Corporate Social Responsibility in Retrospect and Prospect
This paper, a re-print of the Introduction to our four volume Routledge Major Work on Corporate Social Responsibility (2011), investigates the dynamic, overlapping and contextual qualities of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). We use three main lenses to consider the changing and variable nature of CSR, the chameleon concept, the product life-cycle concept, and the essentially contested concept.
Through the application of the chameleon concept we see that CSR emerged as a by-product of a wider movement to managerial professionalization. However, it also acquired an ideological character through its association with the legitimization of business. Over the last half century CSR’s focus has shifted among business men (sic) and managers, the corporation, business in general and stakeholders, and has included normative, integrative, profit, social / common good, institutional, and political perspectives. As a result the term has been applied to substantially different concepts, and new concepts of business responsibility (e.g. corporate citizenship, corporate social performance) have been devised as components, synonyms or alternatives to CSR. Relatedly, CSR has borrowed from numerous ‘neighbouring’ disciplines (e.g. economics, sociology) or concepts (e.g. stakeholders, sustainable development). Despite this dynamic heterogeneity, CSR definitions seem to have clear recurrent themes.
This is explained with reference to the life-cycle concept and we find here that rather than the untidiness inherent in the CSR either being ‘tidied up’ or ‘forced to collapse’, the CSR concept remains one of ‘permanent debate’. The paper details various stages of this permanent debate, most importantly concerning its overall validity, its vulnerability to replacement and its relatively immature empirical status as an academic concept. Together, these features make CSR an academic concept in a ‘continuing state of emergence’.