the coming wave of csr research in organizational theory

Yesterday and today I attended a conference at the University of Michigan about corporate social responsibility in a global world.  Kiyoteru Tsutsui of Michigan sociology put the conference together with the help of the Japan Foundation. One of the unique aspects of this conference was the diversity of scholars who presented. Most of the participants had a strong disciplinary focus (either from sociology, political science, or economics). Few had a traditional management focus. As one of the discussants (an esteemed management scholar himself) noted, this was a big shift from past conferences on CSR he’s participated in. Research on social performance, ethics, and corporate responsibility grew in the business schools, in part as a reaction to the growing interest in these issues among actual managers.  Members of the Academy of Management who were interested in social responsibility issues were not in the mainstream, however, and had to huddle together in their own division (Social Issues in Management), creating their own conferences and journals. The disciplines stayed away from CSR studies like they were the plague.

It looks like that is beginning to change. Based on the scholarship I’ve seen at this conference, work on CSR by organizational theorists from the disciplines is  suddenly in vogue.  Phd students in sociology, for example, are suddenly making CSR the focus of their dissertations. Political scientists, economists, and sociologists are bringing their own theoretical toolkits to the table, giving CSR studies a new flavor and level of rigor. Could this mean that CSR research will suddenly start appearing in journals like ASR and ASQ?  Will the Social Issues scholars be included in these new conversations? Another potential concern is that as sociologists and political scientists move into CSR territory, the object of analysis shifts from a focus on performance and consequences to an examination of the origins of CSR. Sociologists, of course, see CSR as an interesting social and organizational phenomenon in its own right. Thus, the old guard, with their links to practice and implementation, may become lab rats in the studies of the new guard, as scholarship begins to focus more on adoption, diffusion, and variation in use.

Written by brayden king

September 11, 2010 at 2:35 pm

3 Responses

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  1. erm… maybe everyone want jobs in business schools now?



    September 11, 2010 at 5:09 pm

  2. sd, I don’t think so. John Meyer, one of the participants, certainly doesn’t want a job in a business school (or a paid job of any kind given that he’s professor emeritus at Stanford). The work was qualitatively different than most CSR research that happens in business schools. Rather than being CSR cheerleaders, you could have interpreted much of the work as critical and cynical. For example, Ed Walker’s paper looked at how corporations fund grass roots movements to push their political causes and in an attempt to resuscitate their poor public images rather than seek to do good. Hardly rose-colored analysis…


    brayden king

    September 13, 2010 at 12:18 am

  3. Brayden — you touched on something fundamental. The reason why management scholars flocked to CSR and discipline-based scholars rejected is itself very instructive about CSR.

    In my own view: management scholars and CSR practitioners find themselves in the same institutional fudge. Both publicly espouse the logic of business –industry, political conservatism– while privately have the values of academic research and a progressive social reform. Both CSR firms and business schools are the world’s capital of the art of decoupling — taking money for one thing, while in fact mostly doing the other.

    So it is understandable that sociologists and economists (much purer babes in the capitalist wood, bless their soul) were horrified at this melange, and rejected studying CSR. People fear beasts, whether it is an animal-headed human or an intellectual contraption such as “doing well while doing good.”

    But the beast is here to stay, and it seems to me that the renewed academic interest in CSR is the recognition of that. In my own case, I’m studying with Fabrizio the ways in which this conflict of logics shapes the field, and specifically how it leaves it open to influence to the technical design of the new tools being developed to promote it.



    September 13, 2010 at 8:56 am

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