Social Movement Fields and the Construction of Private Social Responsibility Standards: The Case of Socially Responsible Investing

Mar 28, 2013 (All day)

The Political Economy Working Group will hold its next meeting Thursday, March 28 in 245 Townshend Hall. Dr. Paul Dean (Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ohio Wesleyan University) will discuss his manuscript “Social Movement Fields and the Construction of Private Social Responsibility Standards: The Case of Socially Responsible Investing.”

Because states have been reluctant or politically unable to regulate transnational corporations, social movements have recently adopted a variety of market-based campaigns to re-embed economic practices within particular social and environmental standards. One important location for this activity is socially responsible investment (SRI). These campaigns have raised new questions about how markets—as fields of power—function as sites for struggle and change (King and Pearce 2010). Drawing from the literatures of social movements and economic sociology, and qualitative interviews with SRI activists, I examine how collective actors challenge corporate power through SRI and how that action is structured and constrained by the institution in which they operate. I found that activists identified ambiguities and contradictions within the assessment of financial value. They deployed alternative frames to disrupt and reconstruct institutional logics around investing that recast social and environmental criteria in financial terms. Through social ratings that evaluate corporate social and environmental performance, they engage with management and embed business practices within specific standards for social responsibility. However, these ratings and engagements are constrained by a variety of factors, including data availability, investment laws and regulations, training of financial analysts, investment norms and principles, and power. Together, these institutional forces shaped what actors perceived to be realistic standards for social responsibility, and channeled protest into acceptable institutional forms and less threatening institutional schemas.