When one thinks of business leaders and entrepreneurs, many imagine visionaries and their future-oriented behaviours. The past, though, seems to be overlooked. Wrongly so. Recent research in the field of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) sheds light on the role of the past and history to correct this distorted image.

Buzzwords such as Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, and Agility are a promise for the future. They give business leaders important impulses for setting the course. However, an emphasis of forecasts fails to take into account an important dimension of human life: the historical dimension.

What is the historical dimension?

History—to put it simply—is the activation and use of the past in the present. This is what academic historians as well as business leaders and everybody else do. An awareness of the past sharpens the understanding of the “origin of things.”

“In business practice, the managerial scope of action often depends on past decisions. At the same time, history serves symbolic-social functions. The tradition of a company and historical narratives thereof can inspire employees and other stakeholders.”

Recent research examines the role of history

Postdoctoral researcher Christian Stutz from JYU School of Business and Economics, together with Judith Schrempf-Stirling (University of Geneva) and Rob Phillips (Schulich School of Business, Toronto), has curated a special issue in the renowned Journal of Business Ethics. It deals with the manifold aspects of history in the CSR context. This research area deals with ethical questions of corporate governance and the interaction between business and society.

The editors and authors distinguish three different perspectives on the past and its relevance for business.

Past-as-CSR: Dealing with controversies over the past

The first perspective understands the past as a living facet of a company in the present.

Companies often use the past to generate authenticity. The sporting goods manufacturer PUMA, for example, collects success stories of its products in the newly opened PUMA Archive, mirroring the company’s past in the success of its athletes. For the Swiss brewery Eichhof, the past even served as a source of inspiration for product development. Their nostalgic “retro” beer is based on the motto “A fresh beer of today with the tingle of joy of living of yesteryear”.

“Sometimes, however, controversial aspects are buried in the past.”

Social actors can bring these to light and endanger the reputation of a company. A recent case is the German carmaker Volkswagen and its past collaboration with Brazil’s military dictatorship. A civil lawsuit made Volkswagen compensate former workers who became victims of the regime due to the company’s secret collaboration.

After all, the past-as-CSR perspective shows business leaders how they can deal with a company’s past wrongdoings and the responsibility that comes with it.

Past-of-CSR: Practicing historical consciousness

The second approach deals with the historical origins of current CSR practices—that is, policies, programs, and strategies of business companies that explicitly “assume responsibility for the interests of society.”

Historians understand that the emergence of CSR is a result of a special historical form of the relationship between business and society. Thus, CSR reflects specific institutional and cultural conditions (e.g., neoliberal globalization). Especially in times when there is a danger that the CSR ideal degenerates into purely symbolic practices (“window dressing”), history holds a critical potential for serving as a corrective.

After all, the past is a mirror that can bring the prevailing zeitgeist to light.

“The zeitgeist shapes our values, beliefs, and assumptions—without us being aware of it.”

Historical knowledge, therefore, is indispensable to better understand the cold facts of actual capitalist realities.

Past-in-CSR: Building history-sensitive theories

The final perspective encourages CSR researchers to examine the past to challenge CSR theories through a history-sensitive lens.

Mainstream CSR research is characterized by the “scientific method”. It prefers formalistic theories and incremental knowledge generation. For contemporary grand challenges, history-as-method can play an important role.

One example is discrimination and inequality between people. Such phenomena are deeply rooted in institutions, and form problem areas resistant to change. The historical perspective sharpens the understanding of continuities and interruptions in the long term.

As an exemplar of this type of study, the special issue includes an empirical article by Andrew Smith (University of Liverpool) and Jennifer Johns (University of Bristol). The authors investigate the consumer market for slavery-free sugar in nineteenth-century Britain. This ethically-driven product advocated by abolitionist disappeared again despite the ongoing scourge of slavery. The authors explain the demise due to surfacing of racism. Therefore, the article challenges theories based on overly optimistic assumptions about the steady moral progress of humankind.

Relevance of history for management education

These three perspectives demonstrate the manifold relevance of history for business practice and research. It is therefore not surprising that leading management professors advocate that history should play a greater role in the education of future business leaders.

Christian Stutz, postdoctoral researcher, University of Jyväskylä School of Business and Economics

+358 40 648 4186

This blog is based on Phillips, Schrempf-Stirling, & Stutz (2020). A version of this blog appeared earlier in German.

Christian’s publications on the topic:


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