The trouble with critique

When I join with others in offering a critique of dominant ways of thinking about managing organisations from a perspective informed by analogies from the complexity sciences I often experience a critique in return. This is to be expected in the sense that if there was no reaction then I would would scarcely be offering a critique, and/or the dominant discourse would not be dominating. In order to dominate certain ways of understanding the world are expressed and re-expressed in slightly different form as they encounter resistance. In my turn, and for colleagues trying to work with a similar perspective, our ideas encounter resistance and are hardened, refined or changed . This is the process of dialectic.

However, there are some common themes in the resistance to the critique that we offer.

The first is that our critique  is somehow ‘negative’ and does not offer anything ‘positive’ in its place. To this criticism I would borrow the political philosopher Raymond Geuss’ defence:

‘…any society has a tendency to try to mobilise human inertia in order to protect itself as much as possible from radical change, and one main way in which this can be done is through the effort to impose the requirement of ‘positivity’ or ‘constructivenesson potential critics; you can’t criticise the police system, the system of labour law, the organisation of the health services unless you have a completely elaborated, positive alternative to propose.’ (Philosophy and Real Politics, 2008)

Along with Geuss I reject the idea that there is a requirement to offer fully worked out alternatives, partly because the critique itself offers a small step towards that alternative. Our critique is an invitation to think and is not intended to replace one model with another. Otherwise there is always a danger of falling in to the trap of  feeling obliged to offer simplistic solutions: don’t do this, but do this instead, thus adding to the list of rules and prescriptions that so pervade the field of management theory.

The second theme of resistance to the critique I and other colleagues offer is an elaboration of the first point, and often arises from the method of paying attention to how theories get taken up in particular organinisations, whether people are aware that they are taking up theories or not. Sometimes the critique manifests itself as an accusation that one is confusing the ‘is’ with the ‘ought’. In other words, by focusing on what actually happens in organisations rather than what should be happening, one is somehow missing the point, missing the ‘big picture’. The reason for paying attention to what is rather than what should be, and for noticing how people take up generalised theories in practice  is because I am part of a school of thought more interested in how the general is taken up in particular contexts, how the general is made functional.  In other words we are working with a theory of social change that privileges the idea that the patterning of local interaction brings about social change, rather than assuming that social change arises directly and only out of general theory which is taken up everywhere the same. This is not to argue that idealised theory plays no role in social change, because clearly it does. But the way that it is taken up, the resistance it encounters from other theories and social constraints will determine whether it becomes an innovative theory or not. Paying attention empirically to the practice of the theory allows one to form an evaluative judgement, which involves criticism. It also means drawing attention to power relations, how people constrain and enable each other and offering some explanations of why this might be so, which often get ignored in idealised theorising.

Drawing on analogies from complex adaptive systems theory,  we would argue that global patterning arises simply and only because of the activities of agents engaged in local interactions, while the global patterning constrains what local interactions are possible. Without understanding how general and idealised theories are taken up in practice, we might argue, one is thrown back on further ungrounded abstract theorising. Failure to enquire into what happens in practice is a missed evaluative opportunity.

If one were to take the view that management is a skill and a craft which is practised in particular contexts where history and relationships of power between people are determinants of what arises it becomes harder to be satisfied with the idea that practice moves on with a mastery of a set of abstract principles or theories. If good management is about judgement, about becoming aware and giving an account of which theories are being used and why, further theorising alone does not help one avoid making the necessary judgements.


One thought on “The trouble with critique

  1. sbilling

    Yes, I myself have felt at times that the whole critical school of management theory suffers from providing a range of criticisms of dominant practice or theory, without proposing alternatives.

    And yet I find myself critiquing what appears to be taken for granted by others. Often a critique is pointing out aspects of current practice that have hitherto gone unnoticed. This can threaten well-established identities and also can be a challenge to powerful interests. No wonder defensive or aggressive responses are common.

    I have found myself challenged many times to consider what I recommend instead of the current practice that I am critiquing. While I tend to resile from providing such recipes, in part because these recipes are part of the problem, nevertheless I constantly find myself advocating noticing what is actually going on around us rather than what ought to be, or what will be happening when we have achieved our ideal future.


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