The Corporate Social Responsibility Movement as an Ethnographic Problem

37 Pages Posted: 20 Oct 2008 Last revised: 1 Dec 2014

See all articles by John M. Conley

John M. Conley

University of North Carolina School of Law

Cynthia A. Williams

Indiana University Maurer School of Law

Date Written: October 16, 2008


Over the past decade, the business world has devoted an extraordinary amount of attention to the concept of "corporate social responsibility." CSR derives from the idea that the responsibility of a corporation extends beyond the traditional Anglo-American objective of providing maximal financial returns to its shareholders. Instead, CSR proponents have argued, the legitimate concerns of a corporation should include such broader objectives as sustainable growth, equitable employment practices, and long-term social and environmental well-being. CSR is now the focus of a well-defined and energetic movement that has manifested itself in a variety of ways. It is, in the anthropologist Sally Engle Merry's phrasing, a global reform movement that represents a "corner" of globalization itself. The sociologist Ronen Shamir has characterized CSR as a "field of action" shaped by the interplay between popular pressure on corporations and the latter's response to that pressure. The field is the site of a contest between "those players who associate the term "responsibility" with an ever-increasing set of moral duties" and "corporations and a host of other players who tend to associate the concept of CSR with a voluntary and altruistic spirit and insist, at best, on self-regulatory schemes". In this paper we report on an ongoing project in which we endeavor to treat the CSR movement as a "deterritorialized" ethnographic site. We are investigating the meaning of CSR to people in corporations and their various stakeholders, examining the ways in which CSR is practiced, and assessing the potential impact, within a company and beyond, of a firm's undertaking CSR initiatives. It is difficult to observe people "doing" CSR in a physical sense; there is no ready equivalent to a kula voyage. Nonetheless, through participant observation of public CSR events, interviews with many kinds of CSR protagonists, and discourse analysis of CSR texts, we are developing a picture of the complex culture of CSR.

Suggested Citation

Conley, John M. and Williams, Cynthia A., The Corporate Social Responsibility Movement as an Ethnographic Problem (October 16, 2008). UNC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1285631, Available at SSRN: or

John M. Conley (Contact Author)

University of North Carolina School of Law ( email )

Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, 160 Ridge Road
CB #3380
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380
United States
919-962-8502 (Phone)

Cynthia A. Williams

Indiana University Maurer School of Law ( email )

211 S. Indiana Avenue
Bloomington, IN 47405
United States

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