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  • Foto del escritorJuan Felipe Espinosa

A bottle sinking.

Juan Felipe Espinosa-Cristia, Robert Cluley & Kenneth Weir

Frankfurt School critical theorists liked to describe themselves as a “message in a bottle.” Recent events at the University of Leicester, where each of us once studied and/or worked, and where 26 academics have been targeted for redundancy because their managers perceived their research to be aligned, primarily, with critical management studies, lead us to fear that the current critical theory of management and organizations is floating an increasingly inhospitable ocean.

From the surface, it looks like a critical bottle was cracked open by managers at Leicester and smashed against the rock of big data, advanced quantitative blah, and analytics blah blah by an unstoppable mainstream tide. The problem, they claimed, was the message in the bottle. It just didn’t fit with the demands of the market.

Who could blame Leicester’s managers for making this judgment? When we see foundational critical scholars describing critical theory as ‘‘increasingly moribund, offering increasingly little in the way of claims that are academically rigorous, intellectually interesting and practically relevant” (Spicer et al. 2016: 226), we surely shouldn’t be surprised that people wanting to run a “mainstream” business school think there’s no place for CMS. When critical scholars write about the need to shut down business schools, it’s hard for us to argue that business schools need critical theory. In other words, if, as critical theorists, we spend all our time saying what’s wrong with critical theory, what do we expect to happen? Does this thinking make critical approaches better or just harder to sustain?

In this sense, Leicester managers took the internal cracks created by critical theorists in the bottle-throwing stones at each other and used them to smash the whole thing. Seeking to define critical management studies, they used divisions and assertions within the CMS literature (albeit very selectively) to make the case against critical approaches. This wasn’t solely limited to the managers’ selectively narrow definition of CMS – any research projects that could be repackaged as ‘critical’ were also up for grabs in the intellectual vandalism that followed.

In the most extreme cases, employees at Leicester publishing in academic journals with the word ‘critical’ were selected for potential redundancy. The scholarship's content or context didn't draw the managers' attention. It wasn’t what Harvie et al. (forthcoming) wrote about social impact bonds; it was the fact that they published it in Critical Perspectives on Accounting that justified the targets on their backs. Similarly, their critical analysis of finance (Lilley et al., 2020) was deemed “too esoteric” by managers to belong in the modern(ist) business school. We could go.

But our point is simple enough: Leicester’s managers could claim that divesting from CMS and political economy was the best way to not only make a mainstream business school but to make one that claimed to be concerned with responsibility and sustainability because of the things CMS said about itself. It’s time to stop throwing stones.

As Steve Brown remarked some years ago, the business school institution is like a latter-day Titanic. Business Schools represent a gigantic ship that is "the pride of the contemporary scholarly fleet. Or the best resourced at least" (2005, p. 152). However, unlike the Titanic, CMS should not sink from its collisions with the iceberg of relevance. With care, critical approaches are more relevant than ever as even mainstream business schools confront the pressing problems of our time. Climate disasters, equity, and work precariousness are topics championed by and, for many years, discussed exclusively among critical management scholars. We cannot allow critical approaches to be thrown overboard at the very moment when they have proven their worth.

If we go deeper, though, we might wonder whether the real issue at Leicester's message was not the bottle itself. Not only were union representatives disproportionately affected but, from our perspective, what has happened at Leicester is as much an attack on a particular model of scholarship. We are now scattered across continents and have very different connections with Leicester, but we share an enduring image of Leicester as a way of thinking. The Leicester project was not just about writing “critical” things about management but also doing academic work differently.

We should remember that way back in 2005, when managers at Leicester leading the redundancy process were publishing about termites and mums net, Leicester scholars produced a manifesto for the business school of tomorrow. This text is as provocative and relevant now as it was back then (see Indeed, O’Doherty and Jones could be writing about contemporary events in their Introduction:

The business school has become a cancerous machine spewing out sick and irrelevant detritus, justified as ‘practical’ and glossed up as ‘business relevant’. In such conditions of scandal and disgrace, who has time for a scholarship? Moreover, who has time for the future? And what is the future? What can the future be if we are so enthralled by the immediacy of the present with all its latest distractions, mission statements, initiatives, and administrative paperwork? This forgetting of our responsibility to the future, even when the technocrats claim to speak on behalf of ‘the future’ (in the narrowest sense), is part of the scandal (2005: 1).

Leicester’s critical project was always centered around a ‘community of scholars. At a recent Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy (CPPE) workshop reflecting on the events this year, Sverre Spoelstra and Stefan Harney, both of whom were part of the community of scholars Gibson Burrell assembled at Leicester, explained what made this community so powerful (see Hancock & Tyler, 2005). Their account was moving and inspiring. They emphasized a willingness to learn, read, and be vulnerable, which, for a time, characterized Leicester. Harney explained how he was shocked and somewhat frightened when Campbell Jones, another member of the Leicester community and founder with Spoelstra and Harney of the CPPE, would greet him, asking: “What are you reading?”. This simple question carries with it so much about what made Leicester a beacon of critical thinking. We were there to learn, to think, and to discuss. We weren’t there to produce content, although these things followed as night follows day. One can’t help but wonder what answer you would get if you asked Jones’ question at Leicester now.

Echoing a feminist ethic of care (Mountz et al., 2015), the Leicester School of Management, particularly the CPPE, has championed collective action, looking beyond disciplines, institutional boundaries, and slow scholarship. The school of management built an academic culture that allowed academics to think, write, research, analyze, edit, organize, and resist the enormous administrative and professional demands that challenged their time at the neoliberal university. Such care ethics defy the urge to publish at any price that is all around our institutions nowadays. Furthermore, care ethics protects against unethical behavior such as false authorship, bullying and abusive supervision, plagiarism, self-plagiarism, publication duplicate, manipulation of citations (Feenstra et al., 2021), and fraudulent direct conduct, such as results fabrication.

So, what happened at Leicester? As the redundancies played out, it wasn’t simply the ‘critical’ scholars who were attacked but those who contributed the most to this community of scholars. From Gibson Burrell, whose crime seems to have been too successful, to Simon Lilley, who led the School for nearly a decade, to other active union members, reactionary managers at Leicester looked in the bottle, and they saw only stones and cracks.

Of course, not everyone felt comfortable in this environment. Some struggled. No one would claim Leicester was perfect. But it was a good idea. This idea is no longer welcome in Leicester.

Let’s take the attacks on critical theory at Leicester seriously. We need to emphasize the success of critical perspectives and make spaces for critical scholarship. We cannot expect the modern university to care about us. We must care for ourselves.


Brown, Steve D. (2005). Titanic. In Jones, C. & O’Doherty, D. (Ed.), Manifestos for the Business School of Tomorrow (pp. 150-156). Dval Books.

Hancock, P., & Tyler, M. (2005). Gibson Burrell: diabolical architect. The Sociological Review, 53(1_suppl), 46-62.

Harvie, D., Lightfoot, G., Lilley, S. & Weir, K. (forthcoming). Social investment innovation and the ‘social turn’ of neoliberal finance. Critical perspectives on Accounting.

Lilley, S., Harvie, D., Lightfoot, G. & Weir, K. (2020). Using derivative logic to speculate on the future of the social investment market. Journal of Urban Affairs, 42(6), 920-936.

Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., ... & Curran,

W. (2015). For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 14(4), 1235-1259.

Spicer, A., Alvesson, M., & Kärreman, D. (2016). Extending critical performativity. Human Relations, 69(2), 225-249.

Feenstra, Ramón A.; Delgado-López-Cózar, Emilio; Pallarés-Domínguez, Daniel (2021). Research misconduct in the fields of ethics and philosophy: researchers’ perceptions in Spain. Science and engineering ethics, v. 27, n. 1, pp. 1-21.

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