Interpretations of Corporate Talk About Social Responsibility (Pehmeäkantinen kirja)

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This thesis centers on the role of business in society and in particular the role of accounting in constituting this relationship. Accounting usually portrays the relationship between corporations and the surrounding society as a straightforward, conflict-free, win-win situation, where consensus is reached on the basis of objective knowledge. Companies tend to picture their operations and effects on a wider set of stakeholders in a similar manner. This kind of unitarist perspective is based on assumptions of shared purposes and a denial of any conflict between different parties in society. However, corporate social responsibility (CSR) builds on the idea that companies should acknowledge a wider set of stakeholders (with perhaps conflicting expectations) and a wider impact on society.

The thesis analyzes voluntary corporate social reporting practices and aims to problematize language use on corporate social responsibilities. Empirical material consisting of corporate social reporting by Finnish publicly listed companies was used to analyze the corporate talk about social responsibilities with qualitative research methods. This thesis consists of an introductory essay and four independent research articles previously published in or submitted to international scholarly accounting journals. This thesis aims to increase our understanding of corporate social responsibilities from three overlapping perspectives. Firstly, the thesis analyzes the corporate social responsibility reporting of large multinational corporations. Secondly, it reconstructs the meanings of social responsibilities in corporate talk. Thirdly, through the concept of ideology, this thesis focuses on problematizing the corporate talk about CSR within the larger societal context. The articles share a reflection on accounting as an interested endeavor and the realization that ideology plays a key role in the way in which accounting has been used to advance particular interests. Article 1 analyzes a case of organizational downsizing and demonstrates that, despite the alleged unitarist assumptions of shared benefits, the perceptions of the stakeholders do indeed differ from those of the company and its shareholders, and an outright conflict exists. Article 2 analyzes CSR reporting in the Finnish forest sector and shows how, by including particular issues and omitting others, accounting can serve to produce a particular way of seeing the corporate performance, and, simultaneously, how other ways of seeing are obscured. Articles 3 and 4 discuss corporate reporting in light of ideology theory. They shed light on how the reporting, with its ideological tendencies, also omits and excludes other ways of seeing the corporation, thereby creating a partial picture of the corporate performance and its impact on society. Moreover, accounting, through its ideological role, has the ability to create and reshape the "corporate reality" by giving "certain signifiers an authoritative position in terms of helping us to understand the world, and at the same time, to silently exclude other ways of understanding the world" (Cooper, 1995, p. 176). By making visible these kinds of taken-for-granted perceptions, the study aims at making room for alternative interpretations and discusses the potential of alternative accountings.

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