Turun kauppakorkeakoulun tieteenfilosofinen kerho

Criticizing the criticizing of criticizing

TSElosophers meeting 7.2.2017
Milla Wirén, Kari Lukka, Katja Einola, Jonathan Mumford

Critical performativity: The unfinished business of critical management studies,
André Spicer, Mats Alvesson and Dan Kärreman
Human relations, 2009

Quick summary:

Our discussion focused on the aforementioned paper, which criticizes critical management studies for being negative without offering alternatives – and which follows its own advice in providing not only critique of status quo of CMS but also five practical ways of developing more constructive research with an aim to have actualizing effects on management, organizations or even the society. We generally liked the paper: it is very well written up and produces a clear and helpful argument – which is yet not without any issues.

We identified four key issues in our discussion:

  • the concept of performativity is interpreted in two different ways in the article without at any point thoroughly discussing the concept (e.g. the Merton reference is lacking).
  • the epistemological dimension is somewhat lacking, which makes the article leaning a bit towards a consulting piece rather than being article that builds on, mobilises or advances any epistemological resources.
  • it can be debated whether CMS actually has an impact already as the nay-sayer, as maybe the world requires both the deconstructive forces of criticism and the reconstructive forces that think about heterotopias
  • the “art of packaging” is just as vital in research as it is in other spheres of life: while it should not override the content (which it unfortunately also in the academic realm exceedingly does), this paper is exemplary in how to draft an article that is enjoyable to read.

In the upcoming sessions the role of researchers in the world seem to merit deeper delving – why do we do what we do? How do we or why should we differ from consultants? How does the episteme play out in this puzzle?


Longer outline of discussion:

The beef of the paper emerges out of the need for having reconstruction in the wake of deconstruction carried out in critical management studies. While criticizing the status quo of mainstream management studies for their performativity in strengthening the prevalent worldview with its existing power structures is valuable in highlighting problematic issues pertaining to e.g. equality and emancipation, it is only one step, in itself not sufficient in inducing change to whatever it is that could be deemed better. The problem identified by the authors is that critical studies tend to be polarizing and negative without offering alternatives, so their emphasis is on aiming at a more concrete research agenda on how to conduct meaningful critical management studies with practical relevance from within the field rather than criticizing it from the outside without offering alternatives. The authors suggest five pragmatic ways in which we can engage with the traditional field of management discourses in a gradual and iterative manner to induce change through microemancipation instead of laying out disruptive concepts that are more theoretically interesting than of practical relevance.

As such, the paper is kin to approach Bent Flyvbjerg (2001) takes in promoting phronetic wisdom, the key similarity being the emphasis on “doing social science that matters”. The relationship is also revealed in the lackadaisical attitude towards epistemology, the discussion of how can we know what we know and use as the foundation of our actions. Where Flyvbjerg outright dismisses the importance of epistemology in social science, claiming that we anyhow cannot reach such a level of theoretical knowledge building as is possible in natural sciences, the lack of emphasis on epistemology is mostly written in between the lines of the Spicer et al paper, evident in their focus on the practical impacts of management research on management.

This lack of focus on the philosophical issues highlights the strongly political nature of the Spicer et al. paper. The paper sets questions of epistemology and ontology on the side on purpose to focus on taking a political ‘sidestep’ towards achieving a more concrete research agenda on how to conduct meaningful critical management studies with practical relevance from within the field rather than criticizing it from the outside without offering alternatives. The rather implicit epistemological stance here leans on critical realism in the sense as in order to be able to change ‘something’, the existence of a ‘structure’ is necessary and suggests ‘the creation of mysteries’ as a possible method implying a preference towards abduction as a method for theorizing. The paper is excellently packaged and written for a specific audience, reminding the critical scholars criticizing the existing institutions that they are very strongly a part of the same institutions they criticize. However the scarcity of the epistemological dimension in the paper triggers the question of what is actually the difference between a researcher and a consultant (or is it merely the affiliation they work for)? It is left open what is the intended role of scientific understanding in the project that the paper suggests – or could the paper be equally read as a set of instructions to a consultant for better advising managers in creating “better” organizations?

Our discussion identified two levels of the notion “performativity” in the article: the performativity anchored in the means/ends effectiveness/efficiency thinking that is being criticized by the CMS stream, and the performativity Spicer et al. call for. So while the concept of performativity is elemental to the article, in our view the authors could be more clear in defining their understanding of the concept – to what extent do they for example subscribe to the mertonian notion of self-fulfilling prophesies? What is performativity – is all action performative, because to act is to trigger consequences as discussed in e.g. the actor-network-theory? Or does performativity – in order to be conceptualized as such – require both an acknowledgement of a set of ends (be they monetary or more “humanitarian”) towards which the performativity acts?

However, in our understanding the performativity of this paper bleeds into this interface between researchers and consultants with its strong practical, outright pragmatist approach. The five suggestions of how to do research that contributes to changing the organizations for the “better” could be adopted by any consultant interested in the same theme. This led our discussion towards thinking about the role of research in general – if everything we do is anyway performative (if we choose to define the concept as actions aligned against some set of scale of ends), couldn’t the agenda of the critical management studies already be performative enough in its ambition to increase the episteme, the theoretical knowledge about the hypocrisy and contradictions ample in the contemporary society?

In essence, if we position our ambition as scholars (and TSElosophers?) from “merely” pointing out what is wrong to suggesting how things could be “better” through enacting performativity not geared towards the mainstream ends set on the monetary scale, what are the elements that we as researchers could contribute to that pursuit beyond being “mere” consultants for a more emancipated, equal, ecologically solid and overall humanitarian way of doing business? This question was left unanswered in the Spicer et al. paper, which makes it interesting fodder for thought in future TSElosophers discussions.




I still think VERY critical studies are needed to bring out to light gender, diversity, colonial (see e.g. ‘Orientalism’ by Said that shows how patronizing and culturally colored the prevalent understanding of what Orient is…. This important work would have been impossible to do with increments from ‘within’), etc. There are many imbalances that mark our understanding (or lack thereof) of what Knowledge is (‘white man’s Cartesian tradition including stuff like ‘the invisible hand’ and ‘nature and people seen as mere resources , inputs to produce outputs’). So this way Spicer et al. paper is just a bland version of this tradition offering ways to make more incremental changes from within a given field. But it does a good job at selling the proposed concept and anchoring it in CMS.



Here I suggest a counter argument to the article for the sake of discussion. The authors suggest that, by focusing on anti-performativity, CMS gives itself an image problem. It resembles the annoying person in the back who constantly identifies, bemoans and decries all their perceived problems with the status quo without ever suggesting potential solutions and, even more annoyingly, doing so while clearly enjoying the benefits the status quo provides. The negativity in the language that this person uses even has the effect of generating unnecessary resistance from others to what may be an important message. To remedy this, the authors suggest that CMS should rather present a nicer, more pleasant face; offering potential solutions in a less antagonistic manner. However, the question is will ‘acting nice’ help the cause of CMS or might it work against it?

As it stands, CMS (in all its negativity) may already be sufficiently performative in its anti-performativity. The authors note that CMS “at least in the UK” has had a degree of success due to the fact that scholars offering critique often achieve a good level of throughput, and that anti-performativity is “preached at conferences and in the pages of journal articles”. They mention this in the context of taking a jab anti-performative perspective scholars’ hypocrisy in deriving personal benefit from the systems they seek to destroy. However, I would argue they are simply working their within an existing system they disagree with in order to disseminate their message to the wider world – not hypocritical unless they then complain once the message has taken effect (it is suggested that this is what happens, but that is just a strawman argument). My point is, yes, anti-performativity is performative. The ends these scholars seek are social changes, and they pursue these ends efficiently by being the messengers who are revealing to the world the message of what is wrong with the status-quo. That is where their role ends, and that is where the issue is picked up by other actors, whether they are other scholars, policy makers, organisations, or even just the general public, whose role it is to demand, find, or create the solutions.

My counter argument is, therefore, if CMS scholars are to put on a nice face, to become solution finders, benevolent seekers of micro-emancipations, will this dilute their role as malcontent, loud and vocal complainers? Why is it not sufficient that these individuals are getting the message out there through the means available to them (journal articles, conferences, books, press-releases)? Is the negative image of anti-performativity actually a problem, or is it in fact its key asset? Would the changes (for the better) that we have seen in society and management over the years been achieved through a ‘soft touch’ or were they the result of loud, negative, and sustained criticism? Perhaps it is best if we leave CMS scholars to do what they do best, critiquing, and leave the affirmation, care, pragmatic exploration of normative potentialities, to others who hear their message of a need for change

1 Comment

  1. Otto

    I read the blog, it is well-written. I can almost imagine that I participated to the meeting. There is a general introduction to the topic, but also multiple voices are retained. This format seems to be very powerful one.

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