The Challenges and Prospects of Deliberative Democracy for Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility
Based on the seminal insight that legitimate political decisions need to be connected to a communicative exchange of reasons between the affected parties, the concept of deliberative democracy (Curato, Dryzek, Ercan, Hendriks, & Niemeyer, 2017) has received growing attention over the past years in business ethics as well as in management and organization studies. While the so-called “systemic turn” in deliberative thinking captured the attention of many political scientists (Dryzek, 2016; Owen & Smith, 2015; Parkinson & Mansbridge, 2012; Warren, 2012), business ethicists as well as management scholars discuss the merits of a democratization of corporate governance (Goodman & Arenas, 2015; Scherer, 2015; Schneider & Scherer, 2015; Stansbury, 2009). Reinvigorating past research on organizational and workplace democracy (Harrison & Freeman, 2004; Landemore & Ferreras, 2015), Battilana et al. (2018) argue that deliberative forms of corporate governance are particularly relevant for so-called “multi-objective organizations” (Mitchell, Weaver, Agle, Bailey, & Carlson, 2016). These organizations reject monistic notions of stakeholder value (Harrison & Wicks, 2013) and aim for multiple objectives, such as financial, social, and environmental objectives simultaneously. Starting from the assumption that deliberative decision-making processes can foster the integration of these sometimes contradicting values, deliberative democracy appears to be particularly suitable for sustainability-oriented organizations. However, the implementation of deliberative democracy within such organizations is neither without obstacles (King & Land, 2018) nor without instrumental as well as normative shortcomings (Hielscher, Beckmann, & Pies, 2014; Johnson, 2006).
The contribution of deliberative democracy for conceptualizing the growing role of corporations as global governance actors, on the other hand, has been intensively discussed within political CSR research. Several political CSR scholars draw on Habermasian notions of deliberative democracy and advocate stakeholder deliberations (Marti & Scherer, 2016; Patzer, Voegtlin, & Scherer, 2018) – often organized in the form of “multi-stakeholder initiatives” (MSIs). MSIs have been theorized as particularly viable global governance instruments to accommodate different stakeholder perspectives through deliberative processes (Gilbert, Rasche, & Waddock, 2011; Mena & Palazzo, 2012). For deliberative political CSR scholars, MSIs should be structured in a way that fosters mutual understanding through deliberative communicative exchanges between affected stakeholders to “facilitat[e] positive and imped[e] negative business contributions to society” (Scherer, 2018: 394).
However, this approach has received ample criticism in the literature (Frynas & Stephens, 2015; Hussain & Moriarty, 2018; Mäkinen & Kourula, 2012; Whelan, 2012). Recent research raises serious doubts about the efficacy of MSIs as an approach to democratic global self-regulation of business, pointing to the co-optation of sustainability goals by corporate financial interests (Moog, Spicer, & Böhm, 2015). Levy et al. (2016) contend that private regulatory regimes such as MSIs evolve through dynamics of contestation and accommodation between its stakeholders that are driven by political power dynamics that reach well beyond the conceptual boundaries of consensus-oriented deliberations. Other scholars, in turn, criticize deliberative political CSR research from an agonistic perspective (Dawkins, 2015) arguing that the deliberative approach “will serve to effectively silence dissent, making it easier for dominant groups to claim others are being unreasonable” (Brown & Dillard, 2013: 181, emphasis in original). More recently, Sabadoz and Singer (2017: 196) contend that the concept of deliberative democracy is “ill-suited” for corporations since in their view “even if pursued genuinely, corporations themselves are poor venues for deliberation, due to how they are situated in, and structured by, the market system.” Mehrpouya and Willmott (2018: 731) in turn criticize the dominance of deliberative approaches within political CSR research for “accomodat[ing] ’apolitical’ research methodologies and perpetuat[ing] a neoliberal orientation”. In fact, the very idea of promoting the concept of deliberative democracy for business practice is exposed to the twofold risk of instrumentalization and commodification (Lee & Romano, 2013).
Against this background, we (Dirk Gilbert, Andreas Rasche, Maximilian Schormair & Abraham Singer) initiated a call for submissions for a special issue of Business Ethics Quarterly (BEQ) that invites for consideration papers that discuss the challenges and prospects of deliberative democracy for corporate sustainability and responsibility. The detailed call can be retrieved here.
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