Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2011, Vol. 10, No. 1, 77–93.
The Relevant Past:
Why the History of Management
Should Be Critical for Our Future
Victoria University of Wellington
When history is covered in business schools, its simplistic and evolutionary treatment
goes largely unquestioned by instructors and students. To demonstrate, we show the
representation of Max Weber in management texts to be dubious, a reflection of a
peculiar perspective which is driven by a desire to justify the latest management ideas.
However, by encouraging students to develop an ability to think critically about
historical representations such as these, not only do we foster the benefits others have
attributed to a greater historical awareness, we also encourage students to be more
creative management thinkers for the future.
Students want to know what works and business practice (Bennis & O’Toole, 2005; Mint-
what doesn’t . . . they are not interested in zberg, 2004; Rubin & Dierdorff, 2009; Worrell,
the details of research, the historical evolu- 2009).
tion of our knowledge, or long discourses on We are also concerned with relevance, but take
competing ideas. a different tack. We argue that students would be
—Stephen Robbins, more likely to have a positive impact on the future
Managing Today, of management, if they were more engaged with
(1997: xvii). the history and traditions of management—partic-
ularly that of a German sociologist who died
The quotation above, from perhaps the best- nearly 100 years ago.
selling management textbook author of our While our argument may appear counterintui-
times, is indicative of an antipathy toward his- tive, it is not completely new. Some recent works
tory within management education. Robbins has have linked a neglect of historical awareness to a
claimed that “students’ interest in history is min- number of key skills business students are less
imal” and that “the classical material in man- likely to acquire. They argue that a better under-
agement textbooks has little value to today’s stu- standing of management’s history helps students
dents” (1997: xvii). Students want to know how to learn the lessons of past mistakes (Wren, 1987;
manage, not to trace the history of management Thomson, 2001; Smith, 2007); or to establish a link
research, he argues. This view resonates with with “great minds” (Bedeian, 2004); or connect to a
broader assumptions about the ideal managers “collective memory,” an identity for the profession
for the “new economy,” free-floating identities, or an integrating framework (Wren, 1987; Smith,
trained to constantly embrace change, unat- 2007); or that it provides a baseline for evaluating
tached and unencumbered by history (assump- the extent of change in management over time
tions recently critiqued by Sennett, 2006, and (Wren, 1987; Thomson, 2001; Van Fleet & Wren, 2005;
Petriglieri & Petriglieri, 2009, 2010). And it may be Jones & Khanna, 2006; Smith, 2007); or that a better
connected to debates in this journal, and man- understanding of history assists students to think
agement education fora more widely, suggesting about how supposedly “new” management prac-
that our curricula would be more relevant (i.e., tices really are (Thomson, 2001, Bedeian, 2004; Van
better) if it were cut free from teaching subjects Fleet & Wren, 2005; Smith, 2007).
for tradition’s sake and if it reflected what was We agree with these assessments. However, it is
actually happening currently in the world of not just the lack of teaching history that goes on in
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78 Academy of Management Learning & Education March
business schools and who is teaching it that di- as “the most influential proponent of the bureau-
minishes our field, which has been previously cratic model” (Zey-Ferrell, 1979: 48), was due to
been identified as the root of the problem (Van “mistranslation” (Weiss, 1983: 242). We are not set-
Fleet & Wren, 2005). It is also the quality of teach- ting out to describe the mistranslation or oversim-
ing materials and, in particular, the lack of a crit- plification of Weber, or anyone or anything else for
ical attitude that prevents history having the pos- that matter. We are more concerned with under-
itive effect on management’s future that it could. standing why and how a wrong-headed configura-
Addressing this would, we argue, offer a further tion of Weber continues, and in some cases inten-
advantage of a historical engagement, which sifies, in best-selling textbooks to this day, and
would result not only in better students in the with examining the process or system that shapes
present but also fundamental improvements for and maintains such a strawman. We seek to better
the future of our field. We argue that encouraging understand the purposes that this strawman might
students to think critically about the construction serve, and thus better understand the interests that
of management history will enable them to think keep him afloat. And, we examine the effects of not
more creatively about what management could be. questioning the presentation of historical figures
like Weber in textbooks, as these are fed to the next
generation of management thinkers who are in
The Case of Max Weber their formative stages. We highlight Weber to il-
lustrate why improving the ability of aspiring
According to Max Weber, bureaucracies are managers to critically evaluate how history and
the ideal organizational form. [This] con- historical figures may be misrepresented and mis-
trasts with more modern approaches to or- appropriated (to be critical management thinkers
ganizational design that claim that different in this regard as well as management practitio-
forms of organizational structure may be ners), can improve their ability to be creative. And,
more or less appropriate under different we suggest that such an approach will encourage
situations. less bounded and more substantial developments
—Jerald Greenberg and Robert A. Baron, in management theory and practice for the future.
Behavior in Organizations If management textbooks are our data in this
(8th ed., 2003: 11) quest, Michel Foucault’s “counterhistorical” ap-
proaches provide us with the lenses to analyze
In keeping with the antipathy expressed earlier, them. Foucault is perhaps the most widely re-
many management textbooks do not cover history garded critical historian of our generation. We
at all. Of those that do, the quotation from Green- start by outlining his approaches to historical
berg and Baron’s organizational behavior textbook analysis. Then we begin our analysis by utilizing
is not unusual. Its unwitting inaccuracies with re- Foucault’s early works first to uncover the flaws in
spect to Max Weber will appear strange to those the treatment of Weber as a historical figure in
who have studied Weber. management textbooks. This leads us to raise fur-
We investigate the portrayal of Max Weber in ther questions. Consequently, we draw upon Fou-
management textbooks using this single case to cauldian “archaeology” to try and understand how
provide insights into “the possibilities for and the paradigm that prevailed in the United States in
problems of learning from fragments of history” the middle of the 20th century reconfigured Weber
(March, Sproull, & Tamuz, 1991: 1). It is an illustra- in ways that allow statements like that by Green-
tive case, but also one that we hope will inspire berg and Baron (above) to pass as the truth. Fi-
further research into the uses and abuses of history nally, we use Foucauldian “genealogy” to interro-
in management (Siggelkow, 2007: 21–22). It is also, gate the contents of a popular management
we believe, representative of the poor quality and textbook as it has shifted through nine editions
lack of a critical attitude with regard to teaching since Weber’s archaeological reconfiguration.1
management history, as well as revelatory in
that a historical figure in management has never Foucault’s Critical History
been examined in quite this way before (Yin,
2003: 39 – 42). Michel Foucault (1980: 70) wrote histories that
That Weber has been misrepresented in man- sought to counter the conventional view which saw
agement studies has been noted on a number of
occasions (Aldrich, 1979; Hill, 1981; Jackson & Mor- 1
We define the field of management textbooks broadly to in-
gan, 1982; Clegg, 1992). Richard Weiss, for exam- clude related subject areas such as organizational behavior,
ple, claimed that the misguided portrayal of Weber operations management, and strategy.
2011 Cummings and Bridgman 79
the purpose of history to be uncovering the truth of Foucault’s Early Works:
events and the subsequent presentation of a Progressive Histories May Conceal the Truth
“progress of consciousness” that led to (or caused)
Foucault’s first works (1965, 1975, 1976b) critiqued
a higher level present. Foucault was critical of the psychology and psychiatry’s status as sciences
role that conventional history could play in legiti- and their assumption that “normal” sanity is
mating the establishment. He was more interested an objective, pre-existing condition. Foucault
in examining the “history of the emergence of [the (1976b: 73) countered that “Man became a ‘psy-
establishment’s] truth games” (Florence, 1984: chological species’ only when the Age of Reason
314),2 and finally settled on the following definition made madness a problem to be resolved and,
of his type of history: “Instead of legitimating what hence, an object of inquiry.” Madness, as such,
is already known [I aim to rethink historical as- was not always present, waiting to be discov-
sumptions in order to] free thought from what it ered by a rigorous enough science; it was
silently thinks, and so enable it to think differ- brought into being by the very practices that
ently” (Foucault, 1985: 9). made such a science (psychology) possible.
Consequently, Foucault did not aim for or claim Thus, against histories that traced the develop-
to have uncovered the “whole truth” in his coun- ment of objects and the separate subjects that
terhistories, just enough to raise doubt about what examine them, Foucault saw subject and object
was promoted as the truth of the evolution of an as codetermining one another. He would broaden
object. Nor did he seek to explain whole periods out his analysis to argue that Man did not exist
against a criterion of linear progress, rather to until the practices constituted by the rise of hu-
“define the conditions in which human beings manism and the human sciences took hold (Fou-
“problematize” what they are, what they do, and cault, 1970). It was the emergence of humanism,
the world in which they live” (1985: 10). He tended in combination with the transition into moder-
to start with present concerns or particular prob- nity, which sought to move beyond customs or
lems (e.g., madness), ask questions like “why do traditions like the power of the sovereign or his
we treat madness as we do?” and then question agents to “do violence” in order to maintain con-
the normal responses (e.g., “because our methods trol of society, which had made a problem of how
are the best suited to counter [or normalize] control was to be upheld. This problem created
madness”). the necessity for human sciences to come forth
and provide “objective” universal norms that
We adopt this counterhistorical approach here,
should be adhered to.
beginning with the question “why do management
Foucault (1965: 142) highlighted the role played
textbooks treat history as they do?” and then ques-
by psychology’s history in this creation. It pre-
tioning the normal responses: “Because it is a good
sented psychology as at once building on noble
representation of what actually happened” or “be-
foundations and advancing to bring forth a new
cause it is the most effective way to educate our “happy age in which madness was at last recog-
students.” nized and treated in accordance with a truth to
Foucault spent decades developing different which we had long remained blind.” But Foucault
ways toward his counterhistorical aims. These claimed that because this history is written as
ways are generally divided into three main phas- anticipation (the past viewed in terms of the
es: his early works, his archaeological phase, and present’s “heights”), two widely accepted, but il-
genealogy (Burrell, 1988; Flynn, 1994). Each in some logical, ideas took hold: the idea that madness was
ways is a response to limitations of the phase that not recognized until it was rigorously grasped by
preceded it. A final phase, termed interpretative modern science (here historians retrospectively
analytics, is sometimes added. It represents an find the origin of psychology) and the idea that the
attempt to fruitfully combine the best aspects of premodern approach to madness was either sim-
the earlier three, an attempt we also make here. plistic or erroneous, despite the fact that psychol-
Foucault’s approaches to historical (or counterhis- ogy’s history has said that such an object had not
torical) analysis are described below. been recognised yet. This, said Foucault, was no
foundation for a science.
Moreover, Foucault argued that psychology’s
attempt to found itself as a science had not over-
come a misrecognition. It had, in fact, promoted a
Florence was later revealed to be Foucault writing about him- misrecognition of a primordial understanding.
self under a pseudonym. He (1965, 1976b) claimed that the modern discov-
80 Academy of Management Learning & Education March
ery of madness concealed real madness. Prior to Genealogy: The Truth Is Shaped and Maintained
modernity (e.g., during the Renaissance), our un- by the “Family Network”
derstanding was richer and more truthful.
In hindsight, Foucault (in Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982:
104) claimed that “what was missing from my work
was the problem of ‘discursive regime,’ the effects
Archaeology: Every Strata Promotes Its Own of power proper on the enuciative play. I confused
Particular Truths it too much with systematicity . . . or something like
Rather than addressing the history of one new a paradigm.” To take account of this, Foucault
science, Foucault’s archaeological period sought drew on Nietzsche’s view that there are no objec-
to determine the basis “common to a whole series tive essential forms that can be appealed to: only
of scientific ‘representations’” (Foucault, 1970: xi– chaotic webs of change and chance relations. In
xii). His focus was no longer on “how might a being afraid of this nonfoundational uncertainty,
particular science not be a science and be keeping people look to historians to show that the present
us from the truth?”, but “what was it that motivated actually rests upon grand origins, profound inten-
the human sciences to present themselves as such, tions, and immutable necessities, and, in a circular
to create histories that promoted this, and the con- manner, these “origins [become] the site of truth
sequences of this will-to-science?” that makes possible a field of knowledge whose
Recognizing the problem in promoting a premod- function is to recover it” (Foucault, 1977b). In gene-
ern view of madness as superior, Foucault now pre- alogy, Foucault thus moves away from the struc-
sented the view that all truths, all conceptions of turalist tendencies of archaeology. All knowledge
objects, are bound by the “strata” within which they is historical as before, but all history, and conse-
are situated. He defines this strata as an episteme: “a quently all development, can now only be “a series
world-view, a slice of history common to all branches of interpretations” not related to the nature of
of knowledge, which imposes on each one the same things or the strata in which they are embedded
norms and postulates, a general stage of reason, a but to particular interests (Foucault 1977b: 151).
certain structure of thought that the men of a partic- The question then becomes “if there is nothing
ular period cannot escape” (Foucault 1976a: 191). And positive that knowledge can attach itself to, what
he defined archaeology as: “a history which is not sustains our belief in the interpretations that we
that of [knowledge’s] growing perfection, but rather take as knowledge?” Like Nietzsche, Foucault’s an-
that of its conditions of possibility” (1970: xxii). By swer was power. Not power in an obvious or direct
showing the singular conditions and specific state- sense necessarily, but a more subtle view of power
ments that different episteme would promote, he as a “network of relations, constantly in tension, in
sought to critique the current arrangements that we activity” (Foucault, 1977a: 26), a network that would
might assume to be natural or superior. In the mod- influence what passed for knowledge in a partic-
ern episteme, for example, human studies must sat- ular domain. Archaeology examined the truths
isfy the conditions of the so-called “normal” sciences promoted by various episteme. Genealogy would
to be valid. Foucault claimed this to be a terrible focus upon these power– knowledge relations
misfit, arguing that we should recognize the specific within and across periods of time. While Foucault
configuration of all fields. (Foucault’s argument here (1980: 52, 194) saw such networks as positive, or
is akin to that advanced recently by Khurana, 2007, “perpetually creating knowledge,” by producing
with respect to how business schools sought to “domains of objects and rituals of truth,” he also
legitimize themselves in the 20th century by found that they at once repressed, censored, and
adopting the form of certain unrelated academic concealed other possibilities.
disciplines.) Playing an integral part in this producing–
In many ways, archaeology addresses problems repressing relationship is the progressive history
with Foucault’s early works. Rather than simply pre- that a subject constructs out of a multiplicity of
senting recent views as untruthful, archaeology en- potentially contributing elements. This historical
courages us to identify reasons why different views aspect produces by shaping the view and bound-
emerge as truthful in different ages. By the same aries of the subject, thus making knowledge pos-
token, the second phase of our analysis here will sible. However, it at once begins to shape a net-
seek to offer reasons why Weber, contrary to what he work that represses other interpretations. It may
actually said, became a passionate advocate of bu- not be consciously developed, but this network
reaucracy as “the one best way” in the particular grows as texts and their surrounding discourse
episteme of the United States in the mid-20th century. educate initiates by reduplicating or reinterpreting
2011 Cummings and Bridgman 81
events, origins, and assumptions taken to be im- relations that spreads out from a particular prob-
portant. lem to sustain understanding (Noujain, 1987).
While conventional history thus aims at forming Subsequently, the third part of our analysis of
singular events into idealized and evolutionary Weber’s representation will focus on the problem
chains of continuity (and thus, by association cer- of why management texts treat history as they do,
tain things that are discontinued), genealogy and begin by juxtaposing statements about Weber
“transposes the relationship ordinarily estab- from three editions of the same textbook. This will
lished between the eruption of an event and nec- lead us into a broader discussion of what aspects
essary continuity . . . records the singularity of of this Weber have been continuous and which
events outside of any monotonous finality [and] have been adapted and changed over the 25 years
disturbs what was previously considered immo- and nine editions of this text. We will then outline
bile” (Foucault, 1977b: 154; Dreyfus & Rabinow, the networks of power that may, on the one hand,
1983: 120). Genealogy demonstrates how a field’s sustain the continuity of this version of Weber and
foundations are actually formed in a piecemeal at once subtly reinterpret this strawman to suit the
fashion but then solidify to produce a sense of the times in which each edition emerges.
development of knowledge while at the same time
marginalizing other possibilities. Whereas archae- Analysis: Countering the Construction and
ology showed how things would come out the Development of Weber as a ‘Strawman’
same within a particular episteme, genealogy al-
lowed for the possibility of movement as interests Mirroring the above organization of Foucault’s ap-
and power relations changed. In Foucault’s proaches, our analysis of Weber’s historical pre-
words (1977b: 144), while certain points of histor- sentation in management textbooks is arranged in
ical “origin [would become] the site of truth” three parts: applying the thinking of his early
works to question the truth of this presentation;
some things would be subject to reinterpretation
that of his archeological period to investigate how
this questionable truth was shaped by a particular
To begin such a genealogical counterhistory,
episteme; and that of his genealogical inquiries to
Foucault often began by juxtaposing different quo-
draw out the power relations that sustained and
tations to highlight discontinuities. In Discipline
subtly shift this strawman.
and Punish, for example, Foucault (1977) high-
lighted the difference between Western ways of
thinking in the 18th and 19th centuries by contrast- Early Works: How Progressive Histories of
ing a grandiose description of the brutal public Management Conceal the Truth About Weber
quartering of the regicide Damiens with a little Those management textbooks that do cover the
known prison timetable outlining the inmates’ ideas of Max Weber as part of the history of their
mundane routines. While the discontinuities in field generally present him as belonging to the
these examples where obvious, the networks that classical school. Here he and other figures (most
sustained them were not too dissimilar. Foucault commonly Frederick Taylor) appear as an early
could argue that both were indicative of a wider stepping stone toward the field’s present heights.
social continuation of repression and control of Like all stepping stones, they exist on the pathway
deviance. And while modern histories of criminol- to something else, namely, in this instance, the
ogy might present the later as a development or better views of management that have been devel-
increase in “humanity,” Foucault’s critique sug- oped since. In this manner, history enables us to
gested that this was a continuity of normalization see gravitas, through a continuity of great thinkers
and degradation of individuality, but in a more applying their minds to the problem of manage-
subtle mental form than in a direct physical and ment; and a cutting edge, through a discontinuity
public sense. in the form of a series of advances beyond classi-
From these juxtaposed examples related to a cal views (Cummings, 2002). In their presentations
particular problem (e.g., how best to punish devi- of history, these textbooks draw upon a number of
ants), Foucault would expand out to explore the histories of management that emerged in the mid-
diagram of power relationships that would sustain dle of the 20th century as the subject was attempt-
the present regime, examining how this had ing to legitimate itself as a worthy field of inquiry.
emerged over time. In other words, rather than Histories like those written by Mooney (1947),
plotting the past in terms of its linear path to the George (1968), and Wren (1972), traced, for the first
present, genealogical counterhistories focused on time, a continuity and progression from great or
how things are constituted by a diagram or web of noble civilizations and thinkers such as the Egyp-
82 Academy of Management Learning & Education March
tians, Romans, and Greeks; Plato, Jesus, Benjamin subsequent advance (i.e., discontinuity) of man-
Franklin, and Thomas Edison, on to great manage- agement thinking is traced.
ment thinkers of their own times: Drucker, Fielder, However, a critical appreciation of history can,
Vroom, Locke and March, and Simon. without too much effort, show these historical rep-
In this historical scheme, Weber is cast as an resentations to be quite false. They conceal rather
inventor and leading supporter of bureaucracy as than reveal the truth. Weber was a lawyer, a his-
the ideal or one-best way of organization and a torian, economist, philosopher, political scientist,
whole-hearted supporter of mechanistic efficiency. and a sociologist, but he was not an organization
He is generally described as a classical organiza- or management expert. Such fields did not exist in
tion theorist or management expert and a booster his world. He never actually designed an organi-
of Taylorism. His major contribution to the field is zation. His effort was to attain a diagnosis not a
often dated at 1947. prognosis of his society. Bureaucracy, while a se-
Perhaps the world’s two best-selling introduc- rious concern, was not his main concern— his vi-
tory management texts inform us that Weber “con- sion was much broader (MacRae, 1974). Further, it
sidered the ideal organization to be a bureau- is unclear whether Weber was even familiar with
cracy” (Stoner, Freeman, & Gilbert, 1995), or that Taylor’s work. He did visit America in 1904, but
bureaucracy is “his ideal type” (Robbins & Coulter, Taylor was only known to a very small circle of
2002: 37). Among other leading texts, Robbins and supporters in the first decade of the 20th century
Mukerji’s (1990: 42– 43) treatment of Weber in Man- and did not become widely known until 1911 in the
aging Organizations: New Challenges and Per- United States and some years later abroad (Cum-
spectives provides a good summary of the prevail- mings, 2002). In any event, perhaps through a de-
ing view. At the end of a chapter titled “The sire to promote simple and coherent chunks of lin-
Evolution of Management Thought,” a review ear progress, Weber is quite wrongly tarred with
question asks students to “Define Weber’s ideal the same brush as Taylor, a very different charac-
organization.” They are expected to have learned ter. Indeed, the criticism that Weber advocated
that Weber’s “ideal organization” exhibits bureau- efficiency to too great an extent comes despite the
cratic principles. The best-selling management fact that the modern sense of efficiency as the ratio
book of the past three decades, In Search of Excel- of inputs over outputs was a term foreign to We-
lence (Peters & Waterman, 1982: 5), confirms that ber’s German tongue at the time he wrote (Albrow,
Weber “pooh-poohed charismatic leadership and 1970).
doted on bureaucracy; its rule-driven, impersonal Weber’s use of the term ideal also appears to
form, he said, was the only way to assure long- confuse management writers. Weber’s “ideal
term survival.” types” were not in any sense good or noble or a
In works that optimistically portray the progress best-case scenario. He used the term to indicate a
of management, Weber’s “love of bureaucracy” model or measure against which societal develop-
leads to complaints that he “went too far in advo- ment might be compared: ideal, in his language,
cating a machine-like organization” (Dale, 1967: meant not fully exemplified in reality. Hence, We-
12); that he did not pay “attention to the human ber conceived of three ideal types of authority:
factor in organizational design” (Schwartz, 1980: traditional, charismatic, and rational–legal, each
19); or that he paid “repeated homage” to the out- of which sponsored different or competing forms of
moded “Taylor system” (Gerth & Mills, 1954: 261; organization. In his political analysis, Weber
Gross, 1964). In pessimistic works (e.g., Ritzer, 1996), makes it clear that a best-case scenario might be a
Weber appears as a promoter and forerunner to the charismatic or innovative organization in tandem
evils of dehumanization. Elsewhere, Weber is cast with a bureaucratic organization. He even exam-
as an “organizational theorist” (DuBrin, 1984; Wren, ined how traditional monarchies or aristocracies
1994); a “management expert” whose “main con- could work well. One could claim the modern con-
cern [was] the nature of bureaucracies” (Clutter- tingency approach to managing organizations ac-
buck & Crainer, 1990: 18); or an “organizational tually is a continuation of Weber’s thinking.
designer.” Schwartz (1980: 19) describes Weber as Moreover, Weber was largely pessimistic about
providing “six guidelines for organization design,” the advance of bureaucracy. History for Weber was
which are Weber’s six elements required for a bu- “an eternal struggle between bureaucratic ratio-
reaucracy to function effectively. In these ways, nalization and charismatic invention” (Allen, 2004:
Weber is seen as both a pioneer founder whose 108). He despaired at bureaucracy’s inexorable rise
intellect lends weight to the fledgling field and a driving the spirit and humanity out of life (MacRae,
problem to be overcome and dismissed as wrong- 1974; Allen, 2004). Weber (1948: 337, 214) was sure
headed, old-fashioned or one-dimensional as the that bureaucratic organization was “always, from
2011 Cummings and Bridgman 83
a formal technical point of view, the most rational Archaeology: Every Strata Promotes Its Own
type,” but it exhibited only a “technical superiority Particular Truths
over other forms.” This made it an obvious form
The analysis in the previous section begs the ques-
only because of the particular nature of his times:
tion as to how the picture of Weber described
the manifestation of a “victorious capitalism” rest-
above came to pass. A Foucauldian archeological
ing on “mechanical foundations” where the “‘ob-
approach helps to explain this, with reference to
jective’ discharge of business primarily means a
the specific set of views and values, or episteme,
discharge of business according to calculable
that emerged in the United States in the middle of
rules and without regard for persons” (Weber, 1930:
the 20th century. In doing so, we shall see that 1947
181–182; 1948: 215). Weber yearned for “charismatic
figures” not bureaucrats (Allen, 2004: 108), as this is in fact an accurate dating of Weber’s entry into
passage makes clear: the annals of management history. Prior to 1947,
Weber, as management studies knows him, did not
Rational calculation [and bureaucratic logic] exist. Indeed, perhaps the first and only manage-
reduces every worker to a cog in this bureau- ment teaching textbook to predate 1947, Burleigh B.
cratic machine . . . It is horrible to think that Gardner’s (1945) Human Relations in Industry,
the world could one day be filled with nothing while focused extensively on organization and ef-
but those little cogs, little men clinging to ficiency, makes no mention of Weber. He was still
little jobs and striving toward bigger ones—a being created, by a very particular episteme and a
state of affairs . . . playing an ever increasing peculiarly effective individual within that epis-
part in the spirit of our present administrative teme: Talcott Parsons.
systems, and especially of its offspring, the Wirtschaft and Gesellschaft was left unfinished
students. This passion for bureaucracy is on Weber’s death. As it was planned to connect
enough to drive one to despair . . . the great elements of Weber’s other schemes one can say
question is therefore not how we can promote that his whole corpus was incomplete. So, in Mac-
and hasten it, but what can we oppose to this Rae’s (1974: 14) words, to consult Weber is often
machinery in order to keep a portion of man- “somewhat like divination, like using a Tarot pack
kind free from [the] supreme mastery of the or the I Cheng.” Hence, Marianne Weber’s (1975)
bureaucratic way of life (Max Weber 1909, in biography positions Weber as a great humanist
Mayer, 1943: 127–128). and champion of good causes. Shils (1987) saw
Weber as a freemarket liberal, prophetic in warn-
A final notable falsehood is the dating of We- ing against bureaucracy. Bell (1960) and Lipset
ber’s major contribution to management or organi- (1969) hailed Weber’s view that the reconciliation
zation theory at 1947. This is most starkly pre- between opposing forces was the desired end. Ben-
sented in a “timelime of milestones,” complete dix (1966) claims Weber’s work belongs to the in-
with photographs of the “key contributors,” on the tellectual heritage of European liberalism (a point
inside front cover of Behavior in Organizations discussed by most Weberian scholars, with one
(Greenberg & Baron, 1993). This line of portraits notable exception: Parsons). For Gerth and Mills
begins Taylor: 1911; Mayo: 1927–1932; Weber: 1947; (1948), Weber’s works were romantic tragedies rep-
Stogdill: 1951 . . . Although no references are pro- resenting “humanist and cultural liberalism rather
vided, there are similarities between this and C. S. than economic liberalism.” But, of all of the writers
George’s “Management Continuum” first pub- to interpret Weber, Parsons would be the most in-
lished in 1968. A condensed list of George’s key fluential in the episteme when many of the man-
figures is listed below: 350 BC Plato . . . 20 AD Jesus agement textbooks that our students still use were
Christ . . . 1525 Machiavelli . . . 1776 Adam Smith . . . issued in their first editions (Allen, 2004).
1785 Thomas Jefferson . . . 1900 F. W. Taylor . . . 1927 Parsons discovered Weber in the 1920s while
Elton Mayo . . . 1947 Max Weber. . . . studying in Germany. He wrote a brilliant doctoral
That Weber had been dead for 27 years makes thesis on him, and began an English translation of
1947 seem an unusual choice for a milestone. But Weber’s essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit
when one recognizes that 1947 was the year Par- of Capitalism (1930). He returned to America and
sons’ American translation of selections of Weber’s took up a position at Harvard, keen to help estab-
Wirtschaft and Gesellschaft appeared, and one be- lish and add backbone to the fledgling field of
gins to investigate the episteme within which Par- sociology in the United States. He was also, quite
sons was operating, reasons behind the creation of naturally, keen to see the field develop in the way
management textbooks’ version of Weber start to that he thought best, and to build his own reputa-
be revealed. tion. Weber was an excellent conduit for all these
84 Academy of Management Learning & Education March
aims, but to create the type of sociology that Par- We like the Romans, are fairly receptive to art
son’s sought required the invention a unifying or- and taste, and to ideas, tho we do not create
der over and above Weber’s unfinished or dispa- them. The unity of our culture is rather that of
rate theses. Indeed, Parson’s quest for a unifying economic-legal institutions, than the type of
logic that could explain the fundamental essences basic ‘consensus’ which always seem to be
beneath social and organizational diversity, and involved in a creative culture . . . [However] . . .
thus explain all things, is completely in keeping there seems a fair possibility we may help
with what many in the new human sciences such create a social framework within which Euro-
as sociology and ecology were seeking and offer- pean culture can have a fairly long life.
ing in the middle of the 20th century (Lyotard, 1984:
50 –51). Thus, Parsons saw the United States as an emerg-
In the late 1930s, Parsons’ mission led him to ing exemplar of a rational–legal, and increasingly
undertake a translation of Weber’s Wirtschaft and bureaucratic, society. While such a society would
Gesellschaft (“Work and Society”). But it is impor- not in itself promote creativity (as Weber had
tant to remember that his translation, titled The pointed out), Parsons thought that such a society
Theory of Social and Economic Organization, was was extremely good. It provided the best chance
in fact a translation of only some of Wirtschaft, for European culture to survive, spread, and be
with particular attention paid to the sections that refined, much as the Romans had done with Greek
interested him in their relation to building bases culture. This was an optimism clung to by many
for the fledgling science of sociology, namely, during a period when many intellectuals were re-
those on bureaucracy and the notion of the ideal moving themselves from Europe and entering the
type (Mayhew, 1982). Much was left out, including United States. Parsons believed that the emer-
Weber’s own Introduction to Wirtschaft. Indeed, gence of America as a center of power, and its
most of Weber’s extensive writing on religion, law, management of its flourishing economic– bureau-
and politics was not translated for many years cratic society, would prove Weber’s pessimism
hence. about bureaucratization wrong (Wearne, 1989).
In the years following World War II, the Parson- Parsons also justified making Weber less pessi-
ian interpretation took hold and spread. New soci- mistic by pointing out that Weber used his “ideal
ologists and intellectuals from many other fields types” in two ways: as a methodological device, a
were drawn to Parsons’ Weber: a value-free social useful measuring stick to help him analyze societ-
scientist with a system above political conflicts ies; and as a means of describing what he had
whose triumphant rational–legal mode of author- unearthed to be the case about a society. “That
ity and its bureaucratic instrument offered both Weber called both ideal types without distinguish-
rationale and hope for a more certain world. And ing them,” Parsons (1929: 33) noted, “leads to seri-
Weber’s adoption by the intelligentsia in this pe- ous confusion, a confusion which is especially
riod after the war was further aided by Parsons’ marked in his analysis of capitalism.” He then
down-playing of Weber’s pessimism, bleakness, argued that Weber confused his rational–legal
and emphasis on unequal power relations with bureaucratic ideal with something that could hap-
regard to rational–legal authority and bureaucracy pen. If he had remembered that such an ideal type
(MacRae, 1974; Clegg, 1992; Allen, 2004). could never be and realized thus that within the
Why would Parson’s want to be positive about reality of a world where the rational–legal view
the power of rational authority and bureaucracy? It dominated, creativity and spirit would still exist,
may have something to do with how Parsons, both perhaps even prosper, he would have been more
a patriot and an internationalist, interpreted Amer- optimistic. And, “if this error is corrected the abso-
ica’s emerging role in the new episteme that would lute domination of the process of rationalization
mark a shift in power from the old world to the new. over the whole social process” that Weber had
This view would seem exceedingly prescient and predicted and which had caused his angst “falls to
hopeful after the Dionysian carnage that the war the ground” (Parsons, 1929: 49).
had wrought. Parson’s saw the American para- Parsons’ translation would correct the “error” of
digm in relation to the Europe as analogous to that Weber’s pessimism. The most obvious example of
between Greece and Rome. In notes made for a how this was done is his translation of Weber’s use
lecture at Harvard in 1933 (1933: 5– 6) he outlined of herrschaft, which generally means domination.
the similarities: Parsons translated it as leadership.
Many beyond the mainstream of management
Culturally, like the Romans, we [Americans] studies are critical of Parsons’ interpretation. Tribe
are not creative, our genius is ‘practical’ . . . (1988: 8) connects this “construction” of Weber to
2011 Cummings and Bridgman 85
“the ‘agenda setting’ activities of Parsons and his cause it is insensitive to human needs and
associates.” According to Wearne (1989: 43), “We- not suited to a changing environment. Un-
ber became the personification of the mores for fortunately, the “ideal” form of an organiza-
Parsons’ social scientific enterprise.” While Mac- tion, according to Weber, did not take into
Rae (1974: 88), a little more sympathetically, argues account the realities of the world in
that Parsons “extracted and elaborated something which it operates.
latent, a systematic sociology of great range and —Greenberg & Baron,
power . . . This system . . . is at once an invention Behavior in Organizations,
and a discovery. But it is not, I think, all that there (4th ed., 1993)
is in Weber.” However, when management schol-
ars began to systematically trace the development Weber’s universal view of bureaucratic
of management in the episteme that pervaded structure contrasts with the more modern
America in the 1950s as part of a campaign to approaches to organization design, which
establish management as a serious university- claim that different forms of organizational
worthy discipline (Khurana, 2007), they latched on structure may be more appropriate to differ-
to Parsons’ rediscovered great thinker, who had ent situations. Also, because bureaucracies
concerned himself with organization, and looked draw sharp lines between the people who
no further (Clegg, 1990). They subsequently dis- make decisions (managers) and those who
tilled from Parsons’ interpretation a Weber who carry them out (workers), they are not popu-
contributed to the development of the fledgling lar today. After all, contemporary employees
field of management by defining and championing prefer to have more equal opportunities to
bureaucracy (George, 1968; Wren, 1972). make decisions . . .
Further refinement of this strawman occurred as —Greenberg & Baron,
the early management textbooks borrowed from Behavior in Organizations,
these interpretations of Parsons. However, this (9th ed., 2008)
view of Weber is not completely fixed, and it is not
all-encompassed by the episteme we have de- While an archaeological critique enabled us to
scribed here. Indeed, if one can find a book that understand why a peculiar view of Weber may
draws on a range of translations of Weber, and a have emerged in management textbooks, its main
wider range of Weber’s writings than is generally weakness is that the “hard and fast” nature of the
the case, from “left-field” as it were, one will find a episteme does not allow for or explain movement
different, more rounded Weber (e.g., Clegg, Korn- of this view. As the quotations above demonstrate,
berger, & Pitsis, 2008: 485–527, 654). So, while Weber while the idiosyncratic interpretation of Weber
is influenced by the episteme described here, he that we have pointed to in our previous sections
can be otherwise. In the following paragraphs we continues to thrive, there is also considerable room
undertake a genealogical analysis that traces We- for reinterpretations.
ber’s malleability. It shows him subtly shaped and In this section we explain why this happens,
changed in different contexts by management through the application of a genealogical ap-
studies as it evolves. proach to analyze of the presentation of Weber in
nine editions of a popular management textbook
Genealogy: The Truth Is Shaped and Maintained over a 25-year period. From archaeology we draw
by the “Family Network” upon the notion that the episteme in which man-
agement textbooks as a genre emerge enables and
The key question, then, is not “Did bureau- encourages statements that promote this straw-
cracy ever catch on?” but rather “Is it as ef- man version of Weber. Unlike archaeology, how-
fective as Weber contended?” The answer, ever, a genealogical approach allows us to high-
unfortunately, appears to be mixed . . . light the relationships and interests that sustain
[While] it is hard to question the positive these interpretations of Weber in management
effects of [some bureaucratic] principles . . . texts and how the dynamic and static nature of this
bureaucracy also extracts important costs. network leads to some subtle changes over time.
—Baron, Through this lens, the construction of the Weber
Behavior in Organizations, strawman can be seen to make the contemporary
(2nd ed., 1986) study of management both possible and progres-
sive. It makes it possible by providing a historical
Weber[’s] . . . classical organization theory foundation on which subsequent research can be
has fallen into disfavor in large part be- layered, a foundation that has hardened through a
86 Academy of Management Learning & Education March
series of interpretations that have built upon each continuity. The key findings with regard to the
other. This sedimentation of knowledge makes the discontinuities are summarized in Table 1 below.
enterprise of management research appear to both Having identified what stayed the same and
be based on noble foundations and be continually what changed, we then offer some explanations
advancing. However, our genealogical analysis for why this might be.
also reveals that the Weber strawman remains The most striking continuity across all nine edi-
contingent and that his theorizing, as well as his tions of the text is the Parsons-inspired interpreta-
contribution to history, depends on the prevailing tion of Weber.3 While the entry in the first edition
power– knowledge relations of the day. When cites Gerth and Mills’ 1948 translation of Essays in
these shift, so too does Weber, in a way that pro- Sociology, the other editions have the Henderson
motes the progressive or “cutting-edge” nature of and Parsons translation of Theory of Social and
contemporary thought, as the quotations juxta- Economic Organization (1947) as their source.4 In
posed at the head of this section reveal. In 1993 this Parsonian interpretation, elements of the nar-
Weber was the naıve organization theorist who rative remain constant: Weber believed bureau-
failed to recognize that change and human needs cracy was the one best way to efficiently organize
would count against bureaucracy. By 2008 he has work, in the same way that Taylor believed that
become a naıve organization theorist who advo- scientific management was the best way to per-
cated a universal view and an authoritarian style form a task. There is also continuity in the cri-
of management, thereby failing to foresee that con- tique of Weber for lacking the complexity of mind
tingency theory was the way forward and that em- to recognize that contingency approaches are
ployees would demand participation in decision best. Throughout all editions we are told that
making. bureaucracies are not as efficient as Weber
Through a genealogical critique, we can trace maintained, making them neither an “ideal” nor
these processes of sedimentation and reactivation perfect organizational form. Finally, there is con-
to demonstrate how the foundations of manage- tinuity in the ongoing value ascribed to Weber’s
ment knowledge provide a base on which knowl- contribution. While his supposed ideal bureau-
edge can accumulate, while also being sufficiently cracy is unrealistic in today’s business environ-
malleable to demonstrate the relevance and supe- ment, the theory of bureaucracy contains valu-
riority of contemporary thinking on the subject. In able elements which have subsequently been
this section, we do this through an analysis of a built upon by other scholars. This has the effect
popular management textbook Behavior in Orga- of solidifying management’s position as a wor-
nizations: Understanding and Managing the Hu- thy “new science.”
man Side of Work. We surveyed a range of man- Descriptions of Weber as a management thinker
agement textbooks which revealed a similar play an important role in the narrative of manage-
treatment of Weber, where he is positioned as “sin- ment history. For management to constitute a field
cerely believing” in “his model” or “his theory” of of study, it requires a history, which in turn re-
an ideal organization, views which have subse- quires early management thinkers. Critical analy-
quently been surpassed by “today’s mangers” who sis of Behavior in Organizations usefully demon-
believe that it “takes away the employee’s creativ- strates this writing of history and its gradual
ity” and a contingency approach that takes us be- sedimentation. In the first edition Weber is a “so-
yond the Weber’s belief in “universally applica- ciologist” (1983: 510). By edition four (1993), how-
ble” management practices (Robbins, 1997: 548; ever, he is also a “classical organizational theo-
Robbins & Coulter, 2005: 30 –36; Robbins, Bergman, rist” (16) and an “organizational scholar” (596).
Stagg, & Coulter 2006: 48 –51). Following our survey These last two subject positions are productive of
of various textbooks, we chose to use Behavior in organizational studies (or management) as fields
Organizations as an illustrative case of this of study, distinct say, from psychology or sociol-
broader phenomenon. This book was particularly ogy. Classical organizational theorist also has the
well suited to examining how Weber’s depiction, effect of adding depth to the historical narrative by
something we might assume to be solid, may shift locating Weber within a group of supposed like-
over time. It has been through nine editions over 27
years, has had the same authorial team, is still 3
being widely prescribed, and has described We- There is no mention of Weber in the text of the third edition,
although he continued to feature in the timeline inside the front
ber’s contribution in eight of its nine editions in the and back covers.
main body of its text (as opposed to appendices 4
In the fourth edition, this is erroneously cited as a 1921 publi-
or footnotes). In analyzing the editions, we cation, and this error remains uncorrected in all subsequent
sought to identify elements of continuity and dis- editions.
2011 Cummings and Bridgman 87
Elements of Discontinuity in Descriptions of Weber/Weber’s Views
Characteristics of the Ideal
Edition Description of Weber Bureaucracy Weber’s View of Bureaucracy Critique of Bureaucracy
1st (1983) Sociologist Specialization; hierarchy; abstract Most efficient design should be Some bureaucracies efficient but not
rules; impersonality adopted as widely as all. Thwarts upward
qualifications; and promotion possible. Bureaucracy communication. Rules become
on merit consistent with trend in ends. Stifles personal growth. Not
Western civilization toward the ideal form in all situations.
2nd (1986) Sociologist Specialization; hierarchy; rules Weber appalled by Negative association with “red
impersonality; hiring by inefficiency, waste and tape.” Useful for large
qualifications; promotion by corruption. Ideal form which organizations. Produces rigidities.
merit; written records all organizations should Thwarts upward communication.
strive for. Overreliance on rules. Reduces
motivation. Not the ideal form in
3rd (1990) Weber not mentioned
4th (1993) Classical organizational Formal rules and regulations; One best way to organize work, Negative association with “red
theorist, sociologist, impersonal treatment; division just as scientific tape.” Not all bureaucracies
organizational of labor; hierarchical structure; management provides a one inefficient and unproductive.
scholar authority structure; lifelong best way to perform jobs. A Insensitive to human needs and
career commitment; rationality universal view of structure. changing environment. Based on
Theory X assumptions.
5th (1995) Classical organizational Formal rules and regulations; One best way to organize work, Negative association with “red
theorist, sociologist, impersonal treatment; division just as scientific tape.” Insensitive to human needs
organizational of labor; hierarchical structure; management provides a one and changing environment. Based
scholar authority structure; lifelong best way to perform jobs. A on Theory X assumptions.
career commitment; rationality universal view of structure.
6th (1997) Classical organizational Formal rules and regulations; One best way to organize work, Negative association with “red
theorist, sociologist, impersonal treatment; division just as scientific tape.” Insensitive to human needs
organizational of labor; hierarchical structure; management provides a one and changing environment. Based
scholar authority structure; lifelong best way to perform jobs. A on Theory X assumptions.
career commitment; rationality universal view of structure.
7th (2000) Classical organizational Formal rules and regulations; One best way to organize work, Negative association with “red
theorist, sociologist, impersonal treatment; division just as scientific tape.” Insensitive to human needs
organizational of labor; hierarchical structure; management provides a one and changing environment. Based
scholar authority structure; lifelong best way to perform jobs. A on Theory X assumptions.
career commitment; rationality universal view of structure.
8th (2003) Classical organizational Formal rules and regulations; Hierarchy of authority where Bureaucracies unpopular today
theorist, sociologist, impersonal treatment; division higher ranks issue orders because employees prefer equal
organizational of labor; hierarchical structure; and lower ranks carry them opportunities. Insensitive to
scholar authority structure; lifelong out. A universal view of human needs and changing
career commitment; rationality structure. environment. Based on Theory X
9th (2008) Classical organizational Formal rules and regulations; Hierarchy of authority where Bureaucracies unpopular today
theorist, sociologist, impersonal treatment; division higher ranks issue orders. A because employees prefer equal
organizational of labor; hierarchical structure; universal view of structure. opportunities. Insensitive to
scholar authority structure; lifelong human needs and changing
career commitment; rationality environment. Based on Theory X
minded theorists from which we have subse- though the first edition clearly states that “Weber
quently moved on. By viewing editions of the text was quite precise. He felt that in its ideal form,
as layers of interpretations, we can see how Weber bureaucracy was characterized by five major fac-
as an organizational theorist becomes the “truth,” tors” (1983: 510).5
despite this interpretation being factually errone- In addition to a change in the number of charac-
ous, as shown earlier. teristics, there is a shift in their ordering in the
Another continuous feature in the presentation fourth edition. Whereas the first two editions be-
of Weber across the nine editions is the inclusion gan with specialization (which became division of
of the characteristics of Weber’s ideal bureau- labor in the fourth edition onward), in the fourth
cracy. However, there are subtle differences in the
presentation of these characteristics in editions 1
and 2 compared with edition 4 onward. In the first 5
In the first edition, rationality was not included as one of the
edition, there are five characteristics, but from the five characteristics, although it was listed separately as an
second edition onward there are seven, even underlying theme.
88 Academy of Management Learning & Education March
and all consequent editions the first feature of the ployees in contrast to bureaucracies, in which
ideal bureaucracy is formal rules and regulations. workers are forced to follow orders. This conve-
This characteristic was previously called abstract niently ignores the fact that most contemporary
rules (first edition) and rules (second edition). As organizations are bureaucratic, to some degree.
well as the change in label, there are changes in Again, the changes here are subtle, but they are
the description of this characteristic: consistent with a representation of Weber to con-
struct a binary logic in which the past is positioned
Edition 1: “All tasks would be carried out in as inferior to the enlightened or evolved thinking
accordance with a consistent system of ab- of the present day, whatever that might be.
stract rules” (1983: 510). Throughout the nine editions of the text studied,
there is a subtle but significant development of the
Edition 2: “Activities should be carried out in historical narrative to reflect contemporary con-
accordance with rules and standard operat- cerns. First, it was that Weber did not realize the
ing procedures” (1986: 439). cost of bureaucracy would likely outweigh the
financial benefits. Then he did not see that peo-
Edition 4: “Written guidelines are used to con- ple were much more “theory Y” than “theory X.”
trol all employees’ behaviors” (1993: 17). Later, when it was contingency theory that re-
quired a counterposition, Weber was led into the
It would be a step too far to label this as a misrep- discussion as the advocate of a universal ap-
resentation of Weber. But by modifying the de- proach to structure.
scription of the characteristics of the ideal bureau- By 2005, it may have been the concern for em-
cracy as the subsequent editions emerge, readers powerment and participatory styles of manage-
of the text are more likely to draw a negative im- ment that encouraged the construction of Weber as
pression of the value of rules and regulations. the promoter of an authoritarian style of manage-
What was in the first edition a system for deliver- ment. It is an example of the “historical present-
ing consistency, which could be interpreted in a ism” that Foucault (1977b: 148) describes in Lan-
positive light, becomes, by the fourth edition, the guage, Counter-Memory and Practice: “In placing
more sinister control of all behavior. Elevating it to present needs at the origin, the metaphysician [or
the first characteristic of bureaucracy suggests historian, seeks to] convince us of an obscure pur-
that it was bureaucracy’s most important feature. pose that seeks its realization at the moment it
These could be considered to be minor changes, arises.”
but they have the effect of reinterpreting Weber in The overriding feature revealed by this critical
a way that reflects the concerns of the time, analysis of the nine editions of Behavior in Orga-
namely, the stifling effects of bureaucratic rules nizations is the way in which Weber’s work is pro-
expressed in the common association of bureau- gressively reduced and simplified, and its evalua-
cracies with “red tape.” tion becomes increasingly negative. In the first
Another illustration of the reinterpretation of edition, Weber’s view of bureaucracy is placed
Weber appears in edition 8 and is repeated in the within the context of his observation of “a shift
ninth edition, where the references to red tape dis- toward rationality in all spheres of life (politics,
appear and a new theme gains prominence. “Be- religion, economics, etc.)” (1983: 510, emphasis in
cause bureaucracies draw sharp lines between original). In the second edition, it is explained that
the people who make decisions (managers) and Weber’s writings were a response to organizations
those who carry them out (workers), they are not that, at the turn of the 20th century, were charac-
particularly popular today. After all, contempo- terized by “inefficiency, waste and corruption”
rary employees prefer to have more equal oppor- (1986: 438). In these early editions of the text, there
tunities to make decisions than bureaucracies is a balanced evaluation of the pros and cons of
permit” (2003: 11). bureaucracy, being well suited to some organiza-
This passage is of interest for several reasons. tions but not to others. From the fourth edition
First, is the language used: “workers” in bureau- onward, the location of Weber within a particular
cracies become “employees” in today’s organiza- historical context gradually disappears. Students
tions. Second, is the assumption that it is only are given no indication of the changing nature of
“workers” who receive orders in bureaucracies, organization that Weber experienced during his
which is odd given that bureaucracies are associ- lifetime and the benefits that a bureaucratic mode
ated with multiple layers of managers receiving of thinking had brought, such as promotion being
orders from other managers. Third, is the emphasis based on merit rather than family connections. It
on “equal opportunities” demanded by today’s em- may be no random event that this characteristic of
2011 Cummings and Bridgman 89
bureaucracy (promotion based on merit) appeared We should begin this conclusion by asking “does
in the first two editions of the text but not from the any of this really matter?” If we share Robbins’
fourth edition onward, and was replaced by “im- assessment of history, with which we began this
personal treatment,” which carries a more nega- article, the answer may be “no.” In his textbook
tive connotation. Throughout subsequent editions Managing Today, history is relegated to the appen-
of the text, the evaluation of bureaucracy becomes dix, “where faculty can assign it and students can
increasingly negative. By the ninth edition, the read it when, or if, they wish” (1997: xvii). By this
best that can be said is that “contemporary OB reasoning, any representation of Weber matters
owes a great deal to Weber for his many pioneer- little, so long as students know that flatter, more
ing ideas” (2008: 15). flexible organizations work well and that bureau-
Having identified both continuities and discon- cracy does not; that contingency theory is best;
tinuities in the presentation of Weber’s bureau- deciding that employees should make their own
cracy theory through nine editions of Behavior in decisions works, but making decisions for them
Organizations, we conclude this section by offer- does not, and so on.
ing an explanation for why this is the case. However, if we believe that management is more
The construction of the strawman Weber is an diverse and more complicated than this; or we
ongoing process comprising processes of sedimen- believe that what we see as “the best way”
tation of prior interpretations and a reactivation changes over time; or if we believe that it is not the
and reconstruction of Weber based on popular con- latest theories that run organizations but manag-
cerns of the present, such as the demand for au- ers making judgments about the relative merits of
tonomy and responsibility. By reconstituting We- different ideas and how these might be inter-
ber as the stepping stone from which we have preted, then a critical appreciation of history
progressed to a more enlightened view of manage- should be of interest and will be of great use to
ment, management texts are able to lay claim to students. To illustrate, we can start by outlining
being at the cutting edge of management thought, four ways in which a student’s self-awareness and
our encounter with the past relevant only in so far judgment might be improved by thinking critically
as it demonstrates the value and superiority of about Weber and his depiction in the history of
contemporary ideas. Paradoxically, this rewriting management.
of the historical narrative surrounding Weber’s First, for students to see that a great figure like
work occurs within the context of a reduced inter- Weber struggled with the upsides and downsides
est on the part of textbook authors in interrogating of bureaucracy (as others have since) would be a
history, based on an assumption articulated by better way of initiating them into our field and its
Robbins at the start of this article, that students are long-standing complexities, than presenting We-
not interested in the historical evolution of man- ¨
ber or other historical figures, as naıve, one-
agement knowledge. It is this representation of dimensional strawmen. This would provide stu-
history which leads us to conclude that history dents with greater confidence to realize that there
remains important to authors of popular main- really is no one best way, not even for great think-
stream management textbooks, if only so far as ers, and that they, like all good managers, must
constructing the “bad old days” with which to com- always assess contexts and the strengths and
pare today’s liberated state of affairs. History and weaknesses of the available options before taking
Weber’s part in it is not a narration of past events. action.
It is written for the present and we can expect it to Second, instead of ruling out “Weberian bureau-
be rewritten again for future generations of stu- cracy” as completely bad or outmoded, recognizing
dents, in such a way that connects to the issues of this interpretation to be an oversimplification can
the day. reveal a number of intelligent possibilities. For
example, recognizing that fashionable flat hierar-
chies are not a revolutionary discontinuity, that
CONCLUSION they are, after all, hierarchies, and that the longev-
ity of this form indicates that it has some strengths,
should help students to develop ways to make
The object was to learn to what extent the bureaucracies more human or egalitarian instead
effort to think one’s own history can free of unwittingly dismissing them wholesale. As Ha-
thought from what it silently thinks, and so rold Leavitt (whose 85 years gave him an extremely
enable it to think differently. broad point of view) put it, “the intensity with
—Foucault, which we struggle against hierarchies [ultimately]
The Use of Pleasure only serves to highlight their durability” (Leavitt &
90 Academy of Management Learning & Education March
Kaufman, 2003: 98). Indeed, in the context of recent genealogy, Foucault took one last methodological
scandals it should be recognized that a major turn. Recognizing that in veering away from ar-
strength of a bureaucracy, when implemented chaeology’s structuralism toward a view where ev-
well, is that it is more able to act and be seen to act erything was caught up in power relations which
ethically than other organizational forms (Du Gay, denuded any critical ability to advocate alterna-
2000). A more rounded appreciation of Weber could tives, he settled on an approach called Interpretive
encourage a better appreciation that organizations Analytics. This was, in effect, a combination of his
can contain both bureaucratic and nonbureau- earlier approaches (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982). In
cratic elements based on a clear understanding of Interpretative Analytics, Foucault’s pregenealogi-
the potential strengths and weaknesses of the cal methods free us from a belief in our direct
form. access to the truth of historical events: There are
Third, on becoming aware of Weber’s broader only interpretations. But then genealogy probes
views, a student might begin to think critically the historical and social roles that the belief in the
about why he has been depicted in such a crude truth of these interpretations, like the changing
and expedient way. It may be human nature to put presentation of Weber, plays. However, genealogy
people in boxes, to see simple categories and con- is only able to highlight the power relations and
tinuities and progress and certain one best ways, “games of truth” played in the formation and main-
when in actual fact the world of organizations is tenance of historical interpretations if it can step
more complex and nuanced, but the case of Weber back again to archaeology and see a number of
should alert students to the complexities involved strata. Pasts, in which, for example, Weber could
in making good managerial judgments while have been different.
working against such predilections to oversimplic- Consequently, we argue, following Foucault,
ity. Hence, a critical historical perspective can help that the primary purpose of embracing manage-
breed greater self-awareness with regard to where ment history should be to work against being re-
students might place themselves on a spectrum of stricted by what others have regarded as historical
views about bureaucracy, or under what condi- conventions, and thereby to enable “thinking dif-
tions might they see a bureaucracy as a good ap- ferently” about management for the future. A crit-
proach. Such self-awareness can work against a ical Foucauldian approach can show students that
herd mentality that can drive unwitting phenom- their history is both questionable and malleable,
ena such as blindly employing “best practice” in and help them to recognize that the future of their
strategy development, to the global financial crisis subject need not be bound by unquestioned histor-
(Nattermann, 2000; Fox, 2008). With such aware- ical foundations and conventions. In other words,
ness, a manager who makes the excuse that they they are freer than what they may have thought to
were only following what others told them to do or “think management differently.” While such uncer-
were doing becomes clearly disingenuous. tainty might increase anxiety (one reason why
Finally, thinking critically about the way man- management gurus sell simple solutions), we be-
agement history is related to the present should lieve that the benefits of what we propose should
help students to see history’s worth as a highly prevail over the weight of responsibility it imposes
relevant repository of useful events and ideas with upon aspiring managers. Concluding that the con-
which to approach present issues, rather than a struction of Weber’s role in the history of manage-
long gone irrelevancy best skipped over to so as to ment is very much an ongoing and dynamic pro-
narrow their gaze on our present heights. Organi- cess, and, therefore, one that we can actively
zational design can be greatly aided by looking change and shape rather than being a hard and
seriously at what clever minds attempted in the fast milestone that must be respected as founda-
past. Viewed short-sightedly, General Motors may tional, enables us to promote an ability among
seem like an abject failure from which little inspi- students to think more ably about the particular
ration may be drawn, and defeating of national complexities that they will be faced with and more
morale . . . until one goes back and reads of the creatively about how to move beyond these.
managerial innovations of Alfred Sloan and how Armed with a less “black and white” under-
these changed the world (Bilton & Cummings, standing of history, students and academics alike
2010). The GFC seems less daunting, and less of a might also be able to engage in more generative
cause for hyperbole, when seen in the light of a discussions about new organizational forms with a
hundred years of crises and comebacks. better understanding of substantial continuity and
But a critical understanding of the historical pre- divergence over time (Palmer, Benveniste, & Dun-
sentation of Weber is not only helpful in the ford, 2007). For example, we may be more moti-
present; it is helpful for the future too. Beyond vated to see what could be beyond contingency
2011 Cummings and Bridgman 91
theory, were we to recognize that Weber had actively engaging in the creation of the interesting
already arrived at that conclusion 100 years ago. alternatives that may lie beyond them, and toward
Or to see what interesting organizational blends thinking differently about what we consider to be
could be built from bureaucratic and nonbureau- the “relevance” of management education (Bridg-
cratic elements, or that information technology man, 2007). Historical interpretations like these
may have advanced to a point where the should not set hard and fast, and recognizing this
strengths that Weber attributed to bureaucracy can be liberating: It can inspire us to be more
might be achieved while incurring the weak- “retro-active” in order to recreate what we see as
nesses to lessening degrees. Or, that there may historically important, and thus, think differently
be forms that predate bureaucracy, which retro- in the present and for the future.
active forces could discover and reinvent. Or, Ironically, it could be that the historical figure we
that forms exist beyond the binary logic of bu- could learn most from in this mission is Max We-
reaucratic–nonbureaucratic. ber—not the one described in most management
While the creative possibilities that we have textbooks but the Weber who believed that contem-
outlined here relate directly to the case of Weber, porary institutions and their management could only
we have used Weber only as an example of what be understood by knowing how they had developed
we believe to be a much broader phenomenon in in peculiar ways, over time.6 Rakesh Khurana (2007:
the presentation of the progress of history in man- 15) claims that the apparent originality of his thesis
agement texts. Other similarly simplistic binary in From Higher Aims to Hired Hands is largely due to
interpretations of progression in management a lack of awareness in management circles of an
studies include centralization (old and bad) and approach whereby one recognizes the relationship
decentralization (new and good); management (old between economic institutions and social norms—an
and bad) and leadership (new and good); stability approach that he traces back to Weber. A critical
(old and bad) and change (new and good); and awareness of Weber, and other historical founda-
planning (old and bad) and emergent strategies tions, could inspire many young students toward
(new and good). Many textbooks in the 1990s were projects like Khurana’s—projects that reinvestigate
sure that decentralization was “the way of the fu- the past to spark radical questioning in the present,
ture” and that centralization was dead (Cum- to change our field in positive ways for the future. If
mings, 1995). Later on, “Leaders” become those we believe that making positive contributions and
confident of their ability, willing to take risks, and improving our field is important, it may be that en-
the people that make things happen, while “Man- couraging our students to think about long dead his-
agers” were those threatened by change, bothered torical figures and their representation is just as im-
by uncertainty, and the people who prefer the sta- portant as reflecting what managers might be doing
tus quo (Campling, Poole, Wiesner, & Schermer- now.
horn, 2006). This simplistic thinking complements
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Stephen Cummings (PhD, University of Warwick, firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor
of strategy at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His current research interests
include the history of the formation of management and of business schools, and alternative
approaches to strategy formulation and communication.
Todd Bridgman (PhD, University of Cambridge, email@example.com) is a senior lecturer
at the Victoria Management School, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His
current research interests include critical perspectives on management education and organi-