Oliver Balch tackles key topics in academic thinking and research on sustainability

Academics working on corporate social responsibility represent the broadest of churches. Macro-economists line up beside environmental scientists; business administrators beside social geographers. But they can be broadly categorised into one of two camps. There are those who start from within business orthodoxies and look out towards society, and those whose start from outside and look in. 

The former group resonates with the day-to-day language and practical concerns of CSR practitioners. “How can responsible business drive profits?”, “How can volunteering increase employee morale?” and so forth. “Constructivists”, you might call them. The second camp is disinterested in such functional matters. Indeed, by casting corporations as the “other”, its protagonists ask questions such as: “How do companies do what they do?”, “What is the real (read: hidden) purpose of CSR?”, and “What do alternatives look like?”

The anthropology of corporate social responsibility brigade is firmly in the second camp. The defining characteristic of anthropologists – and how they differ from social geographers, sociologists and other social scientists engaged on this topic – is their research methodology. Armed with their ethnographic toolkit, anthropologists avoid the lab or library in favour of what Arizona University’s Elizabeth Wood describes as “personal interaction with research subjects in...

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