Csr, Evolution of Defitional Construct

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Corporate Social Responsibility
Evolution of a Definitional Construct

University of Georgia

There is an impressive history associated with the evolution of the concept and definition of corporate social responsibility (CSR). In this article, the author traces the evolution of the CSR construct beginning in the 1950s, which marks the modern era of CSR. Definitions expanded during the 1960s and proliferated during the 1970s. In the 1980s, there were fewer new definitions, more empirical research, and alternative themes began to mature. These alternative themes included corporate social performance (CSP), stakeholder theory, and business ethics theory. In the 1990s, CSR continues to serve as a core construct but yields to or is transformed into alternative thematic frameworks.

The concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has a long and varied history. It is possible to trace evidences of the business community’s concern for society for centuries. Formal writing on social responsibility, however, is largely a product of the 20th century, especially the past 50 years. Furthermore, although it is possible to see footprints of CSR thought throughout the world (mostly in developed countries), formal writings have been most evident in the United States, where a sizable body of literature has accumulated. With this in mind, my review of CSR’s definitional evolution will focus on this body of literature. At the same time, however, it must be acknowledged that related notions may have developed both in theory and practice in other countries and at different times. A significant challenge is to decide how far back into the literature to delve to begin discussing the concept of CSR. A good case could be made for about 50 years because so much has occurred since that time that has shaped our theory, research, and practice. Using this as a general guideline for this article, I note that references to a concern for social responsibility BUSINESS & SOCIETY, Vol. 38 No. 3, September 1999 268-295 © 1999 Sage Publications, Inc.




appeared earlier than this, and especially during the 1930s and 1940s. References from this period worth noting include Chester Barnard’s (1938) The Functions of the Executive, J. M. Clark’s (1939) Social Control of Business, and Theodore Kreps’ (1940) Measurement of the Social Performance of Business. From a more practical vantage point, it should be noted that as far back as 1946 business executives (the literature called them “businessmen” in those days) were polled by Fortune magazine asking them about their social responsibilities (Fortune, 1946, cited in Bowen, 1953, p. 44). For purposes of this definitional review, however, it makes sense to center our attention on more recent concepts of CSR. Therefore, I start with the literature of the 1950s and 1960s and then move on toward the 1970s and more recently, when the topic became widely discussed among academics and business practitioners. In this discussion, I organize my review of literature on a historical basis and treat the concept on the basis of decade-by-decade categories. The goal is to trace the evolution of CSR as a concept, or definitional construct, and come to appreciate what it has meant in the past and still means today. Such a quest is essential to provide a solid foundation for further research on the topic. Space does not permit an exhaustive review, so my goal is to identify the major contributors to the evolution of the CSR definition, rather than to review all that has been said by anyone on the subject.

In the early writings on CSR, it was referred to more often as social responsibility (SR) than as CSR. Perhaps this was because the age of the modern corporation’s prominence and dominance in the business...
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