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The Link Between Social Movements and Corporate Social Initiatives: Toward a Multi-level Theory

Abstract

This article offers a first step toward a multi-level theory linking social movements to corporate social initiatives. In particular, building on the premise that social movements reflect ideologies that direct behavior inside and outside organizations, this essay identifies mechanisms by which social movements induce firms to engage with social issues. First, social movements are able to influence the expectations that key stakeholders have about firms’ social responsibility, making corporate social initiatives more attractive. Second, through conflict or collaboration, they shape firms’ reputation and legitimacy. And third, social movements’ ideologies manifest inside the corporations by triggering organizational members’ values and affecting managerial cognition. The essay contributes to the literatures on social movements and CSR, extends the understanding of how ideologies are manifested in movement-business interactions, and generates rich opportunities for future research.

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Notes

  1. This is evident both in practice, as “few managers today can publicly question [the dictum] that their job is to maximize shareholder value” (Ghoshal 2005, p. 79), and in management scholarship, with the “the prominence of performance, productivity, and efficiency as the dependent variables of most interest” (Pfeffer 2016, p. 4).

  2. For a historical overview of social movements, see Tilly and Wood (2009). For recent reviews of the relationship between social movements and firms, see De Bakker et al. (2013) or Soule (2009).

  3. Analogous arguments can be offered for other social movements, such as the fair trade movement, the disability rights movement, several indigenous people’s movements, the anti-plastics movement, etc.

  4. Others have used the concept of corporate social action (Marquis et al. 2007; Roulet and Touboul 2014), which I see as equivalent.

  5. This essay builds on the conception of a mechanism as the explanation of how two concepts relate to each other (Whetten 1989; Bacharach 1989). For related conceptions of mechanisms that underlie social systems more generally, see Elster (1989), Hedström and Swedberg (1996), and Mayntz (2004).

  6. This group of stakeholders is not considered at the individual level, as our interest here is in the population of prospective employees who are outside the boundaries of the firm and thus constitute part of a firms’ organizational field.

  7. Clearly, this relationship is not unidirectional. Certain types of ideologies will lead to certain types of activism, and activists will draw on pre-existing ideologies in their framing attempts (cf. Zald 2000, p. 9). My interest here, however, is on how movements ‘shift’ or ‘use’ ideologies.

  8. Most scholars associate this view with the work of Milton Friedman. My reading of his work does not resolve the persistent ambiguity as to the moral or ethical expectations required from managers. In his popular New York Times article, Friedman (1970) argued that managers have the responsibility to “make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom” (1970, p. 33). In his book Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman describes the ‘rules of the game’ more narrowly, as “open and free competition, without deception or fraud” (2002, p. 133). He goes on to argue that “few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundation of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible” (2002, p. 133) and that it is the responsibility of the rest of us to establish a framework of law such that each individuals’ pursuit of self-interest will benefit society. Overall, what Friedman considers to be the ‘rules of the game’ is unclear, or at least debated (Cosans 2009). Yet, the “most common reading of Friedman is that his analysis minimizes any moral duties beyond following the law” (Cosans 2009, p. 391). This reading is congruent with the widespread idea that, at least within the bounds of the law, managers are somehow freed from “any sense of moral responsibility” (Ghoshal 2005, p. 76).

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Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank the guest editors and two anonymous reviewers for their guidance. Susan Kayser and Tatiana Sokolova also offered helpful comments. Financial support for the authors’ research from the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, the Energy Institute, and the Dow Sustainability Fellowship program at the University of Michigan is greatly appreciated.

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Georgallis, P. The Link Between Social Movements and Corporate Social Initiatives: Toward a Multi-level Theory. J Bus Ethics 142, 735–751 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-016-3111-0

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-016-3111-0

Keywords

  • Social movements
  • Activism
  • Corporate social responsibility
  • Ideology
  • Multi-level theory
  • Stakeholder theory