Monday, July 22, 2013

The future of CSR

Our collaborator on the forthcoming second edition of our CSR textbook, Laura Spence from Royal Holloway, University of London, has been musing recently on the future of CSR. So we asked her to pen another guest post for us about where she thinks things are going. Here's what her crystal ball says...
I’ll let you into a secret. Sometimes, as I travel from conference to conference, I wonder if we are getting anywhere at all in the study of CSR.  As the field has developed, there are some topics and theories which have somewhat of a stranglehold on our thinking. With every new conference presentation that yet again tackles the well-trodden ground of large, Western multinational corporations, corporate social performance, stakeholder theory, or institutional theory, my heart sinks a little, though I also work on some of these. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of good work on these topics coming out, but we are in danger of throwing all our energies at an ever-decreasing circle of subjects when there is so much more out there to do. Couple that with the assessment by some that CSR has come to its natural end and it is sometimes hard to stay positive for the future of CSR.

And yet, in the last few weeks, I have had to rethink my doubts. It all started with an event on Gender and Responsible Business at Nottingham University’s International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility. Somehow CSR – of all subjects - has more or less overlooked the gender perspective despite some pretty long standing powerful contributions.  Every presentation I saw contributed something refreshing, different and relevant, demonstrating a huge potential to shine a new light on CSR in the future. It is well worth joining the continuing conversation through the LinkedIn group: ‘Gender & Responsible Business Network’.

The inclusion of marginalized voices was to my delight also explored at the ‘Corporate Responsibility: Towards Inclusive Development’ stream at the European Group of Organization Studies (EGOS) conference in Montreal.  In a field dominated by US and European corporate perspectives and authors, this stream surfaced a young, vibrant and diverse group of scholars working on regions that constitute most of the world but a small proportion of CSR publications. We heard about CSR in Asian, South American, Middle Eastern and African countries, drawing on important cultural, political, economic, social and religious perspectives that are usually sidelined. Is the future of CSR in Europe or North America? I doubt it. The level of social need, different governmental roles, critical challenges and changing economic structures in developing and emerging economies should encourage us to look well beyond the usual contexts.

And I was not the only one pondering the future of CSR. At a special workshop at the EGOS conference, Christopher Wickert (VU University Amsterdam) and Arno Kourula (University of Amsterdam) led a focused workshop ‘Debating the Future of CSR’. Bringing together PhD students and early career researchers (and let’s face it, they should be the ones that determine what’s around the corner) with a few more established academics, we had the opportunity to really dig in to three key aspects: contextuality in CSR; theoretical criticism of CSR; and stakeholder perspectives and marginalized voices in CSR. The topics discussed were wide ranging and included the role of non-governmental organizations, CSR as a political project, activism, the role of the state, frustration with the ‘business case’, the performativity of language around CSR, listening to the polyphony of  voices and the dangers of stereotyping.  I really hope that the participants at the workshop go on to publish on some of these perspectives in more detail – it will make fascinating reading.  

Some of these waves of CSR research are captured in an earlier Crane and Matten blog and a brand new chapter in our second edition of CSR: Readings and Cases in A Global Context (Crane, Matten & Spence, Routledge, July 2013). There we add to the debate on the future of CSR in terms of new business models such as social entrepreneurship and social innovation, the influence of new social movements, forms of regulatory rather than voluntary CSR, the outcomes of CSR, and the positive prospects of CSR as a profession and an academic subject.   

So, as summer starts in earnest in the UK, I am optimistic for the future of CSR. If space is made for the rising waves of research I have been privileged to see in the last few months, you never know, we might actually make a difference. 

Laura J. Spence

Photo by eelcowest. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence


  1. It's great to see some more discussion around gender and CSR! It's surprising and disappointing that we don't consider gender or feminist theories more when we talk about CSR- which, after all, is often about stakeholders, development, inclusion and global issues such as climate change, population growth and poverty. All of these things are 'gendered' and all of these things could be somewhat ameliorated if we brought in more 'marginalised' voices, often women's. How to do this, why to do this, and importantly, why this hasn't happened are questions explored through sixty years of feminist thought! As Ed Freeman said at the ICCSR symposium, it is not a luxury to work on gender, but crucial. Neither is it a particularly 'new' area, but rather silo-ed. The more of us working at this the better! To that end, as Laura mentions, we have set up a discussion group on LinkedIn for those of you interested in joining in. See you there.

  2. Thanks Laura,
    I’m SO glad our Gender and Responsible Business Symposium has opened up further discussion. It seems to me that we all need to begin to be more reflexive about our own backgrounds and identities and how these shape our viewpoints and our research – i.e. what we think is interesting and worth studying, what data we collect, and how we analyse that data. We are going to need to include a much wider variety of perspectives in terms both of subjects of enquiry, as well as authors of knowledge, and to think about how to include a multiplicity of viewpoints in our knowledge claims. One of the main reasons that we need to do this is that there is so much evidence that we cannot understand the issues we are trying to address, let alone effectively address them, if we don’t hear from marginalized voices. Feminist scholars have also shown how central marginalized voices are to legitimacy, and discussed this as an issue of political citizenship, and ethics.

    For several decades now, within feminist organizations studies attention has been paid to the intersections of race, gender and class, as simultaneous processes of identity, institutional, organizational and social practice. Such inequalities are created together, within what Joan Acker describes as ‘inequality regimes’. Yet within CSR they are still discussed in silos. For example, in company CSR reporting black and ethnic minority women remain mostly invisible, both in terms of workers in industrialized countries, and those in supply chains. This is true in much of the CSR academic literature too, with regard to stakeholder relations for example. We will need to research and publicize the hidden stories at the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, class, nation and sexuality if we are going to have much hope of hearing from those voices that are most marginalized with regard to CSR and global governance. It’s a good challenge. Luckily we do not need to reinvent the wheel! There is much feminist research that can help us here, in particular post-structural and post-colonial feminist scholarship, not only from organization studies, but also from political science, international relations, development studies, economics, ethics, and many other fields. It’s all very exciting!

    Kate Grosser
    Lecturer in Management, La Trobe University, Melbourne
    Visiting Fellow, ICCSR, Nottingham

  3. I feel that gender is an area of interest from a CSR perspective.

    I feel that radical approaches are really useful in radical contexts such as the inequalities of the majority world. Nightingale (2003) is a good example of a geographical study on women and low-caste males in Nepal form a feminist perspective, and as such would be a great starter for adapting to CSR research.

    In the minority world, I feel my intuition is telling me that a focus on equality and diversity would improve the lexicon of CSR. For example, a focus on supporting men into part-time / flexible working conditions in order to support the family would, I feel, be an effective method of increasing the number for women executives in organisations. It may be an interesting avenue, although research would of course be needed on this.

    Best wishes,
    David Grady.

  4. Thanks Laura for this post! This is a great overview of what will hopefully be the future of CSR research.
    I am missing one area though: Business and Human Rights

    Practitioners are currently struggling to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that were endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011. According to these principles, corporations have a responsibility to respect Human Rights. However, what "respecting" Human Rights concretely means in business practice still needs to be clarified. Industry specific standards need to be created in order to be able to assess whether corporations are indeed respecting human rights in their business conduct.

    The term CSR has been invented by practitioners and they have also been driving the development of the concept in order to cope with the weakly regulated global business context in which they operate. Surprisingly, however, there is little dialogue between CSR practitioners and CSR researchers. Having contributed to CSR practice and research myself, I know that these two worlds hardly connect. This is unfortunate because CSR research could provide the much needed clarification and guidance on pressing practical CSR issues. The area of business and human rights would be a good place to again bridge CSR practice and research.

    Dorothee Baumann-Pauly
    NYU Stern School of Business, Center on Business and Human Rights

  5. Thanks Lauren, Kate, David and Dorothee for your comments on my blog on the Future of CSR. You all make really valid points and I am pleased that my ideas resonate for you. It seems to me that we are all saying that we need to be far more aware of research - and - practice outside of our own normal narrow perspectives. I have been toying with the idea of the need to be willing to LISTEN more - to those on the other side of the research/practice divide, to those facing human rights abuses, to listen and look out for the gender perspectives, to understand different organizational forms, to draw on a wider range of theory, and to keep open to the different contexts of CSR. On the up side, there is a world of research waiting out there for us to do! Thanks again all for your comments. Any other perspectives out there? Laura Spence


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