Skip to main content
Log in

Stakeholder: Essentially Contested or Just Confused?

  • Published:
Journal of Business Ethics Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

The concept of the ‘stakeholder’ has become central to business, yet there is no common consensus as to what the concept of a stakeholder means, with hundreds of different published definitions suggested. Whilst every concept is liable to be contested, for stakeholder research, this is problematic for both theoretical and empirical analysis. This article explores whether this lack of consensus is conceptual confusion, which would benefit from further debate to try to reach a higher degree of elucidation, or whether the stakeholder concept is essentially contested, rendering the quest to seek a singular definition unfeasible. The theory of essentially contested concepts was proposed by Gallie (Proc Aristot Soc 56:167–198, 1956). The seven criteria Gallie prescribes for evaluating essentially contested concepts are applied to the stakeholder concept. The analysis suggests that this concept is an essentially contested concept and this explains the degree of definitional variation.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  1. Swanton (1985) argues that researchers need to differentiate the concept from interpretations or conceptions of the concept; the concept per se is not vague or ambiguous as there is just one concept, but there are multiple conceptions which create the ambiguity.

  2. Clarke (1979) refutes Lukes claims that power is an essentially contested concept, as power reflects a contest between differing value positions, rather than being an ECC.

  3. Whilst these appear to be mere synonyms, with the exception of ‘management’, there are subtle differences between organisations, corporations and enterprises, for example a charity, public sector organisation or co-operative are organisations but are not corporations.

References

  • Abbey, R. (2005). Is liberalism now an essentially contested concept? New Political Science, 27(4), 461–480.

    Google Scholar 

  • Agle, B. R., Donaldson, T., Freeman, R. E., Jensen, M. C., Mitchell, R. K., & Wood, D. J. (2008). Dialogue: Toward superior stakeholder theory. Business Ethics Quarterly, 8(2), 153–190.

    Google Scholar 

  • Alkhafaji, A. F. (1989). A stakeholder approach to corporate governance: Managing in a dynamic environment. Westport, CT: Quorum Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Argandoña, A. (1998). The stakeholder theory and the common good. Journal of Business Ethics, 17, 1093–1102.

    Google Scholar 

  • Baldwin, D. A. (1997). The concept of security. Review of International Studies, 23, 5–26.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bendheim, C. L., Waddock, S. A., & Graves, S. B. (1998). Determining best practice in corporate-stakeholder relations using data envelopment analysis. Business & Society, 37, 306–339.

    Google Scholar 

  • Blair, M. M. (1998). Whose interests should corporations serve? In M. B. E. Clarkson (Ed.), The corporation and its stakeholders: Classic and contemporary reading. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Boatright, J. R. (1994). Fiduciary duties and the shareholder-management relation: Or what’s so special about shareholders? Business Ethics Quarterly, 4(4), 393–407.

    Google Scholar 

  • Boatright, J. R. (2002). Contractors as stakeholders: Reconciling stakeholder theory with the nexus-of-contracts firm. Journal of Banking & Finance, 26, 1837–1852.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bowie, N. E. (1998). A Kantian theory of capitalism. Business Ethics Quarterly, The Ruffin Series, Special Issue, 1, 37–60.

  • Brenner, S. N. (1993). The stakeholder theory of the firm and organizational decision making: Some propositions and a model. In J. Pasquero & D. Collins (Eds.), Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Meeting of the International Association for Business and Society, San Diego, pp. 205–210.

  • Burton, B. K., & Dunn, C. P. (1996). Feminist ethics as moral grounding for stakeholder theory. Business Ethics Quarterly, 6(2), 133–147.

    Google Scholar 

  • Care, N. S. (1973). On fixing social concepts. Ethics, 84(1), 10–21.

    Google Scholar 

  • Carroll, A. B. (1993). Business and society: Ethics and stakeholder management. Cincinnati: South-Western Publishing Company.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cennamo, C., Berrone, P., & Gomez-Mejia, L. R. (2009). Does stakeholder management have a dark side? Journal of Business Ethics, 89, 491–507.

    Google Scholar 

  • Clarke, B. (1979). Eccentrically contested concepts. British Journal of Political Science, 9(1), 122–126.

    Google Scholar 

  • Clarkson, M. E. (1994). Risk-based model of stakeholder theory. Toronto: The Centre for Corporate Social Performance & Ethics.

    Google Scholar 

  • Clarkson, M. E. (1995). A stakeholder framework for analyzing and evaluating corporate social performance. Academy of Management Journal, 20(1), 92–118.

    Google Scholar 

  • Collier, D., Hidalgo, F. D., & Maciuceanu, A. O. (2006). Essentially contested concepts: Debates and applications. Journal of Political Ideologies, 11(3), 211–246.

    Google Scholar 

  • Connolly, W. E. (1983). Essentially contested concepts in politics. In Terms of Political Discourse (2nd edn). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Cornell, B., & Shapiro, A. C. (1987). Corporate stakeholders and corporate finance. Financial Management, 16(1), 5–14.

    Google Scholar 

  • Crane, A., Matten, D., & Moon, J. (2004). Stakeholders as citizens? Rethinking rights, participation and democracy. Journal of Business Ethics, 53, 107–122.

    Google Scholar 

  • Donaldson, T., & Preston, L. E. (1995). The stakeholder theory of the corporation: Concepts evidence and implications. Academy of Management Review, 20, 65–92.

    Google Scholar 

  • Driscoll, C., & Crombie, A. (2001). Stakeholder legitimacy management and the qualified good neighbor: The case of Nova Nada and JDI. Business & Society, 40, 442–471.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eesley, C., & Lenox, M. J. (2006). Firm responses to secondary stakeholder action. Strategic Management Journal, 27, 765–781.

    Google Scholar 

  • Etzioni, A. (1998). A communitarian note on stakeholder theory. Business Ethics Quarterly, 8, 679–691.

    Google Scholar 

  • Evan, W. M., & Freeman R. E. (1988/1993). A stakeholder theory of the modern corporation: Kantian capitalism. In T. L. Beauchamp & N. E. Bowie (Eds.), Ethical theory and business. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

  • Fassin, Y. (2009). The stakeholder model refined. Journal of Business Ethics, 84, 113–135.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ferrell, O. C., & Ferrell, L. (2008). A macromarketing ethics framework: Stakeholder orientation and distributive justice. Journal of Macromarketing, 28(1), 24–32.

    Google Scholar 

  • Foster, D., & Jonker, J. (2007). Towards a third generation of quality management: Searching for a theoretical re-conceptualisation of contemporary organisations based on the notions of stakeholders and transactivity. International Journal of Quality and Reliability Management, 24(7), 683–703.

    Google Scholar 

  • Freeden, M. (1998). Ideologies and political theory: A conceptual approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Freeman, R. E. (1984). Strategic management: A stakeholder approach. Boston: Pitman Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Freeman, R. E. (1994). The politics of stakeholder theory: Some future directions. Business Ethics Quarterly, 4, 409–421.

    Google Scholar 

  • Freeman, R. E., Harrison, J. S., Wicks, A. C., Parmar, B. L., & De Colle, S. (2010). Stakeholder theory: The state of the art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Friedman, M. (1970, Sept 13). The social responsibility of business is to increase profits. New York Times Magazine.

  • Friedman, A. L., & Miles, S. (2002). Developing stakeholder theory. Journal of Management Studies, 39(1), 1–22.

    Google Scholar 

  • Friedman, A. L., & Miles, S. (2006). Stakeholders: Theory and practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Frooman, J. (1999). Stakeholder influence strategies. Academy of Management Review, 24(2), 191–205.

    Google Scholar 

  • Galai, D., & Wiener, Z. (2008). Stakeholders and the composition of the voting rights of the board of directors. Journal of Corporate Finance, 14, 107–117.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gallie, W. B. (1956). Essentially contested concepts. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 56, 167–198.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gamble, A., & Kelly, G. (2001). Shareholder value and the stakeholder debate in the UK. Corporate Governance, 9(2), 110–117.

    Google Scholar 

  • Garver, E. (1990). Essentially contested concepts: The ethics and tactics of argument. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 23(4), 251–270.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gellner, E. (1967). The concept of a story. Ratio, 9(1), 49–66.

    Google Scholar 

  • Goodpaster, K. E. (1991). Business ethics and stakeholder analysis. Business Ethics Quarterly, 1(1), 53–73.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grafstein, R. (1988). A realist foundation for essentially contested political concepts. The Western Political Quarterly, 41(1), 9–28.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gray, J. N. (1977). On the contestability of social and political concepts. Political Theory, 5(3), 331–348.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gray, J. N. (1978). On liberty, liberalism and essential contestability. British Journal of Political Science, 8(4), 385–402.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gray, R., Dey, C., Owen, D., Evans, E., & Zadek, S. (1997). Struggling with the praxis of social accounting: Stakeholders, accountability, audits and procedures. Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, 10(3), 325–364.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gray, R. H., Owen, D. L., & Adams, C. (1996). Accounting and accountability: Changes and challenges in corporate social and environmental reporting. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  • Greenwood, M. (2007). Stakeholder engagement: Beyond the myth of corporate responsibility. Journal of Business Ethics, 74, 315–327.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hamilton, R. P. (2006). Love as an essentially contested concept. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 36(3), 239–254.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hart, S. L., & Sharma, S. (2004). Engaging fringe stakeholders for competitive imagination. Academy of Management Executive, 18, 7–18.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hendry, J. (2001). Economic contacts versus social relationships as a foundation for normative stakeholder theory. Business Ethics: A European Review, 10(3), 223–232.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hill, C. W. L., & Jones, T. W. (1992). Stakeholder-agency theory. Journal of Management Studies, 29(2), 131–154.

    Google Scholar 

  • Humber, J. M. (2002). Beyond stockholders and stakeholders: A plea for corporate moral autonomy. Journal of Business Ethics, 36, 207–221.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jackson, J. (2001). Prioritising customers and other stakeholders using the AHP. European Journal of Marketing, 35(7/8), 858–871.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jacobs, M. (2006). Sustainable development as a contested concept. In A. Dobson (Ed.), Fairness and futurity: Essays on environmental sustainability and social justice (pp. 21–45). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jensen, M. C. (1983). Organization theory and methodology. Accounting Review, April, pp. 319–339.

  • Jensen, M. C. (2001). Value maximisation, stakeholder theory and the corporate objective function. European Financial Management, 7, 297–317.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jensen, M. C. (2002). Value maximisation, stakeholder theory and the corporate objective function. Business Ethics Quarterly, 12(2), 235–256.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jones, T. M. (1995). Instrumental stakeholder theory: A synthesis of ethics and economics. Academy of Management Review, 20, 404–438.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kaler, J. (2002). Morality and strategy in stakeholder identification. Journal of Business Ethics, 39, 91–100.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kaler, J. (2003). Differentiating stakeholder theories. Journal of Business Ethics, 46, 71–83.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kaler, J. (2006). Evaluating stakeholder theory. Journal of Business Ethics, 69, 249–268.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kassinis, G., & Vafeas, N. (2006). Stakeholder pressure and environmental performance. Academy of Management Journal, 49(1), 145–159.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kekes, J. (1977). Essentially contested concepts: A reconsideration. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 10(2), 71–89.

    Google Scholar 

  • King, B. (2008). A social movement perspective of stakeholder collective action and influence. Business & Society, 47(1), 21–49.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kochan, T. A., & Rubinstein, S. A. (2000). Towards a stakeholder theory of the firm: the Saturn approach. Organization Science, 11, 367–386.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kotler, P. (2003). Marketing management (11th ed.). Upper Saddler River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kuhn, (2008). A communicative theory of the firm: Developing an alternative perspective on intra-organizational power and stakeholder relationship. Organization Studies, 29, 1227–1254.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lampe, M. (2001). Mediation as an ethical adjunct of stakeholder theory. Journal of Business Ethics, 31, 165–173.

    Google Scholar 

  • Langtry, B. (1994). Stakeholders and the moral responsibilities of the firm. Business Ethics Quarterly, 4, 431–443.

    Google Scholar 

  • Laplume, A. O., Sonpar, K., & Litz, R. A. (2008). Stakeholder theory: Reviewing a theory that moves us. Journal of Management, 34(6), 1152–1189.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lukes, S. (1974). Power: A radical view. London: Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • MacIntyre, A. (1973). The essential contestability of some social concepts. Ethics, 84(1), 1–9.

    Google Scholar 

  • MacMillan, I. C., & Jones, P. E. (1986). Strategy formulation: Power and politics (2nd ed.). St. Paul: West Publishing Co.

    Google Scholar 

  • Madsen, H., & Ulhøi, J. P. (2001). Integrating environmental and stakeholder management. Business Strategy & the Environment, 10(2), 77–88.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mahon, J. F. (2002). Corporate reputation: A research agenda using strategy and stakeholder literature. Business & Society, 41, 415–445.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mahon, J. F., & Wartick, S. L. (2003). Dealing with stakeholders: How reputation, credibility and framing influence the game. Corporate Reputation Review, 6(1), 19–35.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mason, K. J., & Gray, R. (1999). Stakeholders in a hybrid market: The example of air business passenger travel. European Journal of Marketing, 33(9/10), 844–858.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mattingly, J. E. (2004). Stakeholder salience, structural development, and firm performance: Structural and performance correlates of sociopolitical stakeholder management strategies. Business & Society, 43, 97–114.

    Google Scholar 

  • Miles, S. (2011, June 7–8). Stakeholder definitions: Profusion and confusion. Paper presented at the EIASM 1st Interdisciplinary conference on stakeholders, resources and value creation, IESE Business School, University of Navarra, Barcelona.

  • Miller, R. L., & Lewis, W. F. (1991). A stakeholder approach to marketing management using the value exchange models. European Journal of Marketing, 25(8), 55–68.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mitchell, R. K., Agle, B. R., & Wood, D. J. (1997). Towards a theory of stakeholder identification and salience: Defining the principle of who and what really counts. Academy of Management Review, 22, 853–886.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mitroff, I. I., & Linstone, H. A. (1993). The unbounded mind: Breaking the chains of traditional business thinking. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Murphy, B., Stevens, K., & McLeod, R. (1997). A stakeholderism framework for measuring relationship marketing. Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 5(Spring), 43–57.

    Google Scholar 

  • Näsi, J. (1995). What is stakeholder thinking? A snapshot of social theory of the firm. In J. Näsi (Ed.), Understanding stakeholder thinking (pp. 19–32). Helsinki: LSR-Julkaisut Oy.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nuti, D. M. (1995). The economics of participation. Jeddah: Islamic Research and Training Institute, IDB.

    Google Scholar 

  • O’Riordan, L., & Fairbrass, J. (2008). Corporate social responsibility (CSR): Models and theories in stakeholder dialogue. Journal of Business Ethics, 83, 745–758.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ojala, J., & Luoma-aho, V. (2008). Stakeholder relations as social capital in early modern international trade. Business History, 50(6), 749–764.

    Google Scholar 

  • Okoye, A. (2009). Theorising corporate social responsibility as an essentially contested concept: Is a definition necessary? Journal of Business Ethics, 89, 613–627.

    Google Scholar 

  • Orts, E. W., & Strudler, A. (2002). The ethical and environmental limits of stakeholder theory. Business Ethics Quarterly, 12(2), 215–234.

    Google Scholar 

  • Phillips, R. A. (1997). Stakeholder theory and a principle of fairness. Business Ethics Quarterly, 7, 51–66.

    Google Scholar 

  • Phillips, R. A. (2003). Stakeholder legitimacy. Business Ethics Quarterly, 13, 25–41.

    Google Scholar 

  • Phillips, R. A., & Reichart, J. (2000). The environment as a stakeholder? A fairness-based approach. Journal of Business Ethics, 23, 185–197.

    Google Scholar 

  • Polonsky, M. J. (1996). Stakeholder management and the stakeholder matrix: Potential strategic marketing tools. Journal of Market Focused Management, 1(3), 209–229.

    Google Scholar 

  • Polonsky, M. J., & Ottman, J. (1998). Stakeholders’ contribution to the green new product development process. Journal of Marketing Management, 14, 533–557.

    Google Scholar 

  • Post, F. G. M. (1989). Beware your stakeholders. Journal of Management Development, 8(1), 28–35.

    Google Scholar 

  • Post, J. E., Preston, L. E., & Sachs, S. (2002). Redefining the corporation: Stakeholder management and organizational wealth. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Reed, D. (1999). Stakeholder management theory: A critical theory perspective. Business Ethics Quarterly, 9, 453–483.

    Google Scholar 

  • Reed, D. (2002). Employing normative stakeholder theory in developing countries. Business & Society, 41, 166–207.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rhenman, E. (1964). Foeretagsdemokrati och foeretagsorganisation. Stockholm: Thule.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rowley, T. J. (1997). Moving beyond dyadic ties: A network theory of stakeholder influences. Academy of Management Review, 22, 887–910.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rowley, T. J., & Moldoveanu, M. (2003). When will stakeholder groups act? An interest and identity based model of stakeholder group mobilization. Academy of Management Review, 28(2), 204–219.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ruf, B. M., Muralidhar, K., Brown, R. M., Janney, J. J., & Paul, K. (2001). An empirical investigation of the relationship between change in corporate social performance and financial performance: A stakeholder theory perspective. Journal of Business Ethics, 32, 143–156.

    Google Scholar 

  • Savage, G. T., Nix, T. W., Whitehead, C. J., & Blair, J. D. (1991). Strategies for assessing and managing organizational stakeholders. Academy of Management Executive, 5(2), 61–75.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schneper, W. D., & Guillén, M. (2004). Stakeholder rights and corporate governance: A cross-national study of hostile takeovers. Administrative Science Quarterly, 49, 263–295.

    Google Scholar 

  • Smith, K. (2002). Mutually contested concepts and their standard general use. Journal of Classical Sociology, 2(3), 329–343.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stanford Research Institute. (1963). Internal memo (unpublished). Menlo Park, CA: Stanford Research Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  • Starik, M. (1993). Is the environment an organizational stakeholder? Naturally! Paper presented at the 4th Annual Conference of the International Association for Business and Society, San Diego, CA.

  • Starik, M. (1994). The Toronto conference: Reflections on stakeholder theory. Business & Society, 33(1), 89–95.

    Google Scholar 

  • Starik, M. (1995). Should trees have managerial standing?: Towards stakeholder status for nonhuman nature. Journal of Business Ethics, 14, 207–217.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sternberg, E. (1996). Stakeholder theory exposed. The Corporate Governance Quarterly, 2(1), 4–18.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sternberg, E. (1997). The defects of stakeholder theory. Corporate Governance: An International Review, 5, 3–10.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stoney, C., & Winstanley, D. (2001). Stakeholding: Confusion or Utopia? Mapping the conceptual terrain. Journal of Management Studies, 38(5), 603–626.

    Google Scholar 

  • Swanton, C. (1985). On the “essential contestedness” of political concepts. Ethics, 95(4), 811–827.

    Google Scholar 

  • Waldron, J. (2002). Is the rule of law an essentially contested concept (in Florida)? Law and Philosophy, 21(2), 137–164.

    Google Scholar 

  • Walsh, J. P. (2005). Book review essays: Taking stock of stakeholder management. Academy of Management Review, 30(2), 426–438.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wartick, S. (1994). The Toronto conference: Reflections on stakeholder theory. Business & Society, 33(1), 110–117.

    Google Scholar 

  • Waxenberger, B., & Spence, L. (2003). Reinterpretation of a metaphor: From stakes to claims. Strategic Change, 12, 239–249.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wicks, A. C., Gilbert, D. R., & Freeman, R. E., Jr. (1994). A feminist reinterpretation of the stakeholder concept. Business Ethics Quarterly, 4, 475–497.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wijnberg, N. M. (2000). Normative stakeholder theory and Aristotle: The link between ethics and politics. Journal of Business Ethics, 25, 329–342.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Samantha Miles.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Miles, S. Stakeholder: Essentially Contested or Just Confused?. J Bus Ethics 108, 285–298 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-011-1090-8

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-011-1090-8

Keywords

Navigation