Sub-theme 16: Challenges and Prospects of Democratic Organizing

Luc Brès
Université Laval, Canada
Dirk Ulrich Gilbert
University of Hamburg, Germany
Maximilian J.L. Schormair
University of Hamburg, Germany

Call for Papers

The role of deliberative democracy (Curato et al., 2017) within and around organizations has received growing attention over the past years in management and organization studies. Within organizations, Battilana et al. (2018) argue that deliberative forms of organizing are particularly relevant for so called “multi-objective organizations” (Mitchell et al., 2016), i.e. organizations that aim for multiple objectives, such as financial, social and environmental objectives simultaneously. A growing number of organizations hence incorporates the pluralism of values in society by adapting organizational goals and value systems as well as by creating new organizational forms (Brès et al., 2017). Deliberative decision-making processes can foster the integration of these sometimes contradicting values, making deliberative democracy particularly suitable for sustainability-oriented organizations. However, the successful implementation of deliberative democracy within such organizations is neither without obstacles (King & Land, 2018) nor necessarily desirable from a normative perspective (Johnson, 2006).
Around organizations, the role of deliberative democracy has been intensively discussed within political CSR research. Several political CSR scholars argue that “common ground […] can only be found through joint communicative processes between different actors” (Marti & Scherer, 2016; Scherer & Palazzo, 2007: 1097) – often organized in the form of so called “multi-stakeholder initiatives” (MSIs). MSIs are defined as private regulatory initiatives involving “at least two of the three following actors: governments, corporations, and civil society (generally represented by NGOs and humanitarian organizations)” (Mena & Palazzo, 2012: 535–536). MSIs have been theorized as particularly viable global governance instruments to accommodate different stakeholder perspectives through deliberative processes (Gilbert et al., 2011). The Forrest Stewardship Council (FSC), for example, aims at fostering sustainable timber production involving international corporations as well as global civil society organizations. For deliberative political CSR scholars, MSIs should be structured in a way that fosters mutual understanding through deliberative communicative exchanges between affected stakeholders to “facilitat[e] positive and emped[e] negative business contributions to society” (Scherer, 2018).
In this vein, several political CSR scholars call for the “democratization of corporate governance” (Scherer et al., 2012; Schneider & Scherer, 2015). However, this approach has received ample criticism in the literature over the past years (Edward & Willmott, 2013; Frynas & Stephens, 2015; Mäkinen & Kourula, 2012). A recent study on the FSC, for example, raises serious doubts about the efficacy of MSIs as an approach to democratic global self-regulation of business pointing to the co-optation of sustainability goals by corporate financial interests (Moog et al., 2015). Levy et al. (2016) contend that private regulatory regimes such as MSIs evolve through dynamics of contestation and accommodation between its stakeholders that are driven by political power dynamics that reach way beyond the conceptual boundaries of consensus-oriented deliberations. In this vein, Lee and Romano (2013) emphasize that the concept of deliberative democracy itself is increasingly commodified and marketed by consultancies as a strategic tool for organizations to placate stakeholder conflicts.
Other scholars, in turn, criticize deliberative political CSR research from an agonistic perspective (Dawkins, 2015) arguing that the deliberative approach “will serve to effectively silence dissent, making it easier for dominant groups to claim others are being unreasonable” (Brown & Dillard, 2013: 181). More recently, Sabadoz and Singer (2017: 196) contend that the concept of deliberative democracy is “ill-suited” for corporations since in their view “even if pursued genuinely, corporations themselves are poor venues for deliberation, due to how they are situated in, and structured by, the market system”.
Against this background, this sub-theme aims at discussing the challenges and prospects of democratic organizing for corporate sustainability and responsibility. We welcome research from a broad variety of management-related disciplines and methodological approaches. Possible questions include, but are not limited to:

  • Are organizations suitable venues for deliberation?

  • How can trade-offs between legitimacy and efficiency be managed that are associated with democratic organizing?

  • Under what conditions could organizations become democratic global governance actors that address regulatory voids in the common interest?

  • How can deliberative forms of organizing cope with value pluralism, dissent and power imbalances between stakeholders?

  • Under what conditions can democratic organizing foster responsible business conduct and sustainable development?

  • How are alternative and democratic forms of organizing interrelated?

  • How can the normative aspirations of deliberative approaches be reconciled with the mixed empirical record of real stakeholder dialogues or deliberations within MSIs such as the FSC or the UN Global Compact?

  • Which emerging theoretical perspectives (e.g. agonistic or systemic notions of democracy) and methodological approaches have potential to advance research on democratic organizing?



  • Battilana, J., Fuerstein, M., & Lee, M. (2018): “New Prospects for Organizational Democracy? How the Joint Pursuit of Social and Financial Goals Challenges Traditional Organizational Designs.” In: S. Rangan (ed.): Capitalism Beyond Mutuality? Perspectives Integrating Philosophy and Social Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 256–288.
  • Brès, L., Raufflet, E., & Boghossian, J. (2017): “Pluralism in Organizations: Learning from Unconventional Forms of Organizations.” International Journal of Management Reviews, 20 (2), 364–386.
  • Brown, J., & Dillard, J. (2013): “Critical accounting and communicative action: On the limits of consensual deliberation.” Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 24 (3), 176–190.
  • Curato, N., Dryzek, J.S., Ercan, S.A., Hendriks, C.M., & Niemeyer, S. (2017): “Twelve Key Findings in Deliberative Democracy Research.” Daedalus, 146 (3), 28–38.
  • Dawkins, C. (2015): “Agonistic Pluralism and Stakeholder Engagement.” Business Ethics Quarterly, 25 (1), 1–28.
  • Edward, P., & Willmott, H. (2013): “Discourse and normative business ethics.” In: C. Luetge (ed.): Handbook of the Philosophical Foundations of Business Ethics. London: Springer, 549–580.
  • Frynas, J.G., & Stephens, S. (2015): “Political Corporate Social Responsibility: Reviewing Theories and Setting New Agendas.” International Journal of Management Reviews, 17 (4), 483–509.
  • Gilbert, D.U., Rasche, A., & Waddock, S. (2011): “Accountability in a Global Economy: The Emergence of International Accountability Standards.” Business Ethics Quarterly, 21 (1), 23–44.
  • Johnson, P. (2006): “Whence Democracy? A Review and Critique of the Conceptual Dimensions and Implications of the Business Case for Organizational Democracy.” Organization, 13 (2), 245–274.
  • King, D., & Land, C. (2018): “The democratic rejection of democracy: Performative failure and the limits of critical performativity in an organizational change project.” Human Relations, 71 (11), 1535–1557.
  • Lee, C.W., & Romano, Z. (2013): “Democracy’s New Discipline: Public Deliberation as Organizational Strategy.” Organization Studies, 34 (5–6), 733–753.
  • Levy, D., Reinecke, J., & Manning, S. (2016): “The Political Dynamics of Sustainable Coffee: Contested Value Regimes and the Transformation of Sustainability.” Journal of Management Studies, 53 (3), 364–401.
  • Mäkinen, J., & Kourula, A. (2012): “Pluralism in Political Corporate Social Responsibility.” Business Ethics Quarterly, 22 (4), 649–678.
  • Marti, E., & Scherer, A.G. (2016): “Financial Regulation and Social Welfare: The Critical Contribution of Management Theory.” Academy of Management Review, 41 (2), 298–323.
  • Mena, S., & Palazzo, G. (2012): “Input and Output Legitimacy of Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives.” Business Ethics Quarterly, 22 (3), 527–556.
  • Mitchell, R.K., Weaver, G.R., Agle, B.R., Bailey, A.D., & Carlson, J. (2016): “Stakeholder Agency and Social Welfare: Pluralism and Decision Making in the Multi-Objective Corporation.” Academy of Management Review, 41 (2), 252–275.
  • Moog, S., Spicer, A., & Böhm, S. (2015): “The Politics of Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives: The Crisis of the Forest Stewardship Council.” Journal of Business Ethics, 128 (3), 469–493.
  • Sabadoz, C., & Singer, A. (2017): “Talk Ain’t Cheap: Political CSR and the Challenges of Corporate Deliberation.” Business Ethics Quarterly, 27 (2), 183–211.
  • Scherer, A.G. (2018): “Theory Assessment and Agenda Setting in Political CSR: A Critical Theory Perspective.” International Journal of Management Reviews, 20 (2), 387–410.
  • Scherer, A.G., Baumann-Pauly, D., & Schneider, A. (2012): „Democratizing Corporate Governance.” Business & Society, 52 (3), 473–514.
  • Scherer, A.G., & Palazzo, G. (2007): “Toward a political conception of corporate responsibility: Business and society seen from a Habermasian perspective.” Academy of Management Review, 32 (4), 1096–1120.
  • Schneider, A., & Scherer, A.G. (2015): “Corporate Governance in a Risk Society.” Journal of Business Ethics, 126 (2), 309–323.
Luc Brès is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Business Administration at Laval University, Canada, and Associate Researcher at Paris-Dauphine University, France. He is interested in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) standards, tools and markets’ dynamics. His research sheds light on the interrelated socio-political dynamics at play in CSR tools' construction and diffusion. Luc published in journals such as ‘Human Relations’, ‘Journal of Cleaner Production’, ‘Discourse & Communication’, ‘Organization Studies’, and ‘International Journal of Management Reviews’.
Dirk Ulrich Gilbert is Professor of Business Ethics and Management at the University of Hamburg, Germany. His most recent research focuses on management education, international accountability standards, and deliberative democracy. He published in internationally acclaimed journals such as ‘Business Ethics Quarterly’, ‘Business & Society’, ‘Academy of Management Learning and Education’, ‘Journal of Management Inquiry’, ‘Management International Review’, and ‘Journal of Business Ethics’.
Maximilian J.L. Schormair is a post-doctoral researcher at the Chair of Business Ethics and Management at the University of Hamburg, Germany. His research interests focus on multi-stakeholder governance, political CSR, pluralistic stakeholder value creation and deliberative democracy. Maximilian’s research has been published in ‘Business & Society’, ‘Journal of Business Ethics’ and in several edited volumes.