Distinctions in descriptive and instrumental stakeholder theory: A challenge for empirical research

Business Ethics: A European Review 19 (1):35-49 (2009)
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Stakeholder theory is one of the most influential theories in business ethics. It is perhaps not surprising that a theory as popular as stakeholder theory should be used in different ways, but when the disparity between different uses becomes too great, it is questionable whether all the ‘stakeholder research’ refers to the same underlying theory. This paper starts to clarify this definitional confusion by distinguishing between three different ways in which different lines of stakeholder research are connected with descriptive and instrumental stakeholder theory. First, a distinction is made between research connected with descriptive and with instrumental stakeholder theory as defined by Donaldson & Preston in the narrow or broad sense. Second, a distinction is made between research that interprets descriptive and instrumental stakeholder theories as either hypotheses or research areas. Third, a distinction is made between research that interprets Donaldson & Preston’s central concept of ‘stakeholder management’ as either behaviour or rationale. Finally, the paper discusses the implications of these differences for empirical research into stakeholder theory.



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Joakim Sandberg
University of Gothenburg