Where to Take CSR Research?

WANG, Heli | TONG, Li | TAKEUCHI, Riki | GEORGE, Gerard

The idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – businesses bearing a responsibility to society and a broader set of stakeholders beyond its shareholders – gained currency in the 1960s. While there has been debate on whether it was appropriate for corporations to expand their remit beyond shareholder value, an increasing majority of corporations have committed to addressing larger societal challenges. Corporations have created dedicated organizational units to manage their social obligations, and there has been commensurate growth in specialized organizations that advise on, and often implement, targeted short-term projects or longer-term sustained community-level programs.

Academy of Management Journal editors brought together a collection of seven studies to show how CSR research is becoming more broadly construed and conceptualized, as well as providing an overview of six decades of research. They identified a number of major trends in CSR. First, they noted that there has been an increase in “process” thought_leaderships that emphasize the organization of CSR activities. Second, it has also become clear that there has been a shift from financial outcomes to non-financial, social and organizational outcome. This trend captures the interest in a broader interpretation of the role of businesses and corporations in society, as well as in untangling the mechanisms through which CSR is linked to financial performance.

For the third trend, the editors also found a significant shift from examining CSR as an aggregate of multiple social dimensions to focusing on a specific element of social activities, such as employee relations, product quality, and environmental performance. Each social dimension has its unique attributes and is worth of independent scrutiny.

And finally, they note that CSR is now a global challenge. The number of thought_leaderships examining a non-US context or data has increased sharply since the 1990s. It is worth noting that CSR-related studies in the Chinese context only began to appear in AMJ in 2011, but already account for a fifth of thought_leaderships since then.

The authors provided suggested directions for future CSR research. They encourage researchers to examine the interconnections among different stakeholder claims, and how firms can resolve the conflict between them, without assuming the primacy of the shareholder claim over that of other stakeholders, including employees. Conflicts may also arise among different non-shareholder stakeholder groups: previous studies often examine non-shareholder stakeholders together as a combined group.

They also suggest research into the mechanisms and motives behind CSR in relation to compliance versus commitment. Even when firms have a clear social mission, there could be variations in what is considered to be a successful engagement or outcome. Corporations likely differ in how they measure performance, as well as in how these dimensions of performance may not always align. In order to help managers to most effectively deal with the demands from multiple stakeholder groups, future research needs to examine trade-offs under competing goals and conflicts among different stakeholder groups.

CSR is a social phenomenon; it doesn’t exist independent of the firm’s institutional context. They suggest examining how firms’ motivations to engage in CSR and the effect of it on firms have changed over time, and how firms deal with such dynamics. Meanwhile, the evolution of CSR in other institutional contexts, especially in some emerging economies, is much less understood and deserves scholarly attention. Differences in the underlying assumptions behind CSR and the institutional environments in which businesses operate provide a rich context for scholarly inquiry.

While most CSR studies have taken a “macro-” or firm-level approach, there is an emerging body of literature that addresses the role of individuals. Similarly, much less is known on how individual employees perceive corporate philanthropic acts, especially during difficult financial or uncertain periods for employment stability. Firms that have strong corporate responsibility missions may also serve as a magnet for highly committed and purpose-driven employees.


Adjunct Professor