Contextualising Constructions of Corporate Social Responsibility : Social Embeddedness in Discourse and Institutional Contexts

University dissertation from Stockholm : Stockholm University


‘Corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) and ‘socially responsible investment’ (SRI) have become predominant frameworks connecting business to society that have spread across the globe. They comprise a shared set of ideas and practices, such as those promoted in global reporting standards and by international organisations such as the UN Global Compact. Nonetheless, both are constructed and reproduced by companies in relation to context-specific social institutions, including norms and conventions shaping company engagement in social issues. Using a neo-institutionalist theoretical framework, the thesis examines constructions of social responsibility in discourse and within institutional contexts, across regions that are not often compared in the research terrain: two West European welfare states (Sweden and the UK) and two emerging African economies (South Africa and Mauritius). The purpose of the thesis is to add to the literature on CSR and SRI with a sociologically informed perspective that is comparative and connects institutional theory with social constructionism and a Foucauldian perspective on power. The thesis analyses how perceptions of CSR and SRI are constructed in relation to the social institutions that encase companies’ engagement with social issues, such as national level welfare configurations and the institution of financial investments. The main argument in this thesis is that CSR and SRI need to be seen as contextually constructed, in discourse and practice, in ways that draw the boundaries and set the conditions for company engagement with social issues.

The thesis comprises three articles. Article 1 is a content analysis of company self-reporting on CSR and the article examines how the content given to CSR relates to broader welfare configurations and as such differs in four national settings across the divide between emerging African economies and Western welfare states. Article 2 is a discourse analysis that examines interpretative repertoires occurring in company self-reporting across the same set of four countries. The interpretative repertoires are analysed as discursive practices where power intersects with the production of knowledge on CSR. Article 3 focuses on SRI and examines responsible investing as a form of institutional work that institutional investors engage in. Based on an interview study with institutional investors in Sweden, the article analyses institutional work as a process that has the effect of both institutional creation and maintenance and it connects these institutional processes to the construction of meaning on SRI. In its entirety the thesis contributes a sociological perspective on how prevailing understandings of corporate social responsibility come into being and are reproduced.

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