Special Issue "Foucault, Corporate Social Responsibility and Corporate Sustainability"
Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (1 September 2022) | Viewed by 1040
Interests: Michel Foucault; state/civil society; critical organization studies; welfare state; health promotion
This Special Issue invites contributions that use aspects of Michel Foucault’s broad authorship to analyze the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) as well as related concepts like Corporate Sustainability and ESG. Today, CSR has become a ubiquitous, self-evident business concept in the global economy, and yet critics often claim that its progressive promises of transforming capitalism remain unfulfilled. Some scholars argue that CSR’s radical potential has been washed out in step with its appropriation by mainstream corporate business management—a process through which CSR has become “de-radicalized” (Shamir, 2004). When CSR emerged in the 1950s, an explicit link was forged between social morality and ethics, on the one hand, and corporate business practice, on the other. However, after Milton Friedman’s argument in 1970 that CSR is justifiable only based on economic performance, the emphasis on morality receded during the following decades (Brooks, 2010). Some critical scholars trace CSR’s historical development, while others describe the notion’s more recent integration into corporatist culture broadly.
Whether CSR will play a significant transformative role in addressing the urgent issues of our time is an open and decisive question; such issues include global climate change, deforestation, growing social inequality, corporate economic crime, ensuring healthy labor conditions, respecting the rights of children, women, ethnic and sexual minorities, etc. We hence wish to approach CSR from a broad perspective, which means that, apart from research focused on CSR specifically, we welcome articles on a range of related themes exemplified at the end of this call. The field of possible contributions is thus wide-ranging. The theme of the Special Issue requires that contributing authors engage in some way with Foucault’s historical work, his analytical frameworks, his concepts, or his approach to critique. CSR can be situated at the intersection of politics, economics, and morality. How the concept evolves and is implemented results from power struggles over competing knowledge claims. Given that Foucault is the major thinker of the interplay of power and knowledge, he should offer untapped resources for grasping the complexities of involved in modern CSR. Let us briefly sketch out how select avenues in Foucault’s work is of potential relevance for themes related to CSR listed above.
Overall, Foucault’s thinking can help to inquire into the set of institutions, discourses, and techniques that make up the conditions of possibility for corporations and individuals’ CSR-practice. First, Foucault’s genealogical method (Foucault, 1984) works by tracing how present institutions and governance principles, for example, CSR, emerged from past struggles, political strategies, and accidental events. From a genealogical perspective, the pragmatism of the modern CSR discourse can be better grasped by recovering CSR’s historical conditions of emergence. Genealogy takes as its basic premise that history is a site of evolving struggle, including struggles over divergent interpretations, which the development of the CSR discourse clearly displays. Studies of struggles around definitions of sustainability, accountability, transparency, and more would be pertinent for this Special Issue.
Second, studies of CSR inspired by Foucault may inquire into the dynamic interplay between power and resistance. Foucault insisted that power is always “reversible”, since resistance against (capitalist) power can itself begin to constitute a new form of domination, and hence, no concept is intrinsically progressive or liberating. Studies following this premise could examine how demands, notions, and initiatives (such as CSR or ESG) which respond to the negative effects of capitalist production either succeed in forging new policies and business practices or, conversely, become co-opted by the capitalist order, becoming integral to that order itself.
Third, Foucault analyzed neoliberalism in his 1979 lecture series (2008), focusing on two forms of neoliberalism: German post-war liberalism and the liberalism of the Chicago School. Of particular relevance to contemporary debates on CSR is the arguments by American neo-liberals that redefined the social sphere as understandable through economic principles. They advanced the idea that the efficient work of rational–economic action in a system of competition requires limited governmental intervention, which is an idea that echoes in arguments for corporations’ and consumers’ voluntary responsibility and argues against legal intervention into business practices. How neoliberal assumptions, concepts, and models are mobilized in debates over the legitimate extent and enforceability of CSR principles is another relevant question for this Special Issue.
Fourth, Foucault’s late authorship in the early 1980s, often termed his “ethical turn”, took him back to techniques of self-formation in Greco-Roman antiquity. There, Foucault discovered a “technical” notion of ethics less defined by submission to universal moral codes and instead focused more on the self’s work upon the self. Foucault’s “ethical turn” in the early 1980s hardly signified a departure from political issues, but a re-conception of politics as an ethical politics. Ethics is political, argued Foucault, in the sense that our self-fashioning involves what we are willing to accept or want to change in ourselves as well as in our circumstances: “[T]here is no first or final point of resistance to political power other than in the relationship one has to oneself” (Foucault, 2005: 252). Perhaps, the urgent issues of our time call for developing another form of ethics rather than models rooted in legal frameworks and Christian morality. The emergence of responsible consumers, climate conscious youths, “freeganism”, and dumpster diving could be analyzed with inspiration from Foucault’s work on ethics and self-formation.
Fifth, and finally, the concept of “the dispositive” has recently been introduced into Foucauldian scholarship as a highly promising analytical resource. A dispositive is defined as a historical configuration, which connects a series of discursive and non-discursive elements such as laws, practices, and techniques (Foucault, 1980). It designates a propensity in knowledge production and governmental practice, as well as a “dispositionality” in how institutions emerge and transform. The concept opens for analyzing how our practices, for example, risk assessments or divestment decisions, are conditioned by dispositives, that is, frameworks constituted by practices, techniques, and knowledge modalities. Foucault (2007) suggested that the dispositives of law, discipline, and security have been particularly important as responses to thorny governmental problems such as crime, infectious diseases, and labor unrest. Current problems such as climate change, environmental degradation, and extreme inequality could be analyzed as straddling between these deep-rooted frameworks of calculation and intervention.
In this Special Issue, we wish to apply a broad perspective on CSR, inspired by Michel Foucault and his extensive historical and conceptual authorship, including subsequent governmentality studies. We seek contributions that not only focus on corporations’ social contributions to the wider society but also address related themes such as accountability, corporate sustainability, risk management, ESG standards, divestment, investor–company relations, transparency, green-washing, the use of “soft law” and self-regulation, responsible consumerism, labor conditions, the protection of minorities, climate change, the environmental impact of business, risk management, new compliance principles, and more. We invite work that addresses the following themes as well as the suggestions mentioned above (the list is by no means exclusive):
- Genealogical studies can trace how the CSR discourse has emerged and evolved in different regions, sectors, and national contexts;
- Inquiries into struggles around how CSR should be defined, which social actors clash in such struggles, and how CSR proponents draw on concepts and normative premises derived from economics, jurisprudence, moral philosophy, environmental science, and more;
- Analysis of how “transparency” is produced as a discursive object in relation to CSR, Corporate Sustainability, and ESG, including which accounts and issues are regarded as relevant information;
- Discourse analyses can explore how “sustainability principles” are defined in the CSR discourse and how CSR principles and Corporate Sustainability are designed particularly in regard to environmental factors;
- ESG could be analyzed as an extension or competitor concept for CSR, e.g., it could be examined how the CSR discourse affects ESG discussions and targets, and vice versa. The effects of ESG could be compared to its declared targets, and which role ESG plays for the moral image of the investor and for the balance of power between investors and joint-stock companies could be explored;
- Studies of the techniques that establish criteria used by CSR and ESG rating agencies in their assessment processes, including criteria for what should be measured and how to measure it;
- Inquiries into the recent debates on the inclusivity of CSR and ESG concepts, including their social aspects, such as class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and gender;
- Studies of the dispositives that condition what can essentially be defined as CSR, “sustainable” versus “unsustainable” investments, “divestment”, “good governance”, and firms’ “socially responsible performance”;
- Research on the uses of financial models and technologies used in the management of risk and uncertainty related to environmental disruption, catastrophes, and scarcity.
Brooks, S. (2010) ‘CSR and the Strait-Jacket of Economic Rationality’, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 30(11/12): 604–17.
Foucault, M. (2005) The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France 1981–1982, trans. Graham Burchell. New York: Picador.
Foucault, M. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–1978. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Foucault, M. (2008) Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979.New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Foucault, M. (1980) ‘The Confession of the Flesh’. In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977, edited by Colin Gordon, pp. 194-240. New York: Pantheon Books.
Shamir, R. (2004) ‘The De-Radicalization of Corporate Social Responsibility’, Critical Sociology 33(3): 669–89.
Prof. Dr. Kaspar Villadsen
Guest Editor Assistant
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- Foucault discourse
- corporate sustainability
- risk management
- environmental crises