Book Chapter

Conceptualizing Critical HRD (CHRD): Tensions, Dilemmas, and Possibilities



Fenwick T (2014) Conceptualizing Critical HRD (CHRD): Tensions, Dilemmas, and Possibilities. In: Poell R, Rocco T & Roth G (eds.) The Routledge Companion to Human Resource Development. Routledge Companions in Business, Management and Accounting. London: Routledge, pp. 113-123.

This chapter offers an introduction and overview to critical modes of enquiry and practice in human resource development. Since Barbara Townley’s (1994) Foucauldian analysis of HRD practices, critical HRD scholarship has burgeoned to the point where Callahan (2007) claims that it represents ‘a’ future of HRD research. Critical human resource development (CHRD) is by now, as evidenced in the collection edited by Stewart, Rigg and Trehan (2006), a diffuse association of critical perspectives, pedagogies, and declarations of what critical management means.  Two main principles, however, underpin this diverse scholarship. First, CHRD fundamentally promotes critical analysis of power relations, commonly focused on inequities as well as the issues of gender, diversity and their intersections emphasized by Metcalfe (2008), Bierema (2008), Alfred and Chlup (2010), and others. In context of human resource development studies, this analysis challenges the subjugation of human knowledge, skills, relationships and education to orthodoxies of rationalised, universalised organizational and management knowledge, goals and practices. CHRD assumes that managers and staff can learn, for example, to both notice and interrupt the ways organizational structures and HRD practices can compromise human dignity and health, ethical engagements with stakeholders, and ecological and social responsibility. Second, as part of the critical tradition, CHRD is oriented towards action - improving social life. It assumes that practitioners can learn to envision and help bring about reform of organizations and management practice to enable, in Kincheloe’s (1999) words, more just, equitable, life-giving and sustainable workplaces.  Tensions and dilemmas about what precisely is ‘critical’ and how to engage critical learning flourish within this field of CHRD as energetically as they do in the critical social sciences more broadly. This chapter takes up a broad discussion of these tensions, particularly around critiques of ‘emancipation’ and empowerment levelled at the more zealous, less reflexive enunciations of critical learning and development. A framework is outlined in an attempt to build upon the important work of CMS (e.g. Grey and Wilmott 2002) and critical pedagogy writers, and incorporate diverse other theoretical contributions to offer a more diffuse and rather less morally confident orientation to CHRD. This is not intended to provide a heuristic device for CHRD writers and practitioners, nor is it designed to embrace all diverse critical positions. It is a recognition of certain attitudes that bear similarity across selected critical perspectives, and a statement of values. These draw largely from those critical management studies focusing on questions of interests served by the organization of work, exclusions from the construction of knowledge (Alvesson & Willmott, 1996, p. 11), effects of economic ideologies, power relations underpinning organizational structures (Fournier & Grey, 2000), and discursive practices that regulate individuals within these structures (Townley, 1994). This framework also draws from critical and feminist pedagogies (e.g. Brookfield & Holst 2010) the injunction to engage people in critical analysis of social practices, texts and environments to examine the inequities produced and the possibility for more just and generative practices.  For the purposes of this framework, the general attitudes of these theories, not their specific approaches and objects, are integrated with critical management studies and critical adult education sources in terms of overall purpose, assumptions and implications for CHRD practice. This framework is not intended to totalize or harmonize the vibrant pluralism now flourishing in the general field of critical human resource development studies, but is offered as but one provisional, partial view among many possible approaches to critical approaches in HRD.  The first section of the chapter reviews existing writing in CHRD and outlines the tensions embedded in what comprises ‘critical’. The second develops a framework and principles that might delineate an approach to critical human resource development. Section three discusses a series of dilemmas inherent in these principles and in the general project of critical human resource development, both theoretical and practical. The final section offers approaches to CHRD that attempt to navigate these dilemmas without losing central critical principles.

critical HRD; critical management education; managerialism; critical pedagogy; reflexivity; contradiction

Title of seriesRoutledge Companions in Business, Management and Accounting
Publication date31/08/2014
Publisher URL
Place of publicationLondon

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Professor Tara Fenwick

Professor Tara Fenwick

Emeritus Professor, Education