Mitigating Stakeholder Marginalisation with the Relational Self

Journal of Business Ethics 165 (1):67-82 (2020)
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Stakeholder theory has been an incredibly powerful tool for understanding and improving organisations, and their relationship with other actors in society. That these critical ideas are now accepted within mainstream business is due in no small part to the influence of stakeholder theory. However, improvements to stakeholder engagement through stakeholder theory have tended to help stakeholders who are already somewhat powerful within organisational settings, while those who are less powerful continue to be marginalised and routinely ignored. In this paper, we argue that one possible obstacle preventing less powerful stakeholders from speaking up and/or being heard by organisations is found at the ontological level, where we have identified an ‘essentialist self’ underpinning the stakeholder concept. By deconstructing the stakeholder concept through how it is defined, discussed and debated, and linking this back to the practical consequences of the theory for the least powerful stakeholders, we are able to make three contributions. One, through our deconstruction, it is clear that at an ontological level, stakeholder theory is underpinned by an implicit, and problematic, assumption of the ‘essentialist self’, where the organisation is treated as the ‘natural, universal self’, and anyone not closely resembling this narrow (and unrealistic) view of self is treated as ‘other’. Two, we build on the work of authors such as Wicks et al. (Bus Ethics Q 4(4):475–497, 1994), who highlight the need for consideration of the self within stakeholder theory. We thus take our findings from contribution one and begin to build a more holistic view of the self within the stakeholder concept, where each self is encouraged to recognise common selves outside and inside the corporation. Third, we link the theoretical discussion to the practical by discussing some imperfect ways in which a more holistic, enriched stakeholder concept might begin to help mitigate marginalisation for some stakeholders.



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