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Business as service? Human relations and the British interwar management movement

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Mairi Maclean, Gillian Shaw, Professor Charles Harvey



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


To what extent should business have an implication of service when its fundamental purpose is profit-seeking? We explore this issue through a contextually informed reappraisal of British interwar management thinking (1918-1939), drawing on rich archival material concerning the Rowntree business lectures and management research groups. Whereas existing literature is framed around scientific management versus human relations schools, we find a third pronounced, related theme: business as service. Our main contribution is to identify the origins in Britain of the discourse of corporate social responsibility in the guise of business as service. We show that this emerged earlier than commonly assumed and was imbued with an instrumental intent from its inception as a form of management control. This was a discourse emanating not from management theorists but from management practitioners, striving to put the corporate system on a sustainable footing while safeguarding the power, authority, and legitimacy of incumbent management elites.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Maclean M, Shaw G, Harvey C

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Human Relations

Year: 2022

Volume: 75

Issue: 8

Pages: 1585-1614

Print publication date: 01/08/2022

Online publication date: 19/01/2022

Acceptance date: 22/09/2021

Date deposited: 07/10/2021

ISSN (print): 0018-7267

ISSN (electronic): 1741-282X

Publisher: Sage


DOI: 10.1177/00187267211070771

Notes: 75th Anniversary Issue


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