The article provides a historical-sociological perspective on contemporary, globalized 'corporate responsibility' (CR) by exploring a critical moment in the evolution of this institution, in mid-20th-century USA. CR was devised by the corporate capitalist elite, broadly defined, as an instrument for pre-empting governmental intervention. Corporations responded to surging public expectations for governmental-not corporate- assumption of social responsibility. In deploying CR practices, they would strategically enable the creation of the latter at the expense of the former, thus redefining the parameters of business's role in society and, along with it, the societal division of regulatory labour in the direction of increasing privatization. It is hypothesized that present-day attempts at 'civil regulation' of corporations embody a script of interaction among companies, publics and states that was designed to secure corporate power rather than limit it. Synthesizing organizational neoinstitutionalism and elite theory, the article shows how elites can defend their position of power through engagement in a 'defensive institutionalization project', that is, a sophisticated modification of the system aimed at redefining the very perceptions and strategies of everyone involved.
- Corporate social responsibility
- Historical sociology