managers in need of an identity


One of the central premises of the first half of Rakesh Khurana’s new book, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands, is that at the turn of the century management was an occupation without an identity or legitimacy. Managers, while fulfilling important roles in business, did not have a recognized role in American society. Many people didn’t know what managers did. The management toolkit, as we know it today, did not exist. Compared to other traditional occupations and professions, managers lacked status. If managers were to gain their desired status and legitimacy, they first needed to collectively define among themselves a new identity for management.

This transformation occurred in a time when the credibility of the corporate enterprise was also questionable. Populists and labor both had complaints about the increasing power of the corporation. As the corporate form became an ever-useful tool in the hands of the wealthy elite, both parties felt that its rising influence would disrupt societal order. Management used their position as mediators within the corporation, the brokers between labor and elite and between capitalists and community, to develop a sense of social purpose for their occupation and to decry the need for the professionalization of management.

Given these openings, management had a clear opportunity to legitimize itself if it could shift the ground of the argument from the legitimacy of the corporation to the value of managers as the natural leaders of the emerging corporate order. For management to take advantage of this moment, it would be necessary to offer the public an explanation of what management did and to standardize managerial work, and the market for it, by standardizing its producers. In other words, managers would have to be adequately trained and socialized to present themselves as providing distinct services for exchange in the labor market. At the same time, managers would need to construct a collective identity for themselves and infuse it with content that served to portray management as an ordering institution producing clear benefits for society. As soon as these requirements for the explanation and identity of management came to be understood, circumstances were ripe for the emergence of a vanguard of what DiMaggio calls “institutional entrepreneurs” – interested actors who would dedicate themselves to framing this new reality for others.

In the first section of the book Khurana describes the process of organizing a new management identity. The business school became the place for this collective action. The business school was an ideal location inasmuch as it drew upon three prominent institutions: science, the university, and the professions. By creating a place where management could be standardized and managers socialized, the groundwork was laid for the creation of a new profession, akin to the function of law and medical schools. Whether they would be successful or not in this venture is also the topic of Khurana’s book.

I don’t think I’ve read anything that so insightfully deals with the professionalization of management. I had the undergrads in my complex organizations course read chapter 1 (which I just described) in connection with Weber and bureaucracy. I thought the chapter might be a little heavy for undergrads but they absolutely loved it. We had the best class discussion of the semester after reading the chapter.

Written by brayden king

September 22, 2007 at 4:07 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Precisely today Will Davies just posted in his blog a review of a crucial reference (in European sociology) on management identity and legitimization — Boltanski and Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism. Just for information:



    September 22, 2007 at 4:59 pm

  2. […] an earlier post I talked about the impetus for the creation of business schools, as outlined in Rakesh […]


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