Sub-theme 37: Opening the Black Box: Advancing Micro-level Perspectives on Corporate Social Responsibility

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Christopher Wickert
VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands
David Risi
University of St. Gallen, Switzerland
Dirk Matten
York University, Canada

Call for Papers

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has received significant scholarly attention in the past decades. We now have a relatively advanced understanding of major aspects of the phenomenon, such as the different instrumental, relational or ethical motivations of business firms to engage in CSR (e.g., Aguilera et al., 2007; Bansal & Roth, 2000), how companies interact with their stakeholders (e.g., Jamali, 2008; Mitchell et al., 1997), and how they implement CSR into organizational structures and procedures (e.g., Baumann-Pauly et al., 2013; Wickert et al., 2016). However, to explain CSR engagement scholars have as yet largely focused on forces operating outside the corporation at the macro- or inter-organizational level, such as stakeholder pressure to engage in socially responsible activities (e.g., Campbell, 2007; Matten & Moon, 2008; Schneider et al., 2017). Surprisingly, most CSR research tends to “black-box” the intra-organisational level, including the level of the individual actor and concomitant internal organizational dynamics of how CSR is developed, articulated, implemented and practiced (Costas & Kärremann, 2013, p. 395).
Only recently have scholars begun to pay more attention to what happens internally when business firms engage in CSR (e.g., Chandler, 2014; Christensen et al., 2014; Hafenbrädl & Waeger, 2016; Strand, 2013; Kourula & Delalieux, 2016; Vigneau et al., 2015; Risi & Wickert, 2016; Wickert & de Bakker, 2016). Addressing this knowledge gap is important because “although CSR takes place at the organizational level of analysis, individual actors are those who actually strategize, make decisions, and execute CSR initiatives“ (Aguinis & Glavas, 2012: 953). Despite this important gap – identified in a seminal analysis of the field – we still have a very nascent understanding of the interactions, power dynamics, tensions and relationships of the very actors in charge of strategizing, operationalizing and executing CSR (Bondy, 2008).
In concrete terms, there remains a dearth of research on middle- and lower-level managers as well as shop floor workers actually enacting CSR initiatives. In light of this, what could be called the “micro-turn” in CSR research has only recently taken off (see Aguinis & Glavas, 2012), but remains an important understudied area. There is a dearth of knowledge about actors at lower levels of the corporate hierarchy whose role may be pivotal beyond just being mere “receivers” or passive adopters of some CSR policy that has been designed by top-management. This can, for instance, help to explain why some firms in the same industry and exposed to similar stakeholder pressures might differ considerably in their CSR implementation.
Some studies have begun to pay more attention to the roles and responsibilities of CSR managers in creating momentum for social and environmental issues in business firms (Mitra & Buzzanel, 2016; Risi & Wickert, 2016; Wickert & de Bakker, 2016). At the same time, this research raises some important but understudied issues: It might be overly optimistic to assume that once a CSR strategy has been developed that its roll-out will take off without any problems. Rather, research indicates that much internal resistance exists, where shop floor employees might be reluctant to engage in new and unfamiliar CSR issues (e.g., Daudigeos, 2013; Haack et al., 2012). At the same time, middle-managers and employees with strong prosocial motivations might be important actors that push CSR from the bottom-up and create something like an internal social movement for more social responsibility (Wickert & de Bakker, 2016). Thus, more research is needed to fully understand the dynamics that unfold at different echelons within corporate hierarchies and which might either accelerate, slow-down or prohibit comprehensive implementation of CSR.
In this sub-theme, we want to examine these and related questions more closely and call for research that investigates some of the themes listed below, without being limited to the following questions:

  • How does individual behaviour of employees in business firms promote or prevent the implementation of CSR?
  • How does employee resistance against or activism for CSR at different hierarchical levels influence the overall CSR uptake in an organization?
  • What is the importance of relationships between those pushing for CSR, and those pushing against CSR?
  • How do individual stakeholders interact, such as a CSR manager and an NGO activist? How do their respective personalities, for instance, influence CSR strategies?
  • How to characterize CSR departments and their employees? Which role do they place in creating momentum for CSR internally?
  • Which intra-organizational factors influence the CSR implementation process? What is their specific influence on this process?
  • What are the main (informal and formal) triggers and barriers of realizing CSR within firms?
  • How do managers generate decisions with regard to planning, allocation of resources and development for CSR initiatives? How do their decisions (effectively) influence the CSR project?
  • What are the micro-political dynamics and the role of power in the context of CSR engagement within organizations?

We explicitly welcome papers that take on diverse ontological and epistemological positions, draw on various strands of organizational and management theory and draw on a variety of methodological approaches. While we look for strong theoretical contributions that advance our conceptual understanding of CSR, this sub-theme focuses on the specific phenomenon of internal CSR dynamics, rather than prescribing specific theoretical perspectives.



  • Aguinis, H., & Glavas, A. (2012): “What we know and don’t know about corporate social responsibility: A review and research agenda.” Journal of Management, 38 (4), 932–968.
  • Aguilera, R.V., Rupp, D.E., Williams, C.A., & Ganapathi, J. (2007): “Putting the s back into corporate social responsibility: A multilevel theory of social change in organizations.” Academy of Management Review, 32 (3), 836–863.
  • Bansal, P., & Roth, (2000): “Why companies go green: A model of ecological responsiveness.” The Academy of Management Journal, 43 (4), 717–736.
  • Bondy, K. (2008): “The paradox of power in CSR: A case study on implementation.” Journal of Business Ethics, 82 (2), 307–323.
  • Baumann-Pauly, D., Wickert, C., Spence, L., & Scherer, A.G. (2013): “Organizing corporate social responsibility in small and large firms: Size matters.” Journal of Business Ethics, 115 (4), 693–705.
  • Campbell, J.L. (2007): “Why would corporations behave in socially responsible ways? An institutional theory of corporate social responsibility.” Academy of Management Review, 32 (3), 946–967.
  • Chandler, D. (2014): “Organizational susceptibility to institutional complexity: Critical events driving the adoption and implementation of the ethics and compliance officer position.” Organization Science, 25 (6), 1722–1743.
  • Christensen, L.J., Mackey, A., & Whetten, D. (2014): “Taking responsibility for corporate social responsibility: The role of leaders in creating, implementing, sustaining, or avoiding socially responsible firm behaviors.” Academy of Management Perspectives, 28(2), 164–178.
  • Costas, J., & Kärreman, D. (2013): “Conscience as control: Managing employees through CSR.” Organization, 20 (3), 394–415.
  • Daudigeos, T. (2013): “In their profession’s service: How staff professionals exert influence in their organization.” Journal of Management Studies, 50 (5), 722–749.
  • Haack, P., Schoeneborn, D., & Wickert, C. (2012): “Talking the talk, moral entrapment, creeping commitment? Exploring narrative dynamics in corporate responsibility standardization.” Organization Studies, 33 (5/6), 815–845.
  • Hafenbrädl, S., & Waeger, D. (2016): “Ideology and the microfoundations of CSR: Why executives believe in the business case for CSR and how this affects their CSR engagements.” Academy of Management Journal, 60 (4), 1582–1606.
  • Jamali, D. (2008): “A Stakeholder Approach to Corporate Social Responsibility: A Fresh Perspective into Theory and Practice.” Journal of Business Ethics, 82, 213–231.
  • Kourula, A., & Delalieux, G. (2016): “The Micro-level foundations and dynamics of political corporate social responsibility: Hegemony and passive revolution through civil society.” Journal of Business Ethics, 135 (4), 769–785.
  • Matten, D., & Moon, J. (2008): “’Implicit’ and ‘explicit’ CSR: A conceptual framework for comparative understanding corporate social responsibility.” Academy of Management Review, 33 (2), 404–424.
  • Mitchell, R., Agle, B., & Wood, D. (1997): “Toward a theory of stakeholder identification and salience: defining the principle of who and what really counts.” Academy of Management Review, 22 (4), 853–886.
  • Mitra, R., & Buzzanell, P.M. (2016): “Communicative tensions of meaningful work: The case of sustainability practitioners.” Human Relations, 70 (5), 594–616.
  • Risi, D., & Wickert, C. (2016): “Reconsidering the ‘symmetry’ between institutionalization and professionalization: The case of corporate social responsibility managers.” Journal of Management Studies, 54 (5), 613–646.
  • Schneider, A., Wickert, C., & Marti, E. (2017): “Reducing complexity by creating complexity: A systems theory perspective on how organizations respond to their environments.” Journal of Management Studies, 54 (2), 182–208.
  • Strand, R. (2013): “The chief officer of corporate social responsibility: A study of its presence in top management teams.” Journal for Business Ethics, 112, 721–734.
  • Vigneau, L., Humphreys, M., & Moon, J. (2015): “How do firms comply with international sustainability standards? Processes and consequences of adopting the global reporting initiative.” Journal of Business Ethics, 131, 469–486.
  • Wickert, C., & de Bakker, F.G.A. (2016): "Pitching for social change: Towards a relational approach to selling and buying social issues.” Academy of Management Discoveries, forthcoming.
  • Wickert, C., Scherer, A., & Spence, L. (2016): “Walking and talking corporate social responsibility: Implications of firm size and organizational cost.” Journal of Management Studies, 53 (7), 1169–1196.


Christopher Wickert is Associate Professor in Ethics & Sustainability at VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands. He holds a PhD in Management from University of Lausanne, Switzerland. His research interests include corporate social responsibility (CSR), organization and institutional theory, critical management studies (CMS), and business ethics. He has published several book chapters and articles in journals such as ‘Academy of Management Discoveries’, ‘Business & Society’, ‘Human Relations’, ‘Journal of Business Ethics’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’ and ‘Organization Studies.’
David Risi is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, where he also received a doctor's degree for his research on how corporate responsibility departments drive forward the implementation of Corporate Social Responsibility within large firms. David’s work has been published in practitioner-oriented journals, edited volumes and refereed academic journals such as the ‘Journal of Management Studies’. David teaches organization and management, institutional theory, corporate responsibility/sustainability and business ethics.
Dirk Matten is Professor of Strategy and holds the Hewlett-Packard Chair in Corporate Social Responsibility at the Schulich School of Business, York University, Toronto, Canada He has published 24 books and edited volumes as well as more than 80 articles and book chapters. His work has appeared in journals including ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘California Management Review’, ‘Human Relations’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, and’ Organization Studies’.
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