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« Academy o/Manoffement Review, 1986, Vol 11, No. 2, 322-336.

A Critical Theory of Organization


BRIAN D. STEFFY
University of Minnesota
ANDREW J. GRIMES
University of Kentucky
Critical theory is presented as a general method for analyzing an
organization science based on either a natural science or interpretive
paradigm. This is accomplished by introducing epistemic inquiry into
organization science methodology. Specifically, critical theory pro-
vides a means of examining the socio-political interplay among the
researcher, the research enterprise, the practitioner, and the organi-
zation members. Such an analysis requires the examination of
ideology, technology, and praxis.

Recent critiques of organizational science re- and methodological rigor leads to specific expla-
veal widespread doubts concerning an empiri- nations of organizational phenomena as opposed
cal-analytic research agenda. The term "empiri- to generalized ones (Mitroff & Kilmann, 1978;
cal-analytic" refers to an organizational science Silverman, 1970). Other doubts revolve around
modeled after the natural science approach, the philosophical assumptions underlying the
whose aim is to "establish general laws which empirical-analytic approach. These doubts have
can serve as instruments for systematic explana- been debated in the human sciences for some
tion and dependable prediction" (Nagel, 1979, time. For example, the objectivity of facts is now
p. 450). Some of these doubts have appeared viewed with suspicion by most researchers
regularly in the literature: there exists a gap (Ratcliffe, 1983). "Facts" should be seen as poten-
between theory and practice (Argyris, 1972; Frost, tially laden with socially-constructed values and
1980; Louis, 1983; Shrivastava & Mitroff, 1984; structures largely imposed by dominant coali-
Thomas & Tymon, 1982); the bulk of organiza- tions (Campbell & Cook, 1979; Gergen 1978, 1985;
tional research focuses on static issues, not impor- Kuhn, 1970; Mannheim, 1982; Poppser, 1959; Zey-
tant conceptual issues such as power, class, Ferrell & Aiken, 1981). More generally, organiza-
conflict, politics, and ideology (Burrell & Morgan, tional researchers have begun to systematically
1979; Cicourel, 1964; Ferrell & Peterson, 1982; question the soundness of the philosophical
Zey-Ferrell & Aiken, 1981); theory borne of or- assumptions which underlie an empirical-
ganizational research may be ideological and analytic organization science. These concerns
an instrument of control over the social organiza- largely revolve around questions of ontology,
tion (Daft & Wiginton, 1979; Fischer, 1984; Frost, epistemology and methodology (Fischer, 1984;
1980; Hambrick & Mason, 1984; Pfeffer, 1982; Louis, 1983; Mitroff & Kilmann, 1978; Mitroff &
Perrow, 1979); there has been an over-emphasis Mason, 1982; Morgan & Smircich, 1980; Silver-
on research by outsiders (academic researchers) man, 1970).
as opposed to insiders (Evered & Louis, 1981); In light of these doubts, organizational scien-
Requests for reprints should be sent to Brian D. Steffy, tists have been encouraged to engage in more
Industrial Relations Center, 271 19th Ave. So., Minneapolis, rigorous research, conscious of the limits of their
MN, 55455. method (Behling & Dillard, 1984; Cook & Camp-

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bell, 1979; Dansereau, Alutto, & Yammarino, framework for systematically introducing philo-
1984; Lundberg, 1976; Pinder & Bourgeois, 1982; sophical critique into organizational research.
Shrivastava & Mitroff, 1984; Thomas & Tyman, Critical theory begins with the assumption that
1982). Other researchers, however, suggest a one can rationally critique various modes of
departure from the natural science agenda. They science. The paper is presented in four stages.
suggest that researchers employ interpretive, or First, an overview of two interpretive modes of
hermeneutical, modes of inquiry (Morey & inquiry are briefly outlined; phenomenology and
Luthans, 1984; Morgan & Smircich, 1980; hermeneutics. This discussion is provided be-
Shrivastava & Mitroff, 1984). For example, Hus- cause, even though these approaches have
serlian phenomenology (Sanders, 1982), ethno- become a major force in the organizational
methodology (Bartunek, 1984; Hackman, 1976; literature, the philosophies underlying these
Morey & Luthans, 1984; Sanday, 1979), and ideo- methods have rarely been discussed. Further,
graphic studies (Grimes & Cornwall, 1984; because critical theory draws heavily from her-
Mintzberg, 1973), have been proposed as alter- meneutics, such an understanding is valuable.
native sciences. It should be noted, however, The second half of the paper discusses critical
that the interpretive position may be as suspect theory as a normative model for organizational
as the empirical-analytic position, both in terms research. Critical theory does not reject an em-
of its criticisms of the natural science approach pirical-analytic or interpretive science, it
and in the adequacy of its own methods. As merely rejects any science that reduces philo-
pointed out by Cook and Campbell (1979), many sophical critique to some normative methodo-
criticisms of a positivist social science are unfair logy. Critical theory claims to be an empirical
because contemporary researchers now realize and practical philosophy which incorporates
the naivete of the assumptions underlying a strict epistemological concerns such as the relation-
natural science approach to social science. Sub- ship between method and theory and the social
jective, or qualitative, analysis has become an consequences of theory validated through parti-
important facet of quantitative research (Ratcliffe, cular modes of research into methodology. As
1983). such, it requires two forms of analysis: (a) a tax-
It also is suggested the interpretive agenda is onomic analysis of the ontological, epistemolo-
as suspect as the natural science approach gical, and methodological concerns underlying
because it, too, employs a monological form of organization science; and (b) a critique (based
reasoning which may exclude certain topics of on this analysis) of the dynamic interplay be-
discourse (McCarthy, 1978). Subjective ap- tween organizational research, theory, and
proaches are especially vulnerable to biases practice. These constitute the main part of this
implicit in the culturally-conditioned perspective paper. Here critical theory significantly broad-
of the researcher. Further, there exists the prob- ens the philosophical component of research.
lem of validation (Bernstein, 1983). How can we According to critical theorists, the natural sci-
verify, with some confidence, that an interpreta- ence and interpretive approaches largely con-
tion is true? fine their criticism to whether research was con-
The intent of this paper is not to add to the list ducted according to rules prescribed by that
of problems of a natural science or interpretive methodology. A comprehensive range of episte-
research agenda. Instead, by presenting a cri- mological questions is not asked. Finally, a brief
tical theory of organization science, the present example of how organizational researchers
authors offer a normative and comprehensive might apply critical theory is presented.

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Phenomenology and Henneneutics: dental ego). Objective and true organizational
An Overview phenomena are then empirically revealed and
their meanings understood. Theories are de-
Phenomenology rived inductively by aggregating the patterns of
Husserlian phenomenology, unlike an em- these meanings. Verification of knowledge can
pirical-analytic organization science, begins be accomplished only by evaluating the capac-
with the assumption that researchable organi- ity of the researcher to exp>erience pure mean-
zational theories are second-level constructs. ings. The scientific community could verify knowl-
First-level constructs are thoje thoughts and edge insofar as there exists a corroboration of
experiences that organizational actors have meanings derived from the experiences of many
already preinterpreted and prestructured; phenomenologists.
they are socially-constructed phenomena prior
Henneneutics
to scientific observation (Fassnacht, 1982; Mc-
Carthy, 1978). First-order concepts are the facts Hermeneutics, defined as the art of textual
observed in research while second-order con- interpretation (Burrell & Morgan, 1979), had its
cepts are the theories that explain organization beginnings in jurisprudence and theology where
phenomena. attempts were made to interpret biblical and
From the phenomenological perspective, an legal texts within the socio-cultural context of
empirical-analytic organization science is meth- their inception (Ricoeur, 1966). Henneneutics
odologically naive in assuming that first-level (developed through the works of Dilthey, Heideg-
observed facts are objective and value-free, and ger's existentialism, and, more recently, Gadamer
that abstract second-level concepts represent or and Ricoeur) goes beyond Husserlian phenome-
explain law-like and stable meanings (Atwood nology in rejecting the notion that meanings can
& Stolorow, 1984). Organizational facts are not be objectively and directly perceived. Instead,
objective, but socially sustained through day-to- hermeneutical analysis assumes that organiza-
day organizational existence. Second-order con- tional meanings can only be approximated. First-
structs are really "interpretations of interpreta- level organizational constructs must be interpre-
tions" (VanMaanen, 1979). Phenomenology ted as "symbolic representations" (Schroyer,
claims that stable and law-like explanations of 1973). These representations are historically cre-
organizational phenomena can be obtained only ated and thus can only be "translated" relative
by directly studying the meanings of first-level to their situational and historical context. There
concepts (Dallmeyer & McCarthy, 1977). will never occur a reproduction of original mean-
A phenomenological organization science ings (McCarthy, 1978).
requires that researchers (Evered & Louis, 1981) Hermeneutics emphasizes the historical dimen-
become participants in the organization, in sion of research. Drawing from socio-linguistics
order to reconstruct events and social processes and psychoanalysis, this method assumes that
from which organizational phenomena can be social processes and events are revealed only in
explained meaningfully. The aim of phenomen- light of the complex interaction between the
ology is to "make explicit the implicit structure researcher and the research-domain. The re-
and meaning of human experiences . . . the 'es- searcher is viewed as engaging in a complex
sences' that cannot be revealed by ordinary [po- enterprise of interpreting first-level constructs by
sitivist] observation" (Sanders, 1982, p. 354). To translating observed symbolic representations
observe these "essences," the observer must sus- (for example, ritual, myth) in their socio-historical
pend all judgment and preconceived notions of context, while bearing in mind that the re-
possible meanings, and observe organizational searcher's own socio-historical background is
phenomena from that perspective (transcen- influencing the translation. In other words, any

324
research project must assume that the observer, While critical theory applauds phenomenol-
the actual tools of observation (method), and the ogy and hermeneutics for their understanding
domain observed, are all historically created of a social science based on a natural science
entities. After all, one sees what one is trained to model, critical theory contends that these two
see (Silverman, 1970). Second-level constructs approaches possess three major failings. First,
derived from such a research enterprise reflect both forms of inquiry assume that a "quasi-
more the "traditions" underlying the observed divine" (hermeneutics less so) spectator seeks to
and the observer than any true meaning or gen- understand organizational laws through some
eral law (Bleicher, 1982). It is therefore evident form of "pure subjectivity," free from cognitive
that a hermeneutical investigation surrenders to or motivating interests (Habermas, 1971). Se-
a somewhat relativistic framework in which cond, they share the objectivist illusion of pure
"interpretation" is itself a reappropriation; a fur- theory. That is, they employ a monological line
ther development of the tradition to which the of reasoning. Third, both approaches fail to be
researcher and research-domain belong (Mc- an "inquiry of change" (Habermas, 1970; Mc-
Carthy, 1978). Carthy, 1978). In this sense, phenomenology and
In sum, the hermeneutical method forces the hermeneutics resemble a natural science ap-
researcher to reflect on three issues (Atwood & proach. All three assume some dominant form
Stolorow, 1984; Bleicher, 1982). First, the re- of reasoning (Dallmeyer & McCarthy, 1977).
searcher must view his/her self as an historical- Critical theory is most succinctly defined as an
ly produced entity; the researcher must realize empirical philosophy of social institutions.
his/her biases in engaging in research. Second, It may retain both an empirical-analytic and
the researcher must consider the specific context interpretive component, but each is placed within
and historical dimension of data collected (usu- a reflective system of epistemic inquiry. Critical
ally the tradition of the researcher and research- theory assumes that organization science is a
domain are the same). Finally, the researcher is social practice and as such, must give an account
forced to reflect on the relationship between the- of itself. This means that research should include
ory and history. All three of these hermeneutical a critical discussion of the subjective, or theoreti-
impjeratives provide a basis for contemporary cal, character of the observer and observed, as
critical theory. is the case in hermeneutics. Critical theory fur-
ther expands its epistemic critique to include: (a)
Critical Theory a discussion of the limitations of alternative
modes of inquiry; (b) an analysis of the relation-
Held (1980) suggested that defining critical ship between the community of organizational
theory can be problematic since the term does researchers and organizational practitioners
not mean the same thing to all of its adherents. and members; and (c) the acknowledgement of
Confusion is further compounded since, over the practical aim of any particular mode of
the past five decades, two distinct schools of research. In sum, critical theory assumes that
critical theory have emerged: the Frankfort theories, systems of knowledge, and facts are
School (Horkheimer, Adomo, Marcuse, Fromm) embedded in and reflect relativistic world-
and the contemporary critical theory of Jurgen views. Theories are merely insights and repre-
Habermas. This paper draws primarily from sent practical strategies to organizational prob-
Habermas' work. While the Frankfort School and lems. No absolute system of inquiry exists
Habermas differ in their approaches, the differ- (McCarthy, 1978).
ences are too subtle to depict in this paper. As a method, critical theory has two basic
[Those interested should see Marcus and Tar aims. First, critical theory includes a "critique of
(1984), Held (1980), or Warren (1984).] ideology"; namely, a critique of the "cult of

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scientism" in social theory/method (Geuss, 1982). logical, epistemological, and methodological
By "scientism," Habermas (1971) means an insti- assumptions (Bunge, 1983; Burrell & Morgan,
tutionalized form of reasoning which accepts the 1979). These terms are defined as follows: Onto-
idea that the meaning of knowledge is defined logical assumptions deal with the makeup of
by what the sciences do and thus can be ade- organizational reality; that is, whether it consists
quately explicated through analysis of scientific of actual and objective structures (realism), or
procedures (p. 67). When organization science whether organizational reality is symbolic and
reaches such theological proportions, other forms socially constructed through subjective processes
of reasoning (political, clinical), are displaced. (nominalism). Modem descriptive epistemology.
For example, in the research enterprise such traditionally the domain of philosophy, evalu-
subordination means that non-positivistic re- ates the relationships among knowledge, the
search may be defined as inferior by the incum- cognitive functioning of the inquiring subject,
bent academic elite; alternative approaches must and the social constraints on the inquiring sub-
justify their existence. On the organizational ject. Methodology, or normative epistemology
level, the domination of technical reasoning may (Bunge, 1983; Habermas, 1973), prescribes a
supercede other functional forms such as politi- method for acquiring, defining, classifying, and
cal reasoning enacted through communication verifying knowledge. Criticisms of methods are
and democratic processes. Scientism, enacted answered by checking the rules of inquiry speci-
in practice, may reduce individual "praxis" (for fied by the methodology (Bunge, 1983; McCarthy,
now, defined as the intentional organizing ac- 1978). In this sense, epistemology can be nor-
tions of subjective actors) to "techne," or tech- mative. Descriptive epistemology requires
nocratic reasoning (Habermas, 1973). To counter greater breadth of reflection. For example, it
scientism, critical theory advocates an organiza- requires an evaluation of the values embodied
tion science that incorporates an analysis of the in the research project, the proper means of vali-
ontological, epistemological, and methodologi- dating knowledge, and the practical social effects
cal assumptions underlying research. Such an of knowledge gained through research. Table 1
analysis argues against dominating forms of rea- summarizes the philosophical tenets underlying
son and forces discourse on the practicality of the four modes of inquiry discussed in this paper.
theory. For purposes of illustration, assume three lev-
The second aim of critical theory is to develop els of constructs in any research enterprise.
an organization science capable of changing Recall the first- and second-level constructs dis-
organizational processes. Instead of denying any cussed earlier. Now assume a third-level con-
motivating interest in conducting research (for struct that consists of the prestructured mean-
example, assuming that the researcher is value- ings and beliefs embodied in the researcher.
free), it might be explicitly stated that its purpose Within this context, Habermas (1971, 1973) might
is to minimize the "objectification" of organiza- claim that the potential weakness of any form of
tional actors. At this point, it is enough to say organization science is three-fold.
that such an analysis requires an investigation Facts Possess a Normative Epistemology of
of the dynamic interplay among research, Their Own. like the interpretive perspective, criti-
theory, practice, and organization members cal theory assumes that first-level constructs are
(the social structure of organization science). constituted by a normative epistemology in
The Interplay among Ontology, which organizational actors a n d events are
infused with values, beliefs, and attitudes. This
Epistemology« and Methodology normative culture is constructed through selec-
Discussion of the philosophies underlying tion, socialization, and the rules and procedures
organization science typically includes onto- of the internal labor market (Fischer, 1984; Geuss,

326
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1982). Therefore, if one assumes-away the sub- tion of descriptive epistemology, gives wcry to a
jective character of observed facts, knowledge discussion of the technical rules governing
gained in organization science is severely one- methodology. Methodology becomes the a priori,
sided and incomplete because the historical and and the validity of knowledge, historically the
ideological facets of facts have been neglected. domain of philosophy, is reduced to an evalua-
As indicated earlier, most researchers accept tion of the adecjuacy of experimental design and
the notion that facts are theory-laden. As sug- analysis.
gested by McCarthy (1978), however, many
researchers recognize the theory-ladeness of Research, Theory , Practice, and
facts, yet they still engage in research as if the Praxis: A Critical Theory
research-domain was objective.
The Research Enterprise Is Enacted in the Con- A focus on epistemic issues forces a more com-
text of a Normative Epistemology. Critical theory prehensive reflection upon the research enter-
assumes that the "worldview" of the researcher prise. Critical theory extends analysis of the
constitutes a third-level construct. Theorists and ontological, epistemologicxil, and methodologi-
researchers are not assumed to be objective and cal assumptions underlying organization science
value-free, but are seen as laden with beliefs to an analysis of the practical relations between
and values obtained through training, peer- research, theory, technology, practice, praxis
group influences, and the goals and structures and ideology. The following propositions tie
of the research enterprise itself (Gergen, 1978; together much of Habermas' thinking as it relates
Howard, 1985; Krupp, 1961). These forces guide, to organization science. These propositions
constrain, and constitute a normative epistem- brcxjden critique to include the socnal context of
ology for research; a universal or dominant organizational research. It should be noted that
method for acquiring knowledge (Bunge, 1983; these propositions are normative in the sense
Pfeffer, 1982). According to Habermas (1971), that Habermas' critical theory is a description of
every research paradigm has a "cognitive intent" modem bureaucratic institutions and the role of
(an aim, intentional or unintentional, with practi- science in forming and legitimizing these institu-
cal consequences). The professed aim of critical tions.
theory is the practical change of organizational Research and Theory Influence Organiza-
structures to facilitate the emancipation of the tional Practice Through Technical Reasoning.
subjective component of institutional actors. The Habermas (1970) distinguishes between two
intentional aim of phenomenology and herme- worlds of knowledge: the scientific world of for-
neutics is the understanding of practical and con- mal law-like statements derived objectively
crete organization phenomena. The intended through the observation and measurement of
aim of an organization science based on the assumed neutral and objective facts, and the
natural science model is the successful manipu- social-life, or practical world that consists of the
lation of the organization (the prediction and con- symbolically shared private experiences of sub-
trol of social processes and events). This leads jective actors. Assuming this distinction, the
directly to a normative organizational order question arises: what is the relationship between
based upon nomological knowledge and techni- organization science and organization practice?
cal rules (Habermas, 1970). Following the logic of Habermas (1973), and
Descriptive Epistemology is Reduced to Meth- consistent with the observations of Thomas and
odology. From the perspective of critical theory, Tymon (1982) and Shrivastava and Mitroff (1984),
much of organization science reduces descrip- conventional organization science does not have
tive epistemology to methcxiology. As pointed a direct bearing on practice. The effect is indirect.
out by Miller (1983), criticism, the practical func- In other words, organization science itself is not

328
a medium of practical change. Instead, knowl- verifiable criteria. In the latter case, it is vali-
edge gained through research is transformed dated through consensus [the group norms,
into practice only through decision makers who beliefs, and values socially constructed through
employ technologies and technical reasoning. group experience and shared history (Davis,
Technology and technical reasoning mediate 1969; Hackman, 1976; Weick, 1969)].
between knowledge and practice. Technology, From a socio-linguistic perspective, groups
in and of itself, is socially neutral; that is it is not construct and possess a language of their own
a means of control. Such a conceptualization is consisting of shared symbols. It is through this
consistent with Argyris (1972) who spoke of tech- language that meanings become objective and
nical reasoning as enacted through "theories in are communicated (Habermas, 1979). Such a
use," or decision theories. Meyer (1984) further perspective is consistent with Silverman's (1970)
states that decision theories are really "decision whose action-frame-of-reference requires an
metaphors" that, when implemented by deci- organizational analysis that centers upon the
sion makers, translate theory into practice. It constellations of meanings produced by individ-
should be pointed out that in the present context, uals and actors. These meanings result in social
"technology" is both material and behavioral. structures if they are continually sustained and
Organizational development (Cobb & Margulies, reaffirmed in organizational life. The language
1981), management by objectives (Pringle & underlying these meanings is characterized by
Longenecker, 1982), performance appraisal, and high variety and ambiguity (Daft & Wiginton,
other practice-oriented activities drawn from 1979). Such a language allows social actors to
organizational behavior/theory, industrial/or- communicate while enabling the group to con-
ganizational psychology, and human resource trol the communication process (Feldman,
management all constitute behavioral tech- 1984). According to Habermas (1979), the social
nologies, or theories in use. This is not to say unit must have some control over language,
that a discipline like human resource manage- communication, and the construction of mean-
ment does not have an impact on practice. Criti- ing to validate knowledge arising both from
cal theory merely states that these disciplines inside and outside the group.
only have an impact on practice through the When communicative consensus, however, is
mediating effects of decision rules. This is a sub- displaced by technical rationality, the valida-
tle but important point. In and of themselves, tion of knowledge is functionally taken away from
organization-related disciplines remain merely the social unit. Technical rationality imposes a
neutral technologies. Only when technologies one-directional, specialized, and precise lan-
and theories are put into use do problems occur. guage with low variety (Daft & Wiginton, 1979;
The following section expands on this point. Hummel, 1977). Under such conditions, organi-
Research and Theory Contribute to a Norma- zational knowledge is validated, not by shared
tive Social Order Based on Technical Rules and consensus, but along a priori, objective criteria
Not Communicative Consensus. Habermas (1979) (McCarthy, 1978). Practical questions are trans-
distinguishes between two modes of action: (a) formed into technical questions. As a result,
"purposive-rational" action, in which social order technology, once neutral, becomes a means of
is built upon technical reasoning and the social social control (see Comstock & Scott, 1977; Ed-
actor is viewed as an instrument for obtaining wards, 1979; Stanfield, 1976). Technical reason-
the goals of the order; and (b) "communicative" ing becomes a normative force in determining
action, in which social order is normatively practice and, subsequently, the day-to-day expe-
defined through the reciprocal, social exchange rience of members subjected to the practice.
of subjective actors. In the former case, organiza- 'Praxis' is Reduced to Techne.' For Aristotle,
tional knowledge is validated against objectively "praxis" referred to the sphere of human action.

329
particularly human action within the "polis," or of ultimately emancipating human potential. A
political-ethical community (McCarthy, 1978). The commitment to praxis therefore requires a con-
use of the term has varied since then, though stant commitment to establishing the conditions
not dramatically. For Habermas (1973), praxis is for organizational change. This definition is con-
more narrowly defined as self-generated politi- sistent with Habermas' in the sense that, for
cal action. His concern is primarily with collec- Habermas, the social scientist's purpose is to
tive praxis, in which, through shared language, unify theory, practice, and praxis in order to lib-
history, and communicative action, social mem- erate social members. To understand this im-
bers rationally construct their own conditions of perative, it is essential to understand critical
institutional existence. theory's depiction of the relationship among the-
Habermas' notion of praxis has been criticized ory, practice, and praxis in modem institutions
by other social scientists as too narrow (see that employ technologies and in technical rea-
Bernstein, 1983; Heydebrand & Burris, 1984; soning which is supported by empirical-analytic
Warren, 1984). These social scientists feel that science.
praxis is enacted in many realms: political, When, in organizational practice, communi-
aesthetic, production, and moral. They favor a cative action is displaced by purposive-rational
definition that treats praxis more generally as action based upon the instrumental-technical
either the process of transcending alienation or application of theory, praxis is systematically
the self-determined act of furthering human withdrawn. In the words of Habermas (1973),
development and maturation. This broader praxis is reduced to "techne," or to instrumental
definition is consistent with that of Sartre (1976) activity externally determined by technical rea-
who defines praxis as the process of historical soning. Problems of praxis are reduced to
totalization, or the activities taken by individuals those of technical control and manipulation, re-
and groups in attempting to attain some end. It sulting in a serious depoliticization of the or-
is also consistent with Benson (1983), who de- ganization (Warren, 1984). The consequential
fines praxis as any rational and practical effort withdrawal of the subjective self from the or-
to construct our social world. ganizational decision making and change pro-
Here, however, a narrower definition such as cesses, whether on the level of language, com-
Habermas' may be the most appropriate. His munication, politics, job design, or leadership,
definition is generally consistent with that of results in "alienation" (Burrell & Morgan, 1979).
Benson (1977), who, in an organizational con- That is, alienation is the objectification of the
text, defines praxis as: subjective self.
the free and creative reconstruction of social Normative Consensus is Sustained Through
arrangements on the basis of a reasoned analy- Ideology. Critical theory has to answer the ques-
sis of both the limits and the potentials of social tion: If organizational change and social pro-
forms, (p. 5) cesses are increasingly governed by objectifying
Benson (1977) continues by pointing out that, for technical rationality at the expense of intersub-
organization science, a "commitment to praxis" jective, communicative action, how do organiza-
requires a description and understanding of tions attain and sustain consensus among their
those situations where individuals, through ratio- members? Under the negative conditions out-
nal analysis, reconstruct their organizational con- lined above, we might expect employees, unless
ditions and hence themselves (for example, psy- coerced, to be quite deviant. Critical theory,
chological maturation). Further, he suggests that, however, contends that, as a whole, organiza-
for organizational scientists, a commitment to tional actors are not aware of their objectification.
praxis requires an ethical commitment to en- It contends that "ideology" leads institutional
hance the process of reconstruction with the aim members to act voluntarily in consensus.

330
According to critical theory, ideology refers to (analysis of internal and external validity), the
a coherent set of delusions, or a false rationality, critique could be more inclusive and systematic.
sponsored by dominant coalitions to stabilize and Further, while certain approaches may critique
legitimize their control and domination other approaches, major orientations still exist,
{Habermas, 1975). Ideology possesses two neces- and adoption of any given orientation has unicjue
sary traits that characterize it as a false ra- consequences.
tionality. First, it is self-imposed. Second, mem- Most of this paper has been devoted to a dis-
bers falsely interpret these self-imposed behav- cussion of the consequences of an empirical-
iors as self-determined (Geuss, 1982). In other analytic organization science because, histori-
words, members impose false forms of rational- cally, critical theoiy has actively critiqued the
ity upon themselves by continually reproducing practical social consequences of a contemporary
the normative, objectifying structures that dis- society engaging in social sciences under a natu-
tort communication and constrain praxis. Fur- ral science orientation. It is possible, however,
ther, and following the logic of Sartre (1976), the to employ a "Habermasian" {perspective to cri-
members complete the neurosis by interpreting tique the interpretivist tradition. Table 2 sug-
their repetitive behaviors as products of their own gests some of the weaknesses of a phenomeno-
self-will. Further, Habermas (1979) pointed out logical and hermeneutical approach. For ex-
that self-imposed objectifying organizational ample, Husserlian phenomenology is particularly
processes are perceived as legitimate and even weak in establishing validity claims because
self-willed because ideology is itself built upon there is an inherent weakness in its system of
distorted communication. Therefore, if organiza- checks and balances for verifying and validat-
tional communication is structured to sustain ing organizational knowledge.
ideology, since members are unaware of their The strength of critical theory is its require-
state, they have few opportunities to realize their ment that methodology be subjugated to descrip-
delusion. In this sense, power is rooted in dis- tive epistemology. The question to be answered
torted communication (Habermas, 1979). at this point is: What are the practical implica-
tions of such subordination? The impact can only
An Expanded Research Agenda be speculated about. To date, no one has specif-
ically outlined, even hypothetically, the impact
Table 1 summarizes the philosophical assump- of a social science subjected to the requisites of
tions underlying organizational research con- critical theory. Following is a brief outline of the
ducted under alternative modes of science. Table consequences of the hypothetical Institutionali-
2 summarizes specific epistemic properties of the zation" of critical theory. As the following proposi-
organization sciences discussed so far from a tions suggest, the impact on the structure of orga-
critical theory perspective. It should be noted that nization science would be significant.
these categories (for example, natural science, First, critical theory requires that researchers
hermeneutical) are somewhat artificial because expand their critique to include the cognitive
in practice, researchers rarely confine them- intent, or aim, of research. In this sense, critical
selves to a single approach. As suggested earlier, theory is "self-reflective" (McCarthy, 1978). It
empirical-analytic researchers employ qualita- implicitly assumes that all organizational scien-
tive procedures and all researchers, whether tists, due to training, competition, and the con-
empirical-analytic or interpretive, expand their straints of the scientific community, infuse their
critique beyond the narrow analysis of the inter- values and beliefs into the research enterprise.
nal rules of methodology. This paper, neverthe- These infused values, which constitute a third-
less, is presented under the premise that, though level construct in research, should be consciously
established modes of organization science incor- and explicitly set forth. This means that the
porate philosophical critique in their research researcher must explain why one of many theo-
331
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ries were chosen, as well as the consequences exposing delusions. In doing so, researchers
of the theory he or she practices. should increase members' understanding of their
Second, critical theory includes an empirical, conditions and, subsequently, establish condi-
quantitative analysis of organizational struct- tions for organizational change. It is important to
ures. Data obtained here might resemble that note that critical theory does not prescribe any
typically obtained in empirical research. For normative course of change; it only requires norm-
example, behavioral, affective, structural, and ative procedures for the researcher when engag-
decision-making variables may all be evaluat- ing in research. It affirmatively defines the re-
ed through empirical-analytic means. searcher as a catalyst whose responsibility is to
Third, critical theory requires the hermeneuti- ensure that the conditions are present for organi-
cal evaluation of organizational facts obtained zational change. The researcher makes explicit
through empirical-analytic means. Such an anal- error-prone structures and processes, legitimized
ysis includes: (a) an on-site evaluation of actors' through ideology. With the removal of these
interpretations of organizational phenomena and barriers, organizational communication is facili-
conditions which may or may not reflect condi- tated and consensiis is arrived at less coercively.
tions suggested by quantitative analysis; (b) an It may even be possible that, through discourse,
analysis of the historical-contextual dimension and because of organizational realities, mem-
of revealed empirical data and actors' interpre- bers may reach a consensus requiring more
tations; and (c) a self-reflective analysis of the autocratic structures. This is fine, if the struc-
constraints upon the researcher in understand- tures are not ideological and as long as condi-
ing first-level constructs. tions exist to facilitate further change.
Finally, critical theory requires a commitment In summary, critical theory is committed to the
to organizational change. It is an "inquiry of establishment of conditions to: (a) restore com-
change" (McCarthy, 1978), and it is this commit- municative action; (b) validate organizational
ment which most clearly distinguishes critical knowledge through practical discourse; (c) reas-
theory from the other approaches. Critical theory sign technologies (material and behavioral) to
intentionally evaluates the social consequences their neutral status by subjecting them to ratio-
of theory and subjects the relationship between nal debate; and (d) reinstate praxis. To pursue
knowledge and practice to rational analysis these aims the researcher engages in discourse
through discourse between the researcher and with members concerning the delusions and illu-
organizational members constituting the re- sions which characterize ideologies that legiti-
search-domain. Critical theory accomplishes this mize ineffective structures and maintain distorted
by complementing hermeneutical analysis with a organizational communication. Validity claims
critique of ideology. Not only does the researcher are tested, not according to whether empirical
consult members regarding their interpretations evidence corresponds to some specified research
of organizational phenomena, but the researcher propositions. Instead, the real criteria of truth, or
also engages in discourse with members con- the test of validity of organizational knowledge,
cerning the possible falsity of their interpretations. lies in the acceptance of the knowledge state-
In other words, the researcher is not a passive ment by organizational members. Empirical con-
observer or even a participant. Instead, the firmation of facts is certainly important in provid-
researcher is a "reconstructionist," even a n ing evidence for certain knowledge statements,
"activist," who finds within empirical structures but the final arbiter lies in the perceived practi-
and members' interpretations false rationalities cality of knowledge as indicated by social con-
usually reflecting organizational ideologies. It is sensus. According to Hctbermas (1979), by sub-
the role of the researcher to further members' jecting validity claims to rational debate, techni-
understanding of organizational phenomena by cal reasoning is reduced and praxis is reinstated.

333
Conclusion groups of organizational scientists, and the identi-
fication of the values and norms that underlie
Besides expanding the research agenda by the scientific community.
subjugating methodology to epistemic critique, More fundamentally, however, critical theory
critical theory would also affect the structure and would potentially affect the structure of the scien-
activities of the scientific community. First, criti- tific community itself. As suggested by Galtung
cal theory suggests that research, as a well (1977), there exists an intimate relationship be-
defined activity of the scientific community, tween methodology, as well as the criteria for
should be the subject of more descriptive re- what constitutes a valid scientific product, and
search. For example, researchers could subject the social structure of the scientific community
the criticisms outlined at the beginning of this within which this product was produced. Criti-
paper to empirical investigation. Phillips (1978), cal theory supports such a view. According to
Galtung (1977), and Mitroff and Kilmann (1978) such a F)erspective, organization science and
provide a comprehensive list of researchable top- practicing organizations must be perceived as a
ics drawn from the history, sociology, and psy- single language community (Geuss, 1982). Re-
chology of knowledge. Specific avenues of in- search is a "speech act" with practical conse-
quiry might include the role of the researcher's quences. Research must therefore reflect on the
career in determining research, the role of aca- implications of its role and be directed in light of
demic status and hierarchy in determining re- this reflection. The questions raised by such a
search, the effects of competition and reward perspective are numerous and should be investi-
allocation, the social structure of different sub- gated in future work.

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Brian D. Steffy is Assistant Professor in the Industrial Relations


Center, University of Minnesota.

Andrew ]. Grimes is Associate Professor in the Department


of Management, University of Kentucky.

336