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Cultural politics in critical action learning: A Bourdieusian analysis of a management development program in Tanzania

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

  • Ulrike Burger
Publication date2023
Number of pages246
Awarding Institution
Award date17/02/2023
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Critical action learning (CAL) is a collaborative approach to management learning that uses sets of managers and a cyclical process of action and reflection on real-life managerial problems to create learning that has the potential to transform managerial practice. What distinguishes CAL from conventional approaches to action learning is its explicit focus on critical reflection and the exploration of the political and emotional dynamics that are mobilised in the sets as a source for learning.

Studies have shown that the broader local context in which CAL participants are
embedded has the potential to mobilise political dynamics in the sets that promote or constrain learning from critical reflection. In this research, I investigate the impact of participants’ local cultural context on CAL in an organisational program in Tanzania. To date this is a neglected phenomenon in academic research, where studies exploring such dynamics have been almost exclusively conducted in Western settings. I argue that to understand the potential and limitations of CAL in non-Western contexts, it is important to gain insight into the cultural politics that are mobilised in the participants’
experience with a CAL design and the ways in which they constrain or promote

The research has originated from my own professional experience as a Learning and Development Consultant working across the globe, and I use my own work as a vehicle for the study. Using an ethnographic approach, I examine the introduction of a CALbased leadership development program (LDP) for middle managers in a microfinance institution (MFI) in Tanzania, in which I had a leading role in designing and facilitating.

To explore the cultural dynamics in the LDP in some depth and a systematic manner, I draw on a Bourdieu’s theory of practice (1992) to analyse the assumptions about learning and managing that underpin the LDP (field), the participants’ local culture (habitus), and the participants’ tendencies to act in the CAL sets (practice).

The analysis surfaced three cultural dynamics that have limited learning. These were rooted in the participants’ experience of the CAL design as threat to their positioning in both the organisation and their communities and manifested themselves in their strategies to protect the recognition of their managerial authority, the harmony in their peer relationships, and their financial income. These strategies significantly limited critical reflection in the LDP and were sustained by my own facilitation practice.

This study contributes to knowledge in several ways: First, it surfaces how in Tanzanian organisations, set members meet as ‘experts and apprentices with commonalities’ rather than as ‘comrades-in-adversity’ (Revans, 1982b) or ‘adversaries with commonality’ (Vince, 2004). Second, it highlights the value of a socioeconomic lens to make sense of CAL practices in Tanzanian organisations, which so far has been unexplored. Third, it sheds light on an underdeveloped area of Bourdieu’s (1992) concept of illusio by surfacing the embeddedness of a field illusio in a hierarchical system of several illusio, which shapes how it is enacted. Fourth, it deepens our understanding of the emotional and political dynamics of CAL facilitation, by foregrounding how diverse roles and positionings have shaped my facilitation practice.