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Getting from Corporate Social Responsibility to Corporate System Responsibility: Toward a Dialogic Process for Network Governance

Corporate Social Responsibility

ISBN: 978-1-78754-260-0, eISBN: 978-1-78754-259-4

Publication date: 14 May 2018


Both the theory and practice of corporate social responsibility (CSR) are foundational to the field of Business & Society (B&S). However, efforts to define and operationalize this construct have been undermined by definitional discord arising from the disparate sense-making assumptions and methods of competing North American and European research traditions. Scholars wedded to the North American research tradition have striven mightily to uncover “objective” evidence in support of the instrumental proposition that IF corporate executives were to invest more resources to enhance social and environmental performance, THEN the firm’s burnished brand image, reputation, and perceived legitimacy would elevate the firm’s long-term financial performance as well. However, the inconclusive statistical record has failed to move many corporate decision makers beyond the minimal social and environmental investments needed to create the impression of compliance with societal expectations. The proliferation of corporate scandals and the pattern of settling legal disputes without admitting guilt are also troubling. The muted impact of B&S research based on proving the instrumental proposition has prompted a new generation of European B&S scholars to explore the sense-making potential of the European research tradition, which seeks meaning and normative validity within a pluralist crucible of community discourse. This contested communicative space is filled with paradoxical tensions and contending stakeholder voices and narratives. With respect to CSR, this discursive sense-making process is animated by an aspiration toward constructing shared meanings that can guide a search for more collaborative approaches to addressing systemic challenges via stakeholder engagement and experiments in multisector collaborative problem-solving. Rather than try to scientifically “prove” a fact-based pre-existing condition, this approach embraces “an emergent and mediated form of strategic ambiguity” to keep open the possibility of “fulfilling often conflicting instrumental and social/ethical imperatives at the same time” (Guthey & Morsing, 2014, p. 556). This discourse-based search for shared meanings in support of a convergence of economic, social, and environmental values frames CSR as an aspirational cocreative process rather than as a pyramid of normative assertions loosely grounded on a search for validation in efforts to find correlations (or causation) within an assortment of “objective” facts. The discursive approach to constructing CSR also highlights the relevance of the emergence of institutional innovations that enable network interactions to address shared systemic problems. Ultimately, CSR may be expressed as a form of network governance seeking to assure the sustainable outcome of system health and vitality across micro-, meso-, and meta-levels of thought and action.



Calton, J.M. (2018), "Getting from Corporate Social Responsibility to Corporate System Responsibility: Toward a Dialogic Process for Network Governance", Corporate Social Responsibility (Business and Society 360, Vol. 2), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 355-376.



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