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CSR: Undertheorized or Essentially Contested?

Barry M. Mitnick, Duane Windsor, Donna J. Wood

Abstract: In the January 2020 Academy of Management Review, associate editors Wang, Gibson, and Zander (hereafter WGZ, 2020) pose this question: “Is research on corporate social responsibility undertheorized?” They answer affirmatively, pointing to the field's initial practice orientation and arguing a subsequent lack of "theoretical foundation and coherence" sufficient “to inform practice.” We disagree with WGZ on key points concerning the corporate social responsibility (CSR) field. We argue the field is "essentially contested," not undertheorized. We suggest that the case of CSR raises the larger question of how contesting conceptual interpretations of the literature are created, sustained, and, potentially, reconciled. We characterize and discuss the essentially contesting views of CSR as “instrumental/economic CSR” and “injunctive/social CSR.” We believe this characterization and discussion clarifies what exactly is contesting between these views. We note how these contesting views of CSR are generated from differing assumptions and world views. We discuss the factors operating in academic fields that tend to support the persistence and defense of such differences in conceptual interpretation. Finally, we offer our approach as a model for scholars to think about other concepts in management science that are also “essentially contested.”
Keywords: social responsibility / CSR / essentially contested / undertheorized / arguing / model / WGZ / contesting views / conceptual

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