Old Wine in New Bottles? Parentalism, Power, and Its Legitimacy in Business–Society Relations

Abstract

This article proposes a theoretical re-conceptualization of power dynamics and their legitimation in contemporary business–society relations using the prism and metaphor of parentalism. The paper develops a typology of forms of parentalism along two structuring dimensions: care and control. Specifically, four ideal-types of parentalism are introduced with their associated practices and power-legitimation mechanisms. As we consider current private governance and authority through this analytical framework, we are able to provide a new perspective on the nature of the moral legitimation of power dynamics in contemporary business–society relations. And we weave the threads between this conceptual frame and historical antecedents, suggesting that business ethicists need to revive old debates on paternalism in light of the current pervasive trend of modernized and subtler forms of parentalism. Implications for business ethics and political CSR are discussed.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    There are many definitions of power but we settle here on a relational definition (Dahl 1957). Power is the capacity to impose one’s will upon others and to secure one’s own ends even against resistance and opposition (Dahl 1957; Parsons 1967). Lukes identified four facets of power: coercion, authority, manipulation, and domination (Lukes 1974; see also Gond et al. 2016; Fleming and Spicer 2014). A relational view on power is insightful for the elaboration of the parentalism lens as it facilitates analysis of the interdependencies and varying practices within business–society relationships. But power has also been defined in structural terms by Foucault (1980), in that power resides in the distribution of knowledge among agents. A Marxist reading attributes power to those who control the means of production which has informed cultural hegemony critiques (e.g., Gramsci et al. 2005), suggesting that power resides in the naturalization of cultural norms that benefit the ruling class.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the editor, Antonino Vaccaro, and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments during the revision process. We would also like to acknowledge Professors Jan Lepoutre and Jeremy Moon, as well as participants in workshops at Cass and ESSEC Business School, the Society for Business Ethics and the GRONEN reading Group for their input on previous versions of this manuscript. Helen Etchanchu is member of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Chair, which is part of LabEx Entrepreneurship (University of Montpellier, France) and funded by the French government (Labex Entreprendre, ANR-10-Labex-11-01).

Funding

This study was partially funded by Institut Francilien de Recherche sur l’Innovation en Société (IFRIS), Domaine d’Intérêt Majeur Innovation, Sciences, Technique, Société (DIM-IS²IT).

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Etchanchu, H., Djelic, ML. Old Wine in New Bottles? Parentalism, Power, and Its Legitimacy in Business–Society Relations. J Bus Ethics 160, 893–911 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-3928-9

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Keywords

  • Parentalism
  • Nudge
  • Power
  • Private governance
  • Political CSR
  • MSI