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Corporate (ir)responsibility and the politics of collective memory.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CSR_MEMORY (Corporate (ir)responsibility and the politics of collective memory.)

Reporting period: 2016-09-01 to 2018-08-31

The aim of this project has been to provide understanding on why and how we as societies often forget instances of corporate irresponsibility over time, and thus fail to hold firms accountable over the long term, and expose ourselves to recurring trauma. The investigation was conducted through a longitudinal (2000-2016) case study of media discourses regarding the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), which had been embroiled in several scandals beginning with the 2008 financial crisis. Two supporting smaller case studies were utilized to produce the results.

The primary conclusion of the project is that instances of corporate tend to be forgotten from collective memory on a societal level under most circumstances (the exception being when the primary audience is unusually strongly invested into the issue) for two main reasons. The first one is that the organizations in question are skilled and effective at disseminating narratives about events concerning themselves, and put forward simplistic narratives that place the blame the blame somewhere outside of the organization, spatially or temporally. In the case of RBS, the firm continued to refer the sources of all of its scandals over time to the tenure of their previous CEO who has not been with the company since the financial crisis begun. This has had two effects, both of which have broader implications: 1) this simple narrative crowded out other possible explanations for their scandals, along with their part in the financial crisis itself, and 2) each of the scandals were left out of public discourse rather quickly as they had been seemingly resolved. This confirms suggestions of previous studies that over the long-term, stakeholder attention on corporate irresponsibility is unreliable and tends to be weak.

The second reason is that current general mood and the normative environment (i.e. the cultural framework, or the ‘zeitgeist’) fluctuates over time, sometimes very rapidly, such as following the financial crisis and how investment banks were generally perceived before and after the crisis, and this cultural framework determines what is normal and important in society. As what is considered important shifts, issues that were considered important before may become less important, and are thus forgotten, or memories of them are connected to what is considered important in the present. Thus in the case of RBS, after the financial crisis, the firm came to be vilified for the very same activities that it had been lauded for before the financial crisis. In other words, its activities that had been considered responsible before, became viewed as irresponsible in the eyes of the general public. This shows how the general cultural framework to a considerable extent determines the ways in which past activities are remembered, and sets boundaries for what types of narratives firms may credibly propagate regarding their past activities.
At first, an extensive literature review of collective memory, organizations, and corporate irresponsibility. This was followed by a review of appropriate methods for achieving the desired outcomes. Case study was selected as the research approach, and combination of topic modelling and discourse analysis coupled with conceptual analysis was selected as the research method. After this, data was gathered, organized, and formatted. Learning of topic modelling was conducted at the same time. Once the researcher was familiar enough with topic modelling, analyses were run and dissected iteratively until arrival at a sufficiently robust result. This was followed by further analysis, and the resulting topics determined the target of discourse analysis, which was then conducted. All of this was coupled with reading and research writing along with intermittent presentations at conferences and workshops, and discussions with various expert colleagues.

One book chapter (in Handbook of Responsible Management published by Edgar Elgar) has been accepted for publication from this project, and one research article has been published in Journal of Business Research. Another one is under review in Journal of Business Ethics, an FT50 journal, while one more is in preparation for submission to the Academy of Management Journal. Some of the insights gathered from this project have already been disseminated to popular/industry outlets such as S&P Global and the Conversation. This work will continue over the next months and years.
Understandings of long-term perceptions of corporate irresponsibility, and how corporate irresponsibility is remembered over time are still in a nascent phase. This project has produced new insights in two key ways. Empirically, this project is (to the researcher’s knowledge) the first one that studies the specific ways in which firms conduct so-called mnemonic work (i.e. activity to influence audience perceptions of their pasts) of corporate irresponsibility, and more generally the struggle of what the public perception of past irresponsibility will look like. This project has highlighted the use of disconnecting the past from the present as a discursive strategy to deal with corporate irresponsibility on the one hand, and the more general tendency of producing simplistic narratives of past corporate irresponsibility with clearly assigned blame, resulting in the crowding out of more complex, nuanced alternative versions of the past.

The second key way is conceptual, though still largely based on the empirics of the project. Prior research on organizations and collective memory has focused on how corporations make use of the past in ways that benefit them. In other words they have focused on corporate agency. One key insight of this project is that these types of uses of the past, or mnemonic work, are always contingent on the cultural framework of each point of time. The cultural framework acts as boundaries for what kinds of narratives are credible at that point of time. This insight sets limits to the agency corporations have in such processes, and proposes a more honest, balanced lens for analysing organizations and collective memory. However, the key insight of collective memory remains (and is further reinforced): that shared perceptions of past acts and events of corporate irresponsibility are fickle, unreliable, and vulnerable to manipulation.

This final point has wider societal implications. Corporate social responsibility has become a policy for many countries, as it has for the European Union. The notion of corporate social responsibility relies on the assumption that stakeholders will keep firms in check, and will prevent corporate irresponsibility. But if collective memory of such instances of corporate irresponsibility are fickle, unreliable, and prone to manipulation, then it can be inferred that such stakeholder pressure will be weak over the long term in all but the most exceptional cases. And that the bases on which past events are collectively analysed – the cultural framework – fluctuate constantly, sometimes very rapidly, only make collective memories less reliable than manipulation of interested actors alone would. For such reasons, corporate social responsibility is not an effective policy tool at least for preventing corporate irresponsibility, as its basis, stakeholder pressure, is unlikely to be effective in the long term.