Normative guidelines for addressing project-induced displacement and resettlement have been successful in coercing companies and practitioners to comply with international standards and local requirements. However, good practice has not always been effectively implemented, leading to reduced social wellbeing of people in local communities. We assess how the reciprocal relationships between institutional norms and practitioners’ situated perspectives about company-community interactions can improve social management practice. Drawing on Hajer and Versteeg’s method of environmental discourse analysis, discussions and storylines about a mining project in Mpumalanga in South Africa were assessed against contextualised discursive conventions in the mining industry. It was found that practitioners learn to manipulate legislative requirements, which ultimately perpetuates the impoverishment of project affected communities. The question is not whether or not practitioners understand the requirements of environmental and social management, but the extent to which such understandings are manipulated for corporate gain as opposed to social good. We consider practitioner rationalities about the purpose and function of environmental and social management, and how it is implemented. We suggest that practitioners and companies should construct positive aspirational identity perspectives about social management that would transcend from their current limited view (that achieving minimum compliance is sufficient) to aspiring to achieve better social development outcomes for all, especially the most disadvantaged. This requires a genuine commitment to obtaining and maintaining a social licence to operate, perspective transformation, a commitment to inclusiveness, and increased capacity for critical reflection.
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