The Discourse of Corporate
LARS THØGER CHRISTENSEN
A book like this, entitled The Debate over Cor- porate Social Responsibility, should be scrutinized and challenged for its own language(s), its own linguistic enactment(s) of the notion, and the phenomenon of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Dedicated to, among other things, explaining and demonstrating the “merits of a communication-based perspective for analyzing the history, development, and future of CSR,” as described in the overview, the editors Cheney, Roper, and May undoubtedly welcome such a challenge so that the book becomes the impetus for further debate and development rather than containing the debate. It is the humble ambition of this chapter to contribute to this challenge and to help move the debate beyond the boundaries of this volume.
Following a request from the editors, my commentary proceeds largely from a postmodern perspective. To some readers, such a perspective entails a cynical approach insensitive to, or at least critical of, hopes for social betterment—with or without the involvement of corporations. As several of the chapters in this volume demonstrate, however, cynicism is not the exclusive attitude of postmodern theories. While some postmodern writers clearly promote such views, cynicism is not the perspective I take here. I employ the postmodern perspective to highlight ironies or paradoxes associated with the discourses of CSR, to stimulate a sensitivity to the language we use when discussing the contribution of business to social betterment, and, most of all, to demonstrate the limitations of (at least some) grand narratives of modernity when discussing the prospects for corporations to be involved in social responsibility programs. Beginning with the last issue, my commentary is organized in three overall sections discussing, respectively, the construction of the corporation as the adversary, the communicative challenges of doing good, and, finally, some preliminary requirements for a renewed discourse on CSR.
With some notable exceptions, most chapters in this volume seem skeptical if not outright unsympathetic to the idea that social responsibility become programs of corporate initiative and patronage. And while the rhetoric and the arguments vary considerably, a significant number of the book's authors seem to subscribe to the view that big (and, in particular, U.S.-based) business is immoral and that no matter what individual corporations do, they cannot be trusted. Moreover, while most authors acknowledge the significance of CSR, several seem to reserve the right to label anything corporations do under the banners of CSR, sustainable development, green management prac