The ambiguity of mutuality: discourse and power in corporate value regimes

  • Catherine DolanEmail author
  • Juli Huang
  • Claire Gordon
Original Research


Corporate values offer a means for consecrating alternative regimes of worth within businesses, explicitly orienting firms around more than the pursuit of profits. This paper examines how corporate values come to be constructed and diffused as a framework for interpretation and action through analysis of Food Co.’s flagship principle: ‘mutuality’. Tracing the deployment of mutuality through Food Co.’s internal processes (within the embodied practice and narratives of employees) and external relationships (within Food Co.’s bottom of the pyramid project in Kenya), the paper illustrates how the ambiguity of mutuality forms a strategic resource for the company by (i) sheltering multiple meanings and interpretations, thus enabling resonance among different situations and subject positions; (ii) allowing for syncretism between seemingly opposing and categorically different forms; and (iii) generating a space for negotiation and dealing with uncertainty. Employing these three themes of ambiguity as an organizing frame for our discussion, we highlight how the ambiguity of corporate values absorbs the contradictions emblematic of the ‘heterarchical firm’ (Stark 2000), while obscuring the obligations and expectations the concept entails as it moves beyond Food Co. to outsourced ‘entrepreneurs’ in Kenya. Language generates the appearance of equivalence and benevolence while seeking new spaces for accumulation and legitimizing the incorporation of labor on precarious terms.


Corporate social responsibility Corporate values Ambiguity Valuation Morals Bottom of the pyramid 


Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

This paper emerged from a multi-year research collaboration between the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and an internal think tank of the global manufacturer, Food Co. (pseudonym). Food Co. funded Saïd Business School to conduct research on ‘Mutuality in Business’ and as part of this research programme, Oxford Saïd funded a workstream on ‘Conceptualizing Mutuality’, on which the findings of this paper are based.

Research involving human participants and/or animals

Ethics approval for the research was granted by the University of Oxford, Social Sciences and Humanities Interdivisional Research Ethics Committee.

Informed consent

All participants in the study provided either written or oral consent to the inclusion of material pertaining to themselves in publications, subject to the condition that their identity be anonymized fully.


The terms of Oxford Saïd’s contract with Food Co. required that we carry out our work within a framework of agreement that allowed for academic independence, subject to respecting the anonymity of the corporation and its employees. Editorial control remains with authors, and the company may not alter the findings or the opinions expressed in this, or any paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologySOAS, University of LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUK
  3. 3.Social LifeLondonUK

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