Sunday, December 19, 2010

Business ethics more culturally significant than CSR ... but not everywhere

'Business ethics' and "corporate social responsibility" are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but at the same time represent somewhat different lenses on business practice. Ethics, of course, is always concerned with norms and values, and is basically about what is right and wrong. CSR on the other hand may be about these things, but doesn't have to be - lots of people take a purely economic or strategic approach to CSR without any real consideration of the normative dimensions. CSR is also, as might be expected, a lot more business-friendly than business ethics. In fact, people often tend to use CSR when they're talking about the good things companies are doing, and business ethics (or a lack of them) when talking about the bad things they do. There are other differences too, but we'll save the definitional niceties for another day.

The point is that the term you use is not always just arbitrary. And the two have a very different heritage even if they have broadly similar concerns. As a professor of business ethics (Crane) and a professor of corporate social responsibility (Matten), and co-authors of textbooks on both subjects, we often get asked which is the most important, which is the most popular subject at university, and why we do we need more than one term to describe the same thing? So we were pleased to discover the new gizmo from Google that lets you easily and quickly do a simple analysis of the cultural significance of different words and phrases. The Ngram viewer from Google Labs plots the incidence of specific terms over the last 200 years in more than 5 million digitally scanned fiction and non-fiction books. It may not let you do anything very sophisticated from a research point of view, but it is incredibly easy and fun to use.

So we plugged "business ethics", "corporate social responsibility" in, and for good measure added "corporate responsibility" and "sustainable business". The results, shown above, relate to books published in English from 1900 to 2008 (the last year provided by the data). As you can see, CSR only really emerged post 1960, whilst business ethics has enjoyed more than a century of cultural dominance, with particular peaks around the crash and depression of 1929-1930, and the financial scandals of 2000. And CR was actually a preferred term to CSR in books until around 2001.

By the looks of things, the dominance of business ethics could be coming to an end though. CSR and corporate responsibility have become increasingly more used - especially in the last decade which has seen an exponential growth in their incidence. Saying that, we'll see if the most recent financial scandals see another resurgence of business ethics post 2008 as the last data points on the graphs might seem to suggest.

An interesting feature of the tool is that you can distinguish between books published in English in the US and books published in English in the UK (as well as books published in non-English languages). And here, we were intrigued to see that in UK publications, CSR has already overtaken business ethics as you can see in the graph below.

In fact, in UK books, business ethics in general has not achieved anything like the cultural significance it appeared to in the first graph. Until the early1980s corporate responsibility was actually the dominant term.

Looking then to US books (see below), we can see that it is here that business ethics particularly stands out - albeit with a mid 1970s blip when corporate responsibility overtook it. Even as late as 2008, business ethics still dominates by quite a gap, although this is clearly narrowing over time.

The US emphasis on individual ethics versus the European focus on system-level responsibilities is something we've discussed at some length in our Business Ethics textbook. Plus the UK has been very much at the vanguard of the CSR movement. So these graphs don't come as a complete surprise. Still, it's interesting to see the data set out so starkly. That said, there are clearly some limitations to the Ngram methodology, as has been widely discussed. Still, there is clearly food for thought in here. And, of course, we're sure there are a whole lot of other corporate responsibility analyses that can be conducted with the tool. Do let us know of any interesting ones you come across.


  1. Fascinating stuff - I just charted behavioral Economics using this and was surprised to see a slight drop off over the past 5 years or so.

  2. One thing that jumps out at me: American attention to individual ethical stances, versus the European attention to responsibility the "system" level. While I concede that system level "structure" need be implemented, I think it ultimately boils down to the individuals and their ethical perspective. Frameworks are always flexible, giving individuals room to act according to their own sense of right and wrong. Anyone care to agree or diagree?

  3. Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics.


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