CSR Talk and Context: A Case Study

  • Kerrie Howard

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


The purpose of this thesis is to examine how strategizing by corporate social responsibility (CSR) practitioners is discursively constituted and enacted from context-based discourses in a single case study. This research takes a qualitative interpretative approach in which realities are discursively enacted. I draw on work that emphasizes an understanding of strategizing as discursively enacted and in which practices and practitioners are socially constituted and embedded. Research data comprise semi-structured interviews with 45 middle managers with formal responsibilities for implementing different aspects of CSR. Interview data are supported by meeting observations and informal interactions that inform an understanding of the context.
The case study findings focus on how CSR talk shaped by localised discourses constitutes the ‘becoming’ of CSR practices and practitioners. The findings are interpreted from the organizational studies perspective of how individuals live and adapt in complex and contested organizational contexts and the implications for organizing in the field of CSR. The findings are discussed in three sections. First, I focus on the identity-intense nature of CSR discourse in the case study context. I explore how research participants appropriate CSR to construct moral certainty and positive realities that distance them from antagonistic identities associated with the uncertain moral nature of the work place setting. Second, I discuss how constructing CSR practices to observe localised strategy discourses has implications for organizing, subduing CSR strategizing and the agency of CSR practitioners in ways that conform with existing understandings and status quo arrangements. Third, I discuss the findings from the perspective of CSR discourse as a quest by CSR practitioners for narrative legitimacy in an organization, as well as a compromise which can involve the marginalization of ethical concerns.
The primary contribution of this thesis is that it offers a ‘thick’ sociologically grounded case study exploration of how CSR discourse can be appropriated, constituted and enacted to facilitate identity work that enables CSR practitioners to deal with contradictions and anxieties in the workplace setting. Such appropriation can aid the construction of realities purporting moral certainty. The thesis offers new insights into the links between identity work and the construction of CSR practices, as well as the constitution of roles and identities of middle managers with formal CSR responsibilities. It contributes to a range of literatures in organization studies, including those on ethics and identities, the discursive internal dynamics of CSR, its discursive interplay with strategy discourses, and how CSR practitioners are both constrained by and constrain the practices constructed in the context in which they work.
Date of Award14 Oct 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorAndrew Brown (Supervisor), Stephen Pavelin (Supervisor) & Michael Mayer (Advisor)


  • Corporate social responsibility
  • strategy as practice
  • middle managers
  • identities
  • discourse analysis
  • case study

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