Rationalizing Responsibility: Weber's Theory of Rationality and the Corporate Social Responsibility Debate
Ahlquist, Daniel B.
The corporate social responsibility (CSR) debate arose out of the recognition that corporations today hold tremendous power, and that the direct and indirect implications of their actions are far-reaching, affecting a wide array of stakeholders in both positive and negative ways. Corporate decision-makers are confronted daily with a complex set of often conflicting demands, including economic, ethical, legal, personal and professional demands. They are forced to weigh these competing demands in their decision-making processes, ultimately deciding which demands will influence their corporations? actions. Understanding the rationality employed by corporate decision-makers and business scholars is important in the study of CSR because it allows us to gain insight into how they interpret the constellation of demands placed upon them and how they orient their actions ? and their corporations? actions ? accordingly. I approach this analysis of the CSR discourse with two primary research questions. First, what patterns exist in the arguments put forth in the CSR literature, and can these patterns be classified into theoretical categories of CSR? Second, what rationalities underlie the predominant arguments (theories) in the CSR literature, and how do these rationalities inform the CSR debate? Upon coding the CSR literature according to four points of paradigmatic contention between adherents to different arguments for or against CSR, three endogenous theoretical frameworks began to emerge: corporate libertarian theory, enlightened self-interest theory, and moral theory. While most critics and advocates of CSR in the mainstream discourse point to one or more of the dozens of empirical studies on the CSR-firm financial performance relationship to support their arguments, I suggest that many of the arguments put forth in the CSR discourse are not predicated on empirical evidence, but rather on an underlying normative orientation and rationality. Through this qualitative analysis of the CSR discourse ? both the academic and nonacademic discourse ? the conflicting rationalities employed by participants in the CSR discourse become apparent. In the face of economic globalization, characterized by transnational capital flows, highly mobile corporations, and increasing power of corporations in relation to the state, corporations have become some of the most powerful actors in the world today. Despite the fact that their agency is constrained by the demands of the market system, their actions greatly affect our lives, our world, and our future. The need for a moral discourse on the role and responsibilities of business corporations in society today is pressing. In addition to seeking to understand the rationalities underpinning the predominant arguments for and against CSR, this research seeks to contribute to this growing moral discourse.
Content file updated at author's request on 2014-10-22.
Corporate Social Responsibility; Rationality; Weber; Corporations; Bureaucracy; Discourse Analysis; Moral Discourse; Corporate Accountability; Enlightened self-interest; Corporate Libertarian
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