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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 6 (1999)
and Social Responsibility: Beyond Agenda. By Richard H. Reeves-Ellington
and Adele Anderson. 1997. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press. 260 pp.
Reviewed by Daniel P. Dolan, Assistant Professor, Center for Global Communications, International University of Japan.
social responsibility (CSR) as both practice and theory spans a wide variety
of issues, depending on what entities are perceived as being stakeholders.
One organization may address CSR solely by providing day care facilities
for working mothers, while the business down the street has an institutionalized
CSR program designed to meet at least some of the most pressing business-related
needs of shareholders, suppliers, customers, employees, the environment,
and local community groups. Of particular contemporary interest are corporations
whose global reach extends from well-heeled shareholders to local settlements
in the Third World. Starbucks is expected by some to invest in social
development where it buys its coffee. Nike is expected to transform
local wage structures in the Indonesian factory towns where its running
shoes are made.
do not assume these responsibilities on their own, governments are often
expected to provide incentives for them to do so. An example of CSR
on a potentially global scale is U.S. President Clinton's recently proposed
$2 billion in tax incentives over ten years to encourage private sector
donation of computers, sponsorship of community technology centers, and
technology training for workers. The goal of the initiative is to help
close what has become known as the "digital divide" that apparently
affords individuals and groups unequal access to new information technology
and its benefits.
Commerce, and Social Responsibility, Reeves-Ellington and Anderson
do not address the impacts of CSR on a range of specific stakeholders.
Rather, the authors discuss CSR in the context of broad international
impacts through application of what they call a "culturally interpretive
approach" grounded in anthropology. They argue that productive social
responsibility in commerce demands that organizational agendas typified
by rules and legal principles give way to personal responsibility. The
goal is to find the "fitting response" to business responsibility
dilemmas through ongoing cultural learning and awareness of the many potential
impacts of business decisions on a variety of stakeholders. Businesspersons
should "co-create responsibility not by drowning out other sources
of light with their own, but by reading wisely, adding their illumination
to the wisdom of the community" (p. 237).
with their distrust of agendas, the authors do not attempt to promote
any particular corporate social responsibility formula. They also counsel
patience, pointing out in the preface that CSR is not likely to have much
measurable impact on the short-term financial health of businesses. Lacking
promises or situation-specific advice, this book is not even a distant
cousin to popular attempts by business-related publications to list 101
ways to succeed in something. In fact, the intended audience is not businesspersons
but rather graduate students or brave undergraduates in anthropology or
business, although the authors add that "thoughtful business practitioners"
might also want to take the plunge.
the book exhausting, often frustrating, but rewarding in places. Exhausting
because the first 65 pages slog along without a sense of focus or narrative
momentum, the significance of ideas often lost in transit. Chapter summaries
and a more attentive editor would have provided relief. Frustrating because
the valuable insights provided in the preface and the final chapter could
have been marshalled to steer the book in a direction more interesting
to more readers. Rewarding because we are reminded clearly of what most
of us understand at some level but what is too often obscured by stock
market valuations and the thrill of mega-mergers: that business fundamentally
is about people. The authors argue persistently that socially responsible
business requires moral actors with freedom to tack with cultural sensitivity
between the often- competing needs of the organization and its external
environment. A fuller and more cogent exploration of this critical proposition,
without much of the numbing theoretical discussion in the opening chapters,
would make investment in the book less daunting (the only available printing
is in hardback, selling for $89.95 at two popular online bookstores).
1and 2 Reeves-Ellington and Anderson define terms, lay out theories and
frameworks, and discuss the historical evolution of culture-based business
ethics steeped in moral judgement to today's legalistic, rule-based conceptions.
They describe social responsibility in business as "a commercial
entity's integration within all the wider sociocultural contexts in which
it operates" (p. 222). The authors also point out that culture is
a "less-developed ethical terrain" for understanding corporate
social responsibility than business ethics driven by agendas because of
"the general absence of distinction between formal authority and
informal culture as a web of meanings in live, daily interactions"
(p. 16). Because recognition of this distinction demands considerable
effort and time of organizations, formal policy directives prevail. The
authors also develop an interesting "cultural learning model"
in which understanding of particular value orientations is gained through
attention to three primary aspects of social practice: artifacts, social
knowledge, and cultural logic. They use Reeves-Ellington's personal experience
with Japanese business encounters to provide examples.
3 lends some much-needed vitality to the previous sections with a case
study of the different leadership styles of Apple Computer's Steve Jobs
and John Sculley. The authors claim that there are three kinds of leaders
in organizations: managers, transactional leaders and transformational
leaders. They also draw a useful distinction between business and commerce
as potential engines of socially responsible practice. "Pure business"
aims to maximize economic returns, whereas commercial organizations continuously
reinterpret situations creatively to find the best fit between business
needs and cultural demands. The thesis of the discussion is that managers
and transactional leaders are effective at facilitating the financial
motives of both pure business and commercial entities, but that transformational
leaders act as shamans to "identify and develop a unifying whole
with the external environment" (p. 88). The authors posit Sculley's
role at Apple as transactional, in contrast to Jobs' shamanistic orientation,
and they promote the importance of the latter for advancing social responsibility.
readers probably will find the extended treatment of shamanism tiresome
and unnecessary. Consider the following excerpts: "While shamans
have a keen awareness of differences and peculiarities (Krippner, 1988,
p. 306), they alter the Cartesian paradigm of dichotomous thinking by
drawing a sense of relatedness and continuums·" (p. 85); "As
mediators, shamans work between the spiritual and human worlds. They suspend
normative rules of social order, and they screen their encounters with
the omnipotent spiritual world" (p. 87); and "As a creative
human being, the shaman experiences empathy with all sentience and thus
can enter into the spirit of other sentient beings" (p. 88). I wonder
if Jobs would be flattered or horrified by this description. Either way,
the point that the authors hope to make is that visionary (shamanistic)
leaders are critical for developing dynamic learning organizations capable
of recognizing the importance of socially responsible commerce.
Shop's explicit social responsibility agenda and the difficulties it has
caused for the company is explored in Chapter 4. Reeves-Ellington and
Anderson spend too many pages documenting and criticizing Body Shop's
"lack of integrity" while adding little support to their central
argument in this section. They propose that organizations that claim to
be socially responsible must not attempt to legislate responsibility via
agenda, but instead must engage in sincere dialogue with cultural representatives
to gain necessary social knowledge. The chapter is useful, however, as
a way of contrasting agenda-driven social responsibility claims with more
culturally interpretive strategies described in Chapters 5 and 6. Reeves-Ellington
recounts his experiences as operations vice-president of a multinational
pharmaceutical company he calls "Pharmco." His story in Chapter
6 describing his involvement in a problematic purchase of land in a Javanese
farming community is both interesting and illustrative. Successful completion
of the deal demanded accommodations to local circumstances and values
that likely would send most companies looking elsewhere for a less complicated
situation. Stylistically, it is a testament to the power of storytelling
that this chapter is so much more engaging and satisfying than the first
chapter, "Beyond Agenda," is the richest and most informative
section of the book. In fact, I recommend starting with the preface, skipping
to Chapter 7, then returning to Chapter 1 and subsequent chapters. Here
the authors provide a good summary of their argument, and offer a valuably
reflexive set of alternative interpretations of central conclusions made
regarding the Pharmco land purchase. This exercise is both courageous
and an excellent example of the openness to competing explanations that
is fundamental to their social responsibility thesis.
With increasing publications of books arguing for corporate social responsibility, I question the marketing strategy behind the design of this work. As textbook or graduate seminar reader the line of argument and learning objectives are too opaque. As popular business book, theoretical sections are unappealingly dense and singular focus on broad international implications of CSR is restrictive. A general business audience would ask for at least minimal discussion of CSR issues specifically related to human resources, investors, or financial incentives. This book falls uncomfortably between genre, but valuable observations are available to the adventurous.