The Debate over Corporate Social Responsibility

The Debate over Corporate Social Responsibility

The Debate over Corporate Social Responsibility

The Debate over Corporate Social Responsibility


Should business strive to be socially responsible, and if so, how? The Debate over Corporate Social Responsibility updates and broadens the discussion of these questions by bringing together in one volume a variety of practical and theoretical perspectives on corporate social responsibility. It is perhaps the single most comprehensive volume available on the question of just how "social" business ought to be. The volume includes contributions from the fields of communication, business, law, sociology, political science, economics, accounting, and environmental studies. Moreover, it draws from experiences and examples from around the world, including but not limited to recent corporate scandals and controversies in the U. S. and Europe. A number of the chapters examine closely the basic assumptions underlying the philosophy of socially responsible business. Other chapters speak to the practical challenges and possibilities for corporate social responsiblilty in the twenty-first century. One of the most distinctive features of the book is its coverage of the very ways that the issue of corporate social responsibility has been defined, shaped, and discussed in the past four decades. That is, the editors and many of the authors are attuned to the persuasive strategies and formulations used to talk about socially responsible business, and demonstrate why the talk matters. For example, the book offers a careful analysis of how certain values have become associated with the business enterprise and how particular economic and political positions have been established by and for business. This book will be of great interest to scholars, business leaders, graduate students, and others interested in the contours of the debate over what role large-scale corporate commerce should take in the future of the industrialized world.


Why Corporate Social Responsibility?
Why Now? How?

There may have been a time when “social responsibility” meant truly caring in both symbolic and material ways for one's fellow human beings—across the backyard fence, at the community center, in church, or at the bowling ally—but a realistic review of history suggests that those communal ties have been uneven and unstable now, and in fact, we may simply be witnessing what Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, and Tipton (1985) describe as the “latest phase of that process of separation and individuation that modernity seems to entail” (p. 275). Certainly, America was colonized by those who had “come loose” from the old European structures, and yet the colonists brought with them notions of social obligation and group formation that served to ground communal life in the new land. Bellah et al. argue that only gradually did it become clear that “every social obligation was vulnerable, every tie between individuals fragile” (p. 276). So it should not have surprised us as it appeared to when Robert Putnam's (2000) exhaustive research revealed that Americans at the start of the new century were essentially “bowling alone”—that slowly, inexplicably, we had in large measure abdicated many of our responsibilities to one another. Of particular interest to the readers of this volume, and for reasons that I develop in this chapter, the institution that stepped into that vacuum of social responsibility was the modern business organization.

It was an uneasy fit from the start, like a rambunctious youngster in uncomfortable, dress-up clothes. Business, which historically has traded in financial and human capital, suddenly found itself as the chief repository of social capital (Hanifan, 1916; Putnam, 2000)—the connection, reciprocity, and trust that bind society rather than separate it through power, hierarchy, and competition (Kohn, 1986). It is not clear that it was a job that the corporate world wanted or ever knowingly signed on for (Marchand, 1998), although there are many cases of corporations and other business organizations assuming the role with a variety of motives. Today no CEO worth his or her salt would fail to recognize the moniker corporate social re- sponsibility (CSR), or business social responsi- bility, and most have a plan for it. And yet the paradoxical, even oxymoronic quality of this assignment for social stewardship remains.

We have gathered together in this volume explorations of that paradox, and in this chapter, I address these questions: Why corporate social responsibility? Why now? And how? To that end, I argue (1) that the modern corporation has accepted a role of social responsibility that it is ill-suited to enact, (2) that the shared traits of corporate discourse are inappropriate to promote CSR, and (3) that a reconsideration of ethos as participation and place offers a more appropriate frame for corporate credibility and voice.

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