Resistance - A key concept in Critical Management Studies

Last updated, 2 Jul 2012
by Ozan Nadir Alakavuklar & Ulaş Çakar
The political nature of the organizations is mostly neglected in the majority of the management and organization studies. However, critical studies aim to demonstrate how managerial actions become political and how such seemingly neutral perspectives serve the agendas of powerful elites. Resistance is one of these terms that provide a base for discussing the political nature of organizations.

Before focusing on resistance, it might be helpful to state the organic relationship between critical management studies and resistance concept. Resistance is an important aspect of critical management studies considering the recent definition in the field (Alvesson, 2008). With the aim of emancipation from or resistance to taken-for-granted ideas, ideologies or identities, critical management studies question the neutrality and rational mentality of both management practices and studies. Therefore, in this note, we take resistance as one of the core essences of critical management studies as CMS might also be considered as a form of resistance in the field of management and organization.  Furthermore, with the critical approaches it is much more comprehensive to understand and study the dynamics of resistance in the workplaces (Thomas, Mills & Mills, 2005: 2). Then, how should we understand or cover the concept of resistance?

The history of management thought has a tendency to consider the resistance in the workplace as a pathological issue that should be overcome by the management. Resistant subjects were considered and represented as deviant, harmful and illogical people at the organizations (Ackroyd & Thompson, 1999: 9-10). Rejection of resistance, adjustment of resistant people and then managing the resistance were the pathways in the management history, respectively. However, with the critique of Braverman regarding scientific management, the resistant subject as a discussion point grew in organization studies. Whilst labour process theorists focused on macro structures and engagements of managerial control especially in the production process, they mentioned dualistic structure of class struggle. However, Foucault inspired studies focused upon resistant subject not in terms of production relations but in terms of subject constitution as a control mechanism (Jermier, Knights & Nord, 1994; Knights & Vurdubakis, 1994). However, in the end there was a so-called agreement that both structures have focused on resistant subjects but in different forms with different perspectives (Jones, 2009: 86; Thompson & O’Doherty, 2009: 105, 109). Even it is claimed two perspectives have potential to complement each other as there is a change from fordist way of production to post-fordist work life (Comisso, 2006).

Considering the changes since 1970s, in the studies a shift was observed from blue-collar resistance to white-collar resistance and “the subject” became individuals rather than a class or a group of people organized together. Foucault’s arguments, managerial discourses, the degradation of the managerial discourses or alternative creation of the discourses were the tools in order to exhibit how individuals resist in the organizations (Fleming & Spicer, 2007: 41-42, Thomas & Davies, 2005). The point of analysis shifted from structural to subjective dynamics as trade unions lost their effect and the manufacturing left its place to service in the economy. Then we come to a point where we see resistance in nearly each informal behavior of the employees. Daily routines, humour, irony, jokes, sexual games, gender base, psychoanalytic paths or cynicism became the new fields of resistant power to be observed and to flow away (Fleming & Spicer, 2008). Even the resistant subject had a position to be admired by the management gurus so that the challenge begins for the management and the organization for better performance (Fleming, 2009).

Today it is discussed if all these resistance actions are decaf or serving as a safety valve for the ongoing control mechanisms in a macro sense (Contu, 2008). The confrontation potential of resistance is under scope as well as the changing nature of managerial control. However, it should be kept in mind that any kind of resistance may have potential to create awareness in the work environment and such instances may call the others to contribute to the struggle (Wray-Bliss & Parker, 1998: 47, 50). Such small steps of awareness may build up solidarity among the resistant people. Various studies are going on in order to figure out different strategies and tactics of resistance in the organizations. However, perhaps, it is required to argue and look for why there are not emancipatory resistance practices for the employees, or, will there be a cooperation of micro-politics to macro-politics of resistance, or, what the main obstacles are for employees that prevent them to resist confrontationally. It seems that as long as there are power relations in the organizational settings, it is very likely that there will be resistance. The dialectics of power and resistance (Mumby, 2005) will bring more refined ways of control as well as sophisticated structures of resistance. For the CMS agenda, by avoiding romanticized image of the resistant subject and the totality of control mechanisms, it should be essential to find out the exemplar instances of resistance that would lead to micro/macro emancipations in order to set up new and alternative organizations.


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