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We are all stakeholders now: The influence of western discourses of “community engagement” in an Australian Aboriginal community

Richard Parsons (The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia)

critical perspectives on international business

ISSN: 1742-2043

Article publication date: 2 May 2008

Abstract

Purpose

In recent years, Australian minerals companies have increasingly considered Aboriginal communities to be “stakeholders”, suggesting that new practices of respect have superseded past colonial practices of dispossession, and apparently challenging neoliberal ideology. The increasing pervasiveness of the term “community engagement” exemplifies this apparent transformation. However, in common with the similar interdiscursive notions, “sustainable development” and “corporate social responsibility” (CSR), the meaning of “community engagement” may be contestable. In this case study of a minerals‐processing site in eastern Australia, discourses of “community engagement” among company staff and local indigenous community members are critically compared. The overall aim is to illuminate discursive tensions and multiple subjectivities among participants' assumptions and worldviews.

Design/methodology/approach

Broadly speaking, the paper uses a discourse analytic approach to demonstrate how apparently rational processes are contestable, unstable and discursively constructed. Using transcripts of interviews with 12 indigenous community members, and five company staff, the study firstly describes participants' conceptual relationships and identifies the discursive formations from which participants draw. Using closer textual analysis, it then investigates how participants' meanings and worldviews are constituted through discursively produced texts.

Findings

The paper finds that both company and community participants interdiscursively draw on competing discourses, but sometimes they do so in different ways. Most notably, company participants implicitly see indigeneity as static, non‐negotiable and non‐problematic, while community participants view indigeneity as inextricably bound up in identity, land and respect. Furthermore, participants have competing understandings of notions such as development, industry and money.

Originality/value

Concepts such as “sustainable development”, “CSR” and now “community engagement” are often cited as evidence that corporations are responding adequately to criticisms regarding their historical misdemeanours. The implicit assumption is that the contemporary capitalism can satisfactorily address social concerns. Yet, this study suggests that it does so by internalising antithetical discourses, thereby neutralising opposition, and maintaining both capitalism's legitimacy and colonialism's power relations. Thus, the capacity to challenge assumptions underlying the colonial‐capitalist project may be constrained by historical relations of power.

Keywords

Citation

Parsons, R. (2008), "We are all stakeholders now: The influence of western discourses of “community engagement” in an Australian Aboriginal community", critical perspectives on international business, Vol. 4 No. 2/3, pp. 99-126. https://doi.org/10.1108/17422040810869972

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited