Why Corporate Social Responsibility?
Why Now? How?
JILL J. MCMILLAN
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.