Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 115, Issue 4, pp 741–754 | Cite as

CSR, Co-optation and Resistance: The Emergence of New Agonistic Relations Between Business and Civil Society

  • Jon Burchell
  • Joanne Cook


This article examines the theoretical implications of the changing relationships between NGOs and businesses that have emerged as a response to the evolving agenda around CSR and sustainable development. In particular, it focuses upon examining whether greater engagement from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in this area reflects a process of appropriation and co-optation of protest by the business community. To examine this process, the article considers two forms of appropriation—appropriation of language and appropriation via participation—as a basis for discussion. While co-optation pressures are identified within both areas, the article argues that co-optation is identified almost as an inevitable outcome of engagement without significant consideration of the ability of movements to identify and respond to these processes. In identifying an alternative approach, the article utilises Mouffe’s framework of agonistic pluralism. Mouffe’s framework, it is argued, provides an understanding of the way in which agonistic relationships are emerging between NGOs and businesses while highlighting the continuance of conflict between parties struggling to influence the contested interpretations of responsible business.


Agonistic pluralism Co-optation Corporate social responsibility Mouffe Sustainable development 



Corporate social responsibility


Sustainable development


Non-governmental organisations


Ecological modernisation


  1. Aguilera, R. V., Rupp, D. E., Williams, C. A., & Ganapathi, J. (2007). Putting the S back in corporate social responsibility: A multilevel theory of social change in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 32(3), 836–863.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Andrew, M. (2010). Women’s movement institutionalisation: The need for new approaches. Politics and Gender, 6(4), 609–616.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Andriof, J., Waddock, S., Husted, B., & Sutherland Rahman, S. (Eds.). (2003). Unfolding stakeholder thinking 2: Relationships, Communication, Reporting and Performance. Sheffield: Greenleaf.Google Scholar
  4. Athanisou, T. (1996). Divided planet—The ecology of rich and poor. New York: Little, Brown and Co.Google Scholar
  5. Banerjee, S. (2007). The political economy of corporate social responsibility. In A. Scherer & G. Palazzo (Eds.), Handbook of research on corporate citizenship (pp. 706–740). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.Google Scholar
  6. Banerjee, S. (2008). Corporate social responsibility: The good the bad and the ugly. Critical Sociology, 34(1), 51–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bendell, J. (2000). Terms for endearment: Business, NGOs and Sustainable Development. Sheffield: Greenleaf.Google Scholar
  8. Boff, L. (2003). (Un)sustainable development. National Catholic Reporter, 1(5). Retrieved March 10, 2010 from
  9. Bosselmann, K. (2006). Missing the point? The EU’s institutional and procedural approach to sustainability. In M. Pallemaerts & A. Azmanova (Eds.), The EU and sustainable development: Internal and external dimensions. Brussels: VUB Press.Google Scholar
  10. Brand, K. W. (1999). Dialectics of institutionalisation: The transformation of the environmental movement in Germany. Environmental Politics, 8(1), 35–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Brown, M. (2010). A linguistic interpretation of Welford’s hijack hypothesis. Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management, 17, 81–95.Google Scholar
  12. Burchell, J., & Cook, J. (2006). Assessing the impact of stakeholder dialogue: Changing relationships between NGOs and companies. Journal of Public Affairs, 6(3–4), 210–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Burchell, J., & Cook, J. (2008). Stakeholder dialogue and organisational learning: Changing relationships between companies and NGOs. Business Ethics: A European Review, 17(1), 35–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Burchell, J., & Cook, J. (2011). Banging on open doors? Stakeholder dialogue and the challenge of business engagement for UK NGOs. Environmental Politics, 20(6), 918–937.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Burchell, J., & Cook, J. (2012). Sleeping with the enemy? Strategic transformations in business–NGO relationships through stakeholder dialogue. Journal of Business Ethics,. doi: 10.1007/s10551-012-1319-1.Google Scholar
  16. Buttel, F. (1992). Environmentalism: Origins, processes, and implications for rural social change. Rural Sociology, 57(1), 1–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Buttel, F. (2000). Ecological modernization as social theory. Geoforum, 31, 57–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Campbell, D. (2001). Conviction seeking efficacy: Sustainable agriculture and the politics of co-optation. Agriculture and Human Values, 18, 353–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Chouliaraki, L., & Fairclough, N. (1999). Discourse in late modernity: Rethinking critical discourse analysis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Clark, G., & Hebb, T. (2004). Why do they care? The market for corporate global responsibility and the role of institutional investors. Working Papers. Oxford: Oxford University, School of Geography.Google Scholar
  21. Cohen, M. J. (1997). Risk society and ecological modernisation. Futures, 29(2), 105–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Collins, E., & Kearins, K. (2007). Exposing students to the potential and risks of stakeholder engagement when teaching sustainability: A classroom exercise. Journal of Management Education, 31(4), 521–540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Coupland, C. (2005). Corporate social responsibility as argument on the web. Journal of Business Ethics, 62, 355–366.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Coy, P. G., & Hedeen, T. (2005). A stage model of social movement co-optation: Community mediation in the United States. Sociological Quarterly, 46, 405–435.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. de Bakker, F. G. A., & den Hond, F. (2008). Introducing the politics of stakeholder influence: A review essay. Business and Society, 47(1), 8–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Della Porta, D., & Diani, M. (1998). Social movements: An introduction. London: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  27. den Hond, F., & de Bakker, F. G. A. (2007). Ideologically motivated activism: How activist groups influence corporate social change activities. Academy of Management Review, 32(3), 901–924.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. den Hond, F., de Bakker, F. G. A., & de Haan, P. (2010). The sequential patterning of tactics: Institutional activism in the global sports apparel industry 1988–2002. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 30(11/12), 648–665.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Dolbeare, K. M., & Edelman, M. J. (1985). American politics: Policies, power and change. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Co.Google Scholar
  30. Dryzek, J. S. (1997). The politics of the earth: Environmental discourses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Dye, T. R., & Zeigler, H. (1987). The irony of democracy: An uncommon introduction to American politics. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  32. Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering development: The making and unmaking of the third world. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Fairclough, N. (1992). Discourse and social change. London: Polity.Google Scholar
  34. Fairclough, N. (2001). The dialectics of discourse. Textus, 14(2), 231–242.Google Scholar
  35. Fleming, P., & Jones, M. T. (2013). The end of corporate social responsibility: Crisis and critique. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  36. Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge and the discourse of language. New York: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
  37. Freeman, R. (1984). Strategic management: A stakeholder approach. Boston: Pitman.Google Scholar
  38. Friedman, A. L., & Miles, S. (2002). Developing stakeholder theory. Journal of Management Studies, 39(1), 1–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Frooman, J. (1999). Stakeholder influence strategies. Academy of Management Review, 24, 191–205.Google Scholar
  40. Gamson, W. (1990). The strategy of social protest (2nd ed.). Homewood: Dorsey Press.Google Scholar
  41. Ganesh, S. (2006). From corporate responsibility to social accountability: A critique of three assumptions of SD discourse. Paper submitted to the Intercultural and Development Communication Division of the International Communication Association.Google Scholar
  42. Gibbs, D. (2000). Ecological modernisation, regional economic development and regional development agencies. Geoforum, 31, 9–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Grayson, D., & Hodges, A. (2004). Corporate social opportunity: Seven steps to make corporate social responsibility work for your business. Sheffield: Greenleaf.Google Scholar
  44. Haines, H. (1984). Black radicalization and the funding of civil rights: 1957–1970. Social Problems, 32(1), 31–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Hajer, M. (1995). The politics of environmental discourse: Ecological modernization and the policy process. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Harrison, J. S., & Freeman, R. E. (1999). Stakeholders, social responsibility and performance: Empirical evidence and theoretical perspectives. Academy of Management Journal, 42(5), 479–485.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Holzer, B. (2008). Turning stakeseekers into stakeholders: A political coalition perspective on the politics of stakeholder influence. Business and Society, 47(1), 50–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Jacobs, M. (1995). Reflections on the discourse and politics of SD. Part I. Faultlines of contestation and the radical model. Lancaster: Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, University of Lancaster.Google Scholar
  49. Jimenez, M. (1999). Consolidation through institutionalisation? Dilemmas of the Spanish environmental movement in the 1990s. Environmental Politics, 8(1), 149–171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Kaler, J. (2002). Morality and strategy in stakeholder identification. Journal of Business Ethics, 31(1/2), 91–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Kourula, A., & Laasonen, S. (2010). Nongovernmental organizations in business and society, management and international business research: Review and implications from 1998 to 2007. Business and Society, 49(1), 35–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (2001). Hegemony and socialist strategy: Towards a radical democractic politics (2nd ed.). London: Verso.Google Scholar
  53. Lacy, M. G. (1977). Cooptation: Analysis of a neglected social process. M.A. thesis, University of Kansas.Google Scholar
  54. Livesey, S. (2002). The discourse of the middle ground: Citizen Shell commits to sustainable development. Management Communication Quarterly, 15(3), 309–343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Livesey, S., & Kearins, K. (2002). Transparent and caring corporations? A study of sustainability reports by The Body Shop and Royal Dutch/Shell. Organization and Environment, 15(3), 233–258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Lo, C. (1992). Communities of challengers in social movement theory. In A. Morris & C. Mueller (Eds.), Frontiers in social movement theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Machin, A. (2012). Decisions, disagreement and responsibility: Towards an agonistic green citizenship. Environmental Politics, 21(6), 847–863.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. McNeill, D. (2000). The concept of sustainable development. In K. Lee, et al. (Eds.), Global sustainable development in the 21st century. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
  59. Melucci, A. (1989). Nomads of the present: Social movements and individual needs in contemporary society. London: Hutchinson Radius.Google Scholar
  60. Meyer, D. S. (1993). Institutionalising dissent: The United States structure of political opportunity and the end of the nuclear freeze movement. Sociological Forum, 8, 157–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Meyer, D. S., & Tarrow, S. G. (1998). A movement society: Contentious politics for a new century. In D. S. Meyer & S. G. Tarrow (Eds.), The social movement society: Contentious politics for a new century (pp. 1–28). Littlefield: Rowman and Lanham.Google Scholar
  62. Mitchell, R. K., Agle, B. R., & Wood, D. J. (1997). Toward a theory of stakeholder identification and salience: Defining the principle of who and what really counts. Academy of Management Review, 22(4), 853–888.Google Scholar
  63. Mol, A. P. J. (2000). The environmental movement in an era of ecological modernisation. Geoforum, 31, 45–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Mol, A. P. J., & Spaargaren, G. (2000). Ecological modernisation theory in debate: A review. Environmental Politics, 9(1), 17–49.Google Scholar
  65. Morgan, R. (2007). On political institutions and social movement dynamics: The case of the United Nations and the global indigenous movement. International Political Science Review, 28(3), 273–292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Mouffe, C. (1999). Deliberative democracy or agonistic pluralism? Social Research, 66(3), 745–758.Google Scholar
  67. Mouffe, C. (2000). For an agonistic model of democracy. In N. O’Sullivan (Ed.), Political theory in transition. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  68. Mouffe, C. (2005). On the political. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  69. Mouffe, C. (2009). Democracy in a multipolar world. Millennium—Journal of International Studies, 37(3), 549–561.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Munshi, P., & Kurian, D. (2005). Imperializing spin cycles: A postcolonial look at public relations, greenwashing, and the separation of publics. Public Relations Review, 31, 513–520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Murphree, D. W., Wright, S. A., & Ebaugh, H. R. (1996). Toxic waste siting and community resistance: How cooptation of local citizen opposition failed. Sociological Perspectives, 39(4), 447–463.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Murphy, D. F., & Bendell, J. (1997). In the company of partners: Business, environmental groups and sustainable development post-Rio. Bristol: Policy Press.Google Scholar
  73. Nijhoff, A., & Jeurissen, R. J. (2010). The glass ceiling of corporate social responsibility: Consequences of a business case approach towards CSR. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 30(11/12), 618–631.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Oliver, C. (1991). Strategic responses to institutional processes. Academy of Management Review, 16(1), 145–179.Google Scholar
  75. Palacios, J. (2010). Corporate citizenship and social responsibility in a globalized world. Citizenship Studies, 8(4), 383–402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Palazzo, G., & Richter, U. (2005). CSR business as usual? The case of the tobacco industry. Journal of Business Ethics, 61(4), 387–401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Pataki, G. (2009). Ecological modernization as a paradigm of corporate sustainability. Sustainable Development, 17, 82–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Peterson, T. R. (1997). Sharing the earth: The rhetoric of sustainable development. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  79. Ramsey, K. (2008). A call for agonism: GIS and the politics of collaboration. Environment and Planning A, 40, 2346–2363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Seippel, O. (2001). From mobilization to institutionalization? The case of Norwegian environmentalism. Acta Sociologica, 44, 123–137.Google Scholar
  81. Selznick, P. (1949). TVA and the grass roots: A study in the sociology of formal organizations. Berkeley, CA: University of California.Google Scholar
  82. Shamir, R. (2004). The de-radicalization of corporate social responsibility. Critical Sociology, 30(3), 669–689.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Springett, D. (2003). Business conceptions of sustainable development: A perspective from critical theory. Business, Strategy and the Environment, 12, 71–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Steurer, R. (2006). Mapping stakeholder theory anew: From the ‘stakeholder theory of the firm’ to three perspectives on business–society relations. Business, Strategy and the Environment, 15, 55–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Tarrow, S. (1998). Power in movement (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.Google Scholar
  86. Touraine, A. (1981). The voice and the eye: An analysis of social movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  87. Valor, C., & Merino de Diego’s, A. (2009). Relationship of business and NGOs: An empirical analysis of strategies and mediators of their private relationship. Business Ethics: A European Review, 18(2), 110–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. van Huijstee, M., & Glasbergen, P. (2010). Business–NGO interactions in a multi-stakeholder context. Business and Society Review, 115(3), 249–284.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Waddock, S. (2001). Integrity and mindfulness: Foundations of corporate citizenship. In J. Andriof & M. McIntosh (Eds.), Perspectives on corporate citizenship. Sheffield: Greenleaf.Google Scholar
  90. Welford, R. J. (1997). Hijacking environmentalism: Corporate responses to sustainable development. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  91. Windsor, D. (2001). The future of corporate social responsibility. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 9, 225–256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Yamamoto, K. (2011). Beyond the dichotomy of agonism and deliberation: The impasse of contemporary democratic theory. Retrieved March 5, 2012 from

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Management School, University of SheffieldSheffieldUK
  2. 2.University of HullHullUK

Personalised recommendations