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Toward a Critical
I-O Psychology



Nathan Gerard
California State University, Long Beach



Over the past decade, critical scholarship in the field of management has experienced a veritable explosion. A burgeoning new area of research, teaching, and practice under the name of “critical management studies” (CMS) has inspired numerous course readers (Alvesson & Willmott, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2011d; Grey & Willmott, 2005), handbooks (Alvesson, Bridgman, & Willmott, 2011; Prasad, Prasad, Mills, & Mills, 2016), textbooks (Alvesson & Willmott, 2003; Tadajewski, 2011), and practitioner guides (Cox, Letretn-Jones, Voronov, & Weir, 2009; Malin, Murphy, & Siltaoja, 2013), not to mention a recent “All-Academy Conference Theme” at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (“Capitalism in Question” in 2013). Despite this momentum, critical scholarship has yet to penetrate the closely related field of industrial-organizational psychology.

In this paper, I introduce the critical scholarly tradition to scholars and practitioners of I-O psychology in the hopes of stimulating dialogue. I begin with an account of the critical tradition’s intellectual history in relation to two better-known traditions in the social sciences. I then go on to demonstrate how a critical vantage cultivated from the critical scholarly tradition can offer (a) new approaches to theory-building, (b) new methodologies for research, and (c) new frameworks for practice. The result is a preliminary outline for a new sub-field of study called “critical I-O psychology.”

Three Scholarly Traditions

As scholars and practitioners of organizations, we rarely explore the history of ideas that determine what we do and who we are. Doing so, however, can be an invaluable exercise not only for illuminating the present but also for shaping the future. In this section, I explore the intellectual origins of three scholarly traditions in the social sciences—positivist, interpretive, and critical—demonstrating how each influences our contemporary understanding of organizational life. Through this exercise we may better understand the unique “value-add” of adopting a critical approach to I-O psychology.

As is well known, the bulk of ideas in psychology, including I-O psychology, derive from the positivist tradition in the social sciences (Allport, 1954, 1968; Comte, 1854). As a testament to this tradition’s dominance, the characteristics of positivist research read simply like a checklist of good research: controlled experiments and quantifiable variables, formal propositions and hypothesis testing, generalizations from a sample to a stated population, the use of inferential statistics to “discover” causal laws; researcher detachment, random assignment of subjects, and control over confounding influences (Adler et al., 2008; Alvesson & Deetz, 2000; Orlikowski & Baroudi, 1991).

Less known are the underlying assumptions informing this dominant tradition. Chief among these is the assumption that concepts and methods employed in the natural sciences apply in a more or less direct manner to the formation of a “science of society” and “science of mind” (Giddens, 1974). The origins of this assumption can be traced to Descartes’ (1641) deductive method for arriving at knowledge, and specifically his conviction that if mental events were ordered and connected (Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas”) then so too must reality. The British empiricist philosophers (Bacon, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume) would share in Descartes’ conviction but trade reason for a posteriori experience as the vehicle for contacting reality. Out of this seminal thinking emerges the hypothetic-deductive (i.e., scientific) method, the backbone of positivist research (Popper, 1934).

The positivist tradition does not, of course, hold a monopoly on scholarship in I-O psychology. The interpretive tradition (as the name implies) explores the social world through the process of interpretation, a process often juxtaposed with explanation. This tradition has its roots in the 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico’s (1725) proposal for an alternative to the Cartesian approach to arriving at knowledge. When studying the human, Vico insists, one must employ methods driven by sympathy and not by Cartesian doubt (Belaval, 1969; Berlin, 1976). The 18th and 19th century German Geisteswissenschaften tradition of human sciences would help solidify Vico’s beliefs with their emphasis on meaningful interpretation over causal explanation (Dilthey, 1961). Out of these roots emerge the social constructionist (Gergen, 1973), phenomenological (Giorgi, 1970), and hermeneutic (Messer, Sass, & Woolfolk, 1988) strands of psychology, elements of which can be found informing qualitative approaches in I-O psychology (Locke & Golden-Biddle, 2002). Millward’s (2006) recent longitudinal study of retention among working mothers, for instance, in which extensive, first-hand accounts of sense-making processes are interpreted in the context of identity management and the evolving psychological contract, serves as a clear example of this tradition’s influence on our field.

The critical tradition, in contrast, is the least known to psychology and virtually nonexistent in I-O psychology. Like the above traditions, however, it enjoys a distinct lineage of thought and set of philosophical commitments. This lineage begins in earnest with Immanuel Kant, and specifically his famous trilogy of critiques (Kant, 1781, 1788, 1790) in which Kant unveils the nature and limits of human knowledge in the wake of the scientific revolution. For Kant, ideas (including scientific ones) reside in a broader “totality” beyond appearance. Also within these works, Kant puts forth an elaborate defense of human freedom in the face of determinist arguments. This dual commitment to critique and emancipation provides the intellectual framework for the critical scholarly tradition (Critchley, 2001).  

Two more theorists prove seminal to establishing the critical tradition’s intellectual foundations. The first, Georg Hegel (1807), deepens Kant’s critical project by revealing its historical contingency, while the second, Karl Marx (1845), inverts Kant’s idealism into a materialist theory based on the development of human productive power. For Marx in particular, societies rise and fall not because of their ideas but because of their simultaneous cultivation and containment of human productivity—an argument encouraging the study of forces and structures beyond the intersubjective world that shape behavior.

In light of this history, the distinguishing features of critical scholarship come into clear focus. Unlike positivist and interpretive scholarship, which largely take for granted institutional power relations permeating social phenomena (and by extension their own research), critical scholarship aims to incorporate these relations into its frame of reference, focusing on the broader totality of forces underpinning social reality. Returning to the topic of retention, for instance, this would entail examining who this topic serves (e.g., labor or management), who or what gets left out (e.g., the “un-retained”) and what, in turn, gets reinforced (e.g., managerial bias; see Brief, 2000).

Through clarifying this totality of forces underpinning social reality, critical researchers begin to make good on their emancipatory aim. If, paraphrasing Marx (1845), the role of critical scholarship is not only to interpret the world but also to change it, critical researchers strive to change this world by cultivating a collective awareness of the various forms of social domination in peoples’ lives. This cultivation can take the form of re-ordering meanings, raising awareness and/or challenging social domination (Malin, et al., 2013). (See Table 1). 

Table 1
Three Scholarly Traditions







Intellectual origins

Rene Descartes & the British Empiricists; Auguste Comte

Giambattista Vico; The Geist tradition of human sciences

Immanuel Kant; Georg Hegel; Karl Marx

Underlying assumptions

Social nature as factual and objective
Social order found in law-like, linear regularities

Social nature as constructed

Social order found in shared norms and interests

Social nature as a broader totality of forces

Social order found in asymmetric power relations


Prediction and

Meaning and understanding

Critique and emancipation

In what follows, I outline in further detail how insights gleaned from the critical scholarly tradition can offer (a) new approaches to theory building, (b) new methodologies for research, and (c) new frameworks for practice in I-O psychology.

Critical Theory-Building

Ideally, theory should help us uncover aspects of our lives other than those we’ve already thought of, challenging us to think and act differently (Becker, 1998). As Clifford Geertz (1995) reminds us, “we are in no danger of running out of reality; we are in constant danger of running out of signs, or at least of having the old ones die on us” (p. 19). In contrast with the positivist ideal, the aim of critical theory building is not to produce neutral signs that closely mirror reality (Eisenhardt, 1989) but socially and politically engaged signs that challenge our very sense of reality, pointing us to unfamiliar terrain.

Critical management scholars Mats Alvesson and Dan Kärreman (2007, 2011) fashion an approach to critical theory-building based on the guiding metaphors of friction and breakdown. Friction, and in particular the friction that arises between theory and reality, leads to a breakdown that in turn leads to seeing things differently. “In any kind of study,” Alvesson and Kärreman (2011) point out, “there is always the potential for something that will speak out sufficiently firmly against the assumptions and reasoning that the researcher holds and is engaged in” (p. 20). Critical theory-building entails not shying away from these breakdowns, paying attention “to what does not work in an existing theory” and looking for what remains hidden or left out of our existing frameworks (Alvesson & Kärreman, 2007; p. 1266). “Breakdowns may appear problematic initially, but they also create spaces where imagination can be put to work” (Alvesson & Kärreman, 2011, p. 18).

The critical tradition’s focus on the process of theorizing has direct implications for I-O psychology, and particularly for the concepts we prioritize in our scholarship. In a rare endogenous critique of our field, Brian Steffy and Andrew Grimes (1992) challenge us to consider how I-O concepts might be “infused with the values and political aims of the designer of the concepts” (p. 186). By acknowledging these values and aims, we might resist the temptation to steadily dilute our concepts from a complex (and often highly contentious) totality to an isolated state of mind, thereby evacuating not just meaning but also politics and history. One early exemplar in this regard is Walter Nord’s (1977) “Job Satisfaction Reconsidered,” a theoretical study exposing the “prevailing social, political, and economic values” that arbitrarily limit this classic I-O construct (p. 1027). As an alternative, Nord (1977) advocates for a wider perspective on job satisfaction: “Instead of attempting to design work that is maximally satisfying under an existing set of political, economic, and social structures, these structures must be viewed as variables whose effects on the nature of work and other aspects of organizational life are central to our analysis” (p. 1032).

More generally, by encouraging a wider dialogue around theory, the critical scholarly tradition offers I-O psychologists new ways of asking questions about organizational life. That these questions may not conveniently fit with conventional methods is all for the better, for it pulls us out of our comfort zone to explore new methods.

Critical Methods

If the positivist tradition runs the risk of depleting the complexity of organizational life by prioritizing measurement over meaning, the interpretive tradition makes room for meaning but tends to neglect politics and history. I-O psychologists may salvage the complexity of organizational life while retaining its sociohistorical and political dimensions by branching out into the relatively “unorthodox” critical methods.

Many if not most critical methods share affinities with the interpretive tradition, but with the added proviso of a critical edge. Critical discourse analysis (CDA), for instance, emerges from the social constructionist-inspired method of discourse analysis (Parker & Shotter, 1990; Potter, 1996; Potter & Wtherel, l1987) but with added focus on the regimes of power that infuse language use (Alvesson & Kärreman, 2000; Foucault, 1980; Hardy, Palmer, & Philips, 2000). Similarly, critical ethnography draws from the interpretive method of ethnography, but with added focus on power, ideology, and societal structure (Elmes & Costello, 1992; Madison, 2012; Rosen & Ashtley, 1988).

Intriguingly, one of the first CDAs (Mills, 1948) was conducted on the discourse of Elton Mayo’s school of human relations. “If we coded all the terms referring to managers and to workmen in this literature,” writes the sociologist C. Wright Mills (1948), “[we]…find that managers are most frequently seen along lines of intelligent-unintelligent, rational-irrational, knowledge-ignorance; whereas workmen are seen most frequently along the lines of happy-unhappy, efficient-inefficient, good morale-bad morale” (p. 23). This contrast leads Mills (1948) to rhetorically ask, “how much of the advice, given and latent, can be picked up with the simple formula: to make the worker happy, efficient, and cooperative we need only make the managers intelligent, rational, knowing? Is this the latent political formula of human relations research in industry?” (p. 23).

Mills’ research calls into question the rather sanguine use of language by present-day I-O psychologists. How, for instance, might terms invoking the valorized ideals of sport (“talent,” “coaching,” “fit”), community (“values,” “culture”), and education (“learning and development”)—all of which carry a benign and even uplifting tone—actually function to conceal the autocratic functioning of organizations that (ironically) precludes the realization of these very ideals?

To complement this focus on text and speech, critical researchers capture the lived experiences of workers through the method of critical ethnography (Elmes & Costello, 1992; Madison, 2012; Rosen & Astley, 1988). Recent critical ethnographic studies of organizational life have examined how cultural change programs aimed at bolstering employee commitment also serve as mechanisms for achieving control over employees through regulating their identities (Casey, 1999; Kunda, 1992; van Maanen, 1992) whereas others have explored how the rise in identity regulation at work (Hochschild, 1983) spills over into workers’ nonwork lives (Fleming, 2005, 2009; Gregg, 2011). I-O psychologists, often narrowly focused on surveys, rarely examine worker subjectivity in this same manner of depth. Doing so, however, promises to add some much-needed nuance to more mainstream findings, which all too often unwittingly reinforce the status quo (Baritz, 1960; Brief, 2000).

Together, critical discourse analysis and critical ethnography offer two potent methods for examining the “totality” of contemporary organizational life (for others, see Alvesson & Deetz, 2000). By learning from and ultimately engaging with these methods, we may discover something new about our subject matter (and perhaps even ourselves), and in the process broaden the scope of what constitutes “good” research in I-O psychology (Symon & Cassell, 2006).

Critical Practice

 Given the resounding worry over I-O psychology’s lack of influence on the world of practice (Gelade, 2006; Hodgkinson, 2006; Silzer, Cober, Erickson, & Robinson, 2008; Wall, 2006), the critical scholarly tradition can inspire new ways to connect with the practitioner community. For starters, critical research has the potential to align more closely with the experiences of workers and managers insofar as it directly confronts the thorny issues of power and politics pervading everyday organizational life (Voronov, Cox, LeTrent-Jone, & Weir, 2009). Practical interventions informed by critical research would be defined by their ability to make explicit the links between social structures and psychological phenomena, with a focus on oppression, manipulation, and liberation (Sullivan, 1984). One current example is the widespread promotion of “participatory workplaces” by The Next System Project, a consortium of prominent academics and advocates seeking to combat the growing disparity of pay and power in organizations through a series of teach-ins, webinars, and videos (Alperovitz, Speth, & Guinan, 2015; Hahnel, 2016).

Education also serves as a central practical terrain for the critical tradition. Unlike their counterparts in sociology, students in I-O psychology rarely require coursework in the philosophy and history of science; coursework that would equip them with the conceptual tools necessary to discuss the historical development of ideas. Crucially, this coursework would also help students understand and spot the threat of “scientism”—the dislocation of science from the sociohistorical realm (Hayek, 1980; Putnam, 1990)—that looms large in many of I-O psychology’s ahistorical explanations of behavior (Baritz, 1960; Gerard, 2014a).

Last, insights gleaned from the critical scholarly tradition can motivate us as teachers to seriously consider how our concepts and measures get put to use beyond the classroom. All too often, I-O psychology curricula prepare students to take their place in organizations in order to improve performance without equipping them with the tools necessary to understand (let alone notice) the struggles for power at work and within modern society. Through a dialogue with the critical scholarly tradition, students “can begin to see themselves in relation to the world around them, and to perceive the workplace as a site within larger economies of power and privilege” (Kinceloe & McLaren, 1994, p. 146-147).


Despite having much to offer, the critical scholarly tradition is sure to elicit its share of strong reactions. For many scholars and practitioners in I-O psychology, it may seem to fall victim to a glaring contradiction: How could one possibly be critical of the status quo while residing within it? Moreover, wouldn’t “biting the hand that feeds” be, at best, counterproductive, and at worst, career destroying?

To be sure, a critical I-O psychology cannot secure its academic right to exist solely in opposition to the status quo. Such a stance runs the risk of devolving into a parasitic one, whereby critical scholarship merely “feeds” off the mainstream for critical fodder while society’s injustices and inequalities carry on unaddressed. The critical tradition’s commitment to emancipation is thus essential here, and not solely to offset critique but also to transform it into a positive force. Echoing Karl Weick (1979), “there is a need for a dialectic between criticism and affirmation as modes of apprehending organizations” (p. 12).

More broadly, when weighing the prospects of critical scholarship in I-O psychology, we would do well to highlight the recent inroads forged by critical scholars in the neighboring field of management. Two decades ago, serious consideration of Karl Marx in a business school setting would seem unfathomable; today, however, scholars identified with critical management studies (CMS) are institutional mainstays, and CMS is one of the fastest-growing and internationally-diverse divisions in all of the Academy of Management (Adler et al., 2008). Clearly for the Academy, the value of critical scholarship outweighs its perceived threat. SIOP has little to fear and a lot to learn from this example.


As experts of these strange and complex things called organizations, we enjoy one of the widest remits in all of psychology and yet have failed to make full use of it. Our field’s research agendas, however fearless in tackling such important issues as workplace inequality and discrimination, rarely question the institutional structures and ideological forces that leave these phenomena stubbornly intact. Moreover, our field’s commitment to applying “the rigor and methods of psychology…to issues of critical relevance to business” (SIOP, 2015), however much rigorous and relevant, arbitrarily precludes issues of critical relevance to broader society (Gerard, 2014b). We owe it to ourselves to think and act more broadly.

The critical scholarly tradition on offer here, with its dual commitment to critique and emancipation, provides just such a vehicle to account for humanity’s bigger concerns and in the process expands the reach of I-O psychology.


1 Mindful of her philosophical commitments, Millward (2006) clarifies the assumptions underlying her research approach and sets this in contrast to the predominant (positivist) approach of identifying retention predictors.

2 Although for forerunners in our field, see Nord (1974, 1977) and Veldsman (1990).

3 Brief (2000), for example, observes how we are more prone to study survivors of layoffs than those fired: “Apparently, how these people cope with having lost their jobs is not widely seen as interesting to management scholars as are the job attitudes of their more fortunate counterparts” (p. 347).

4 That we continue to exclude such variables from our analysis, however, suggests more than the simple fact that they defy easy measurement or manipulation; it likely points to a stubborn reluctance to engage with new ideas and experiment with new forms of organizing. On this point, see the illuminating exchange between Locke (1978) and Nord (1978) that arose from Nord’s (1977) article.

5 This was the definition of I-O psychology posted on SIOP’s homepage up until at least early 2015, a definition I had critically reflected upon in an earlier commentary (Gerard, 2014b). I am happy to report it has since changed to read “issues of critical relevance to individuals, businesses, and society.”

6 I wish to acknowledge affinities here with the recent burgeoning activity in humanitarian work psychology (HWP; McWha-Hermann, Maynard, & Berry, 2016), pioneered (in part) by the early calls for an explicit I-O ethics (Lefkowitz, 1990, 2003), In my mind, however, HWP is more an application of existing I-O constructs, methods and approaches to humanitarian causes—what Lefkowitz (2016) calls “the profession as applied to humanitarian agendas” (p. 200)—rather than a fundamental assessment of I-O’s underlying assumptions. Moreover, the critical scholarly tradition might question a humanism that fails to interrogate the socioeconomic structure in which it is embedded. It is telling, for instance, that “capitalism” is not mentioned once in McWha-Hermann, Maynard, & Berry (2016). On this point, see Gerard (2014a).


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