The Case of the Subaltern Public
A Postcolonial Investigation of Corporate
Social Responsibility's (O)Missions
DEBASHISH MUNSHI PRIYA KURIAN
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been, for the most part, a catch-all term that businesses use to trumpet concepts as wide ranging as ethical governance, sustainable development, environmental sensitivities, and profit generation with a conscience. Yet, the theory and practice of the term fall far short of its professed goals of equity and justice because of its glaring omissions: “corporate” overlooks the many proxies of corporations, including states and financial institutions; “social” ignores the political, including issues of gender and diversity; and “responsibility” glosses over accountability.
More significantly, what is missing in the discourse on CSR is the voice of the subaltern— described by Gramsci (1988) as a group that is deliberately marginalized by the hegemony of the ruling elite and elitist texts. Despite CSR's feelgood rhetoric, it does not adequately represent what postcolonial scholars call the “Other”— people “who lie outside the influential inner circle of power” (Munshi, 2005, p. 60).
Our study on the use of CSR in the theory and practice of public relations (see Munshi & Kurian, 2005) makes the point that corporate image is managed through processes that have a distinct hierarchy of publics ranging from Western shareholders and global consumers at the top to Western activists somewhere in the middle, First World workers and Third World workers below them, and finally, the nonconsumer citizens of the Third World at the bottom of the heap. The nonconsumer citizens together constitute the subaltern “Other,” although clearly power differentials mark even this large and heterogeneous group.
Drawing on postcolonial approaches that endeavor to learn from “insurgent knowledges that come from the subaltern, the dispossessed, and seek to change the terms and values under which we all live” (Young, 2003, p. 20), we find the CSR discourse to be elitist—self-serving at its worst when it feeds into marketing campaigns, and limiting even when it embarks on a mission “to save the planet/ natives” without compromising in any way on its profit orientation. For example, BP's campaign to rebrand itself in a more “enviro-friendly” way by adopting the slogan “Beyond Petroleum” can be read primarily as a marketing tool to give it an edge over its competitors. The rebranding campaign was, as a case study by Michael Fox of Ogilvy Public Relations (in Lattimore, Baskin, Heiman, Toth, & van Leuven, 2004) reveals, “targeted at, in order, BP employees, its business partners, and opinion leaders” (p. 365). Even when seemingly well intentioned, attempts at “social responsibility” could smack of simple-minded paternalism. When “cereal king” Dick Hubbard, owner of New Zealand–based Hubbard Foods Ltd., took his workers to a free holiday in Samoa to celebrate the company's 10th anniversary in 1998, he believed it was CSR. But given that the decision precluded consultation with the workers to decide whether such a holiday was,