. Insofar as it is only imperfectly fulfilled, the frustrations and sufferings, manifest as communicative distortions, which accompany its partial realization, are conceived to operate as recurrent and potent sources of motivation for emancipatory change. The contemporary emergence of social movements (e.g. anti-globalization, ecology, peace, animal rights, etc) outside of formally democratic institutions is illustrative of the questioning of received wisdom and standardized patterns of behaviour. Such movements are celebrated as manifestations of a vibrant lifeworld of face-to -face interaction where, despite the pacifying effects of the mass media and pressures to accept received wisdoms, individuals advance and articulate a capacity for critical reflection and self-determination. Conversely, if the spurs to emancipatory transformation are unheeded, domesticated or suppressed, the prospect is for ethics and democracy to be progressively weakened and eventually to `disappear behind the interest in the expansion of our power of technical control' (Habermas, 1971 : 113).

Critique of one-dimensionality and consumerism. The term `one-dimensional

    man' was coined by Marcuse (1964) to highlight how the organization of advanced capitalist societies frustrates or deflects the emancipatory impulses of oppositional movements - for example, through forms of `repressive tolerance'. In affluent societies, Marcuse argues, people are enjoined to become passive, unreflective consumers who, even as we are encouraged to pursue/consume our `careers', to buy premium `green' products from WalMart and Tesco and to watch the melting of the icecaps on TV, struggle to imagine forms of life that differ from the present. Instead of being applied to facilitate radical, qualitative improvements in the lives of people across the planet, human development is seen to be driven primarily by the logic - or illogic - of consumer capitalism that, in the name of increased satisfaction, spreads waste, destructiveness and avoidable misery.

Some Critical Reflections

    CT comprises a weighty and exceptionally broad set of intellectual resources for critiquing received wisdom and inspiring emancipatory action. It is not, however, without its limitations. Notably, radical feminism draws attention to a major blind spot in CT: the key importance of patriarchy as a source of domination. Another, related limitation is an emphasis upon cognitive processes to the neglect of embodiment. Both criticisms connect to a widely rehearsed complaint that CT is excessively `intellectual', making inadequate connections with local and

    mundane processes of emancipatory praxis. A person may become well versed in the theory of communicative action, for example, but this may exert little influence upon his or her day-to-day conduct. A further criticism is that CT’s

    advocacy of reflexivity does not extend to radical critical reflection upon the basis of its own (foundationalist) assumption of universal pragmatics. Finally, CT’s

    neglect of management in its key texts and studies - despite the centrality of management for `modernization' and the contemporary efforts to extend and contain `globalization' - is perhaps symptomatic of the potent, yet limited, nature of CTs engagement with day-to-day, practical processes of collective self-(trans)formation.


Alvesson, M. and Willmott, H.C. (1992), eds, Critical management studies,

    London : Sage

Habermas, J. (1971). Toward a rational society : Student protest, science and

    politics. London : Heinemann

    Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T. (1947). The dialectics of enlightenment. London : Verso

Marcuse, H. (1964). One-dimensional man : Studies in the ideology of advanced

    industrial society. Boston, MA : Beacon Press

    Morrow, R.A. and Brown, D.D. (1994), Critical Theory and Methodology, London : Sage

Recommended Reading

    M. Alvesson and H. Willmott (1976). Making Sense of Management : A Critical Introduction. London : Sage

    Held, D. (1980). Introduction to Critical Theory. London : Hutchinson

McCarthy, T. (1978). The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas. London :


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