Critical Marketing – Defining the Field

Per Skålén (Service Research Center, Karlstad University, Karlstad, Sweden)

International Journal of Service Industry Management

ISSN: 0956-4233

Article publication date: 20 June 2008



Skålén, P. (2008), "Critical Marketing – Defining the Field", International Journal of Service Industry Management, Vol. 19 No. 3, pp. 435-437.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This book is an edited volume of 15 chapters plus an introduction. The book is organized into three sections: “Being a critical marketer”, “Critical debates” and “Effecting change through critique”. The editors comment on their ambitions in writing the book thus: “The spirit of this volume … is to create a more substantial … cohesive identity for critical marketing” (XIX).

Both Critical Marketing (CMR) as a field of inquiry and the book under review are indebted to, and should be seen as a part of, critical management studies (CMS) (see, for instance, Alvesson and Willmott (eds.) 2003 for a recent overview), which was established as a field of inquiry in opposition to mainstream management studies in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Since then, CMS has grown in importance, particularly in the UK. Today, CMS has its own conferences, journals, interest groups, etc. and has thus become institutionalized as a field of academic inquiry. The distinctive mark of CMS is that the analysis of management issues is informed by thought traditions that question the prevailing order, e.g. critical theory and post‐structuralist approaches. As stated in the reviewed volume, the aim of critical research is to “make explicit certain ideologies and assumptions … [in order] to reveal the power relations and contested interests that are embedded in knowledge production” (XVIII).

A critical perspective is clearly relevant to service research. Seen through a critical lens, service marketing would be positioned as a governmental discourse prescribing control, not only of what organizations produce but also of how production is carried out. Accordingly, from a critical perspective service marketing is not a neutral discourse but one that makes ideological assumptions. Adopting a critical perspective enables us to analyze more thoroughly the type of assumptions it makes and the effects they have (Skålén et al., 2007).

The contributors writing in the first section of the book devote themselves to reflecting upon on what critical marketing research is (or should be), as well as its current state. The well‐crafted contribution (Chapter 3) of Bradshaw and Fuat Firat is one example of this. They argue that: “for a critical approach to marketing, the analysis must contain certain elements that may be most closely related to the Critical Theory School of Marxist thought. If this is not the case, the true contributions that critical thinking can bring to a universal understanding of marketing will be thwarted” (p. 34). The point that they make in this chapter is that very few contributions to “critical” marketing have been based on critical theory – listing a few contributions to consumer research as exceptions. A similar point is made by Brownlie and Hewer (Chapter 4). These authors argue that some contributors to critical marketing have praised the usefulness of critical theory but that few studies have been carried out. Their conclusion is: “It is now time to put critical aspirations into action” (p. 59). Others believe that CMR is alive and well. This is the position taken by Schroeder (Chapter 2). Even though Schroeder argues that different forms of Marxian analysis, including critical theory, Foucauldian analysis, and feminism, should be at the heart of a critical analysis, he argues that CMR has accomplished such studies. Schroeder maintains that “It is not enough to bemoan a lack of scholarship, one must critically engage in the critical marketing literature itself, before blithely criticizing” (p. 26). To some extent, I have a hard time following the logic of Schroeder's argument since his criteria for considering research to be critical according to my interpretation are not met by many of the sources he quotes as such.

The diverging standpoints regarding the current state of critical marketing stem to some extent from the fact that the boundaries of marketing can be drawn in different places. If the consumer research boundary is drawn a long way into the field of the sociology of consumption, then there will be a lot of critical marketing research. On the other hand, if consumer research is more narrowly defined, which I think it should be, few studies will exist. If we turn to managerial marketing, e.g. marketing research focusing on intra‐organizational issues, and particularly service marketing, no critical contributions are noted in the reviewed volume. However, it is within the boundaries of the latter fields, where marketing researchers do not need to compete with sociologists, that a real contribution can be made, as was noted by Alvesson and Willmott (1996) over ten years ago.

After reading the first part of the book, we are thus left with a feeling that CMR, as a field of empirical inquiry, is close to non‐existent. The field thus seems to be open enabling the studies in parts two and three to put a real stamp on CMR in general and critical managerial marketing in particular. Were they able to do this? The answer has to be not really. The second section of the book is dominated by consumer research. Two of these contributions, Mcfall's (Chapter 9) on advertising and Arnould's (Chapter 10) on the market, are more firmly based in a Marxian tradition. Even though these are fine chapters, this type of consumer research always has to square up to the muscles of the sociology of consumption, making the contribution vague, e.g. are the papers telling us a story that has already been told in sociology within the boundaries of marketing, or is fresh knowledge surfacing? The paper most clearly addressing managerial or intra‐organizational marketing is Chapter 7 by Marion. Here, Marion continues his interest in and critique of the nodal point of managerial marketing, “the marketing concept” (Marion, 2006), by drawing on March's distinction between exploration and exploitation, asking whether the marketing concept fosters market‐driven or market‐driving behaviour and organizations. This is a good example of research that is critical without being based on an ideological critique.

In my view, the contributions made in the third section fail to qualify as critical. Two of the chapters (11 and 13) seek to redirect the managerial rationality of marketing with the intention of making it “better” but failing to criticize it. As a minimum requirement, critical marketing texts have to be informed by the understanding that arguing for a “better” world is per se a form of prescription which critical marketing research needs to unpack and deconstruct rather than to reproduce or invent. The contributions in the third section are rather far from making explicit the power relations embedded in discourse which, according to the editors of the reviewed volume, is a central aim of critical marketing.

Does the book achieve “defining the field of critical marketing” as the title suggests? I think that it does – but that it also fails to do so. The contributions in the first section clearly define what CMR should be and can become. As such, they offer a definition of the field of CMR and the base that CMR can build on, together with other contributions (Brownlie et al., 1999; Burton, 2001; Morgan, 2003). However, the book mostly fails to do critical marketing. Most of the papers are instructions regarding how to do CMR, conceptual analysis, or reviews of research. Only one contribution (not counting Chapters 1 and 2 based on e‐mail surveys sent to academics regarding what CMR is) is informed by firsthand data, and this contribution is not very critical. It is now time to do critical marketing rather than saying that it needs to be done. Furthermore, the potential of CMR for reflecting on service research and the practice it has contributed towards creating need to be addressed in future research.


Alvesson, M. and Willmott, H. (1996), Making Sense of Management: A Critical Introduction, Sage, London.

Alvesson, M. and Willmott, H. (Eds) (2003), Studying Management Critically, Sage, London.

Brownlie, D., Saren, M., Wensley, R. and Whittington, R. (Eds) (1999), Rethinking Marketing: Towards Critical Marketing Accountings, Sage, London.

Burton, D. (2001), “Critical marketing theory: the blueprint?”, European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 35 Nos 5/6, pp. 72243.

Marion, G. (2006), “Marketing ideology and criticism: legitimacy and legitimization”, Marketing Theory, Vol. 6 No. 2, pp. 24562.

Morgan, G. (2003), “Marketing and critique: prospects and problems”, in Alvesson, M. and Willmott, H. (Eds), Studying Management Critically, Sage, London.

Skålén, P., Fougère, M. and Fellesson, M. (2007), Marketing Discourse: A Critical Perspective, Routledge, London.

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