The Stakeholder Approach Revisited
R. EDWARD FREEMAN*
The purpose of this paper is to revisit the development of the stakeholder management approach devel-
oped in “Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach” published by Pitman Publishing in
1984. A brief history of the development of this approach is followed by a summary and an assess-
ment of the main arguments. The approach has been used in a number of research streams which are
outlined. The paper ends with some suggestions for promising lines of inquiry.
Keywords: stakeholders; stakeholder management; business ethics; strategic management; corporate
The purpose of this paper is to trace the development of the idea of “stakeholders” or
“stakeholder management” or “managing for stakeholders” or “stakeholder capita-
lism”. Section II is a brief history of how I came to publish Strategic Management: A
Stakeholder Approach in 1984 by building on the work of many others. Section III is a
brief summary of that book and an assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. It also
outlines the revisions I would make to that book if I were writing it today. Section IV
details some of the streams of research on the stakeholder idea during the last 20
years, though it is far from complete, and offers some promising new directions for
the development of stakeholder theory.
2. Early History
After studying philosophy at Washington University I accepted an appointment on
the research staff at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, with a research
group called the Busch Center, and then rapidly moved to a new group called the
Wharton Applied Research Center (WARC). The mission of WARC under the leader-
ship of James R. Emshoff was to serve as Wharton’s “window to the world” to con-
nect Wharton faculty with managers who had real problems to solve. We organized
ourselves by project teams, much like a traditional consulting firm (Emshoff had been
with McKinsey and Co.), and by “development areas” which were conceptual spaces
where we wanted to develop both expertise and new clients to try out our ideas.
* Prof. R. Edward Freeman PhD, The Darden School, University of Virginia 100 Darden BLVD.
Charlottesville, Virginia, Fax: ++(1) 434 924-6378, Voice: ++(1)434 924-0935, E-Mail:
zfwu 5/3 (2004), 228-241 229
2.1 Original Papers and Teaching
I began to work on the stakeholder concept in conjunction with Emshoff at about the
time that AT&T, then the Bell System, asked us to develop an executive education
program that would help their “leaders of the future” understand and manage the
external environment. We developed a one week module using the stakeholder idea
that included two papers and several cases, as well as a “stakeholder simulation”. The
development of these ideas and initial piloting took place over the last half of 1977
and all of 1978. The first paper was a conceptual paper laying out the argument for
why managers needed to think about stakeholders. We defined “stakeholder” in a
broad strategic sense as “any group or individual that can affect or is affected by the
achievement of a corporation’s purpose”. While this definition has been the subject of
much debate in the ensuing years, the basic idea was simple. We were taking the view-
point of senior management and our view was that if a group of individual could af-
fect the firm (or be affected by it, and reciprocate) then managers should worry about
that group in the sense that it needed an explicit strategy for dealing with the stake-
holder. This executive program at AT&T led to a number of projects with the execu-
tives who attended and their teams where we developed the stakeholder approach that
I outlined in Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach written in the summer of 1982
and published in 1984. I was especially concerned to show how the stakeholder idea
originated – not with me and not at Wharton, but many years earlier at the Stanford
Research Institute. Chapter 2 of that book tries to set out the intellectual history of the
concept. Giles Slinger has redone this history in a much more complete fashion, and
many scholars such as Lee Preston have pointed out the intellectual history of the
concept goes far beyond the use of the word ‘stakeholder’. The second paper was a set
of ”tools and techniques“ that we believed that managers would find useful. This pa-
per became the basis for the middle chapters of the book that focused on the tech-
niques and applications of the stakeholder idea.
I spent most of my time from 1978 until 1983 teaching executives and working with
them to develop very practical ways of understanding how they could be more effec-
tive in their relationships with key stakeholders. I knew that a concern with purpose,
values, and responsibility were important ideas, but it did not occur to me that one
could meaningfully talk about these ideas outside of the context of the business as a
whole. Therefore, when the main academic audience for my ideas became people who
taught Business and Society or Corporate Social Responsibility or Business Ethics I
was surprised. I had originally thought that the main academic audience would be
strategy professors. After all, the original idea behind Strategic Management: A Stakeholder
Approach was to publish it as a textbook in strategic management.
3. The Main Logic of “Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach”
The point of the book was and remains very clear to me – how could executives and
academics think about strategy or strategic management if they took the stakeholder
concept seriously, or as the basic unit of analysis of whatever framework they applied?
The basic insight was to suggest that a more useful unit of analysis for thinking about
strategy was the stakeholder relationship, rather than the tasks of “formulating, im-
plementing, evaluating, etc.” or the idea of “industry”, or the other myriad ideas of the
times. I took this to be a matter of common sense and practicality, rather than some
deep academic insight. The executives that I was working with found thinking about
stakeholder relationships very helpful for dealing with the kinds of change that was
confronting their corporations.
3.1 The Basic Philosophical Approach
The approach of the book was modeled after what I took to be some of the best writ-
ing I had encountered that tried to interweave clinical cases and facts with the devel-
opment of insights and ideas. So, I relied on the “clinical cases” I had worked on with
a number of companies over these years, as well as my reading of the business press,
case studies written by others, and my conversations with other people (experts) wor-
ried about the same phenomena. Again, I was trained as a philosopher, so what was
important to me was the overall logic of the argument. I found the insistence by some
colleagues on empirical methods and an obsession with “methodology” to be highly
amusing and full of logic mistakes. Surely the insights of thinkers like Freud or Harry
Levinson in management, or Graham Allison in politics, did not become questionable
because of their methods, but because of their logic. The continued obsession with
what Richard Rorty has called “methodolatry” continues even in this world of critical
studies, post-modernism, pragmatism, and other assorted post-positivist justifications
of intellectual activity. In a recent paper I was criticized for not having a theory that is
“empirically testable”, as if “theory” and “evidence” can ever be sorted into separate
buckets after Quine wrote his famous “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” article in 1953.
So, I confess to paying no attention to methods. Perhaps if I had kept careful notes,
interview transcripts, had a panel of experts sort all of the “data”, I could have gained
even more insight into the phenomena of businesses trying to deal with stakeholder
relationships. However, I thought that all of this stuff was just silly window dressing. I
never had interest in the question, “Are you doing something that is descriptive of the
way companies act, or are you prescribing how they should act, or are you suggesting
that if they act in this way it will lead to these results?” Donaldson and Preston (1995)
have suggested that stakeholder theory can be separated into descriptive, prescriptive,
and instrumental categories. I thought I was doing all three and that any good theory
or narrative ought to do all three. In short the stakeholder approach has always been
what Donaldson and Preston have called “managerial”. There is more than adequate
philosophical justification for such an approach and Andy Wicks and I (1998) have
tried to set forth such a pragmatist “methodology”.
3.2 Implications, Misinterpretations, and Fixing the Major Weaknesses of the
3.2.1 The Basic Argument
I saw and continue to see this managerial approach to stakeholder theory as rooted in
the practical concerns of managers – how could they be more effective in identifying,
analyzing and negotiating with key stakeholder groups? I would summarize the book
in the following logical schemata:
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(1) No matter what you stand for, no matter what your ultimate purpose may be, you
must take into account the effects of your actions on others, as well as their po-
tential effects on you.
(2) Doing so means you have to understand stakeholder behaviors, values, and back-
grounds/contexts including the societal context. To be successful over time it will
be better to have a clear answer to the question “what do we stand for”.
(3) There are some focal points that can serve as answers to the question “what do
we stand for” or Enterprise Strategy. (The book laid out a typology which no one
ever took seriously.)
(4) We need to understand how stakeholder relationships work at three levels of
analysis: the Rational or “organization as a whole”; the Process, or standard oper-
ating procedures; and the Transactional, or day to day bargaining. (These levels
are just the three levels in Graham Allison’s Missiles of October.)
(5) We can apply these ideas to think through new structures, processes, and business
functions, and we can especially rethink how the strategic planning process works
to take stakeholders into account.
(6) Stakeholder interests need to be balanced over time.
3.2.2 Implications of the Basic Argument
There are a number of implications of this argument. If it is correct, then the idea of
“corporate social responsibility” is probably superfluous. Since stakeholders are de-
fined widely and their concerns are integrated into the business processes, there is
simply no need for a separate CSR approach. Social Issues Management or “issue” is
simply the wrong unit of analysis. Groups and individuals behave, not issues. Issues
emerge through the behavior and interaction of stakeholders, therefore “stakeholders”
is a more fundamental and useful unit of analysis. Finally, the major implication of this
argument, which cannot be overemphasized today given the development of stake-
holder theory, is that “stakeholders are about the business, and the business is about
3.2.3 Misinterpretations of the Basic Argument
There have been many misinterpretations of the basic argument, many of which are
due to my own shortcomings and the way that the book was written. In fact, recently
Robert Phillips, Andrew Wicks and I (2003) have published a paper entitled “What
Stakeholder Theory is Not” to try and address some of these misinterpretations and
myths. Some of the more obvious misinterpretations are: (1) Stakeholders are critics
and other non-business entities; (2) There is a conflict between shareholders, and the
other stakeholders; and, (3) the stakeholder concept can and should be used to formu-
late a new, non-shareholder theory of the firm. Obviously (1) completely cuts against
both the actual formulation of the theory and the spirit in which it was developed.
Andrew Wicks, Bidhan Parmar and I (2004) have recently offered a rebuttal of (2),
since shareholders are stakeholders, and the whole point is that stakeholder interests
have to move in the same general direction over time. (3) is a trickier matter, and I
have published a number of papers in which it seems I am claiming that there is one
univalent “stakeholder theory” that will work for all businesses. However, I believe
that it is more useful to consider “stakeholder theory” as a genre (Freeman 1994).
There may be many particular “stakeholder narratives”, and indeed that is the original
insight behind “enterprise strategy”. Surely there are lots of ways to run a firm. All of
these ways have to ultimately generate profits and satisfy some set of stakeholders, but
context and other factors may well determine which kind of narrative works best.
3.3 Major Weaknesses of the Book
While I believe that much of the basic logic of the book is still valid, especially if the
misinterpretations are clarified, there are several obvious weaknesses of the book.
First of all much of the language of the book is couched in the idiom of strategic
planning in general, and Lorange and Vancil’s version of strategic planning in particu-
lar. Lorange was at Wharton at the time and I was heavily influenced by his ideas.
Therefore, there is far too much “process-speak” and far too much “consultant-
speak”, both of which have served as a barrier to understanding the basic idea. Sec-
ond, the book was overly analytical. Henry Mintzberg seems never to tire of repeating
the criticism that I seem to believe that if we draw the stakeholder maps accurately
enough and model and predict their behavior; we can cast out uncertainty from the
strategic thinking process. While this was never my aim, I do understand how Mintz-
berg and others read this into the work. I simply wanted to suggest that we could
think about stakeholders systematically. Obviously there are limits to our ability to
analyze, and just as obviously we can use analysis to hide behind, rather than going out
and actively creating capabilities for dealing with stakeholders. Again, part of this
weakness, I believe, comes from the reliance on the strategic planning literature of the
time. Third, there is a tension in the writing of the book between “managerial think-
ing” and “academic thinking”. I believe that chapter 2 could only be interesting to
academics, and that chapters 5 and 6 could only be interesting to executives who were
trying to “do it”. I’m afraid that this tension served neither audience very well. Fourth,
I have come to believe that questions of purpose, values, ethics, and other elements of
which I crudely following Drucker called “enterprise strategy” are far more important
than I originally anticipated. Strategic management as a field universally ignored these
issues for years, and many continue to do so today. Once I came to see this as perhaps
the most important part of the book, I undertook to write what I hoped was a sequel
to the book with Daniel R. Gilbert, Jr., entitled Corporate Strategy and the Search for Ethics.
Unfortunately almost no one reads or refers to that book today. Fifth, there was a
missing level of analysis. I said virtually nothing about how business or capitalism
would look if we began to understand it as consisting of “creating value for stake-
holders”. A number of papers with sociologist, William Evan, began to explore these
issues, but they had a rather Kantian turn that I have now gladly forsaken. Sixth, there
is too much concern with structure in the book. While I still find some of the insights
about corporate governance interesting, the chapters on recasting the functions of
business along stakeholder lines were misguided. The underlying issue is the separa-
tion of business and ethics in the foundational disciplines of business, not the practical
organization and working of these disciplines. I’m certain there are even more flaws,
zfwu 5/3 (2004), 228-241 233
bad writing, mistakes, and bad ideas in the book, but these are at least some of the
major weaknesses from my point of view.
3.4 Fixing the Weaknesses
Since I am currently engaged in the process of rewriting Strategic Management: A Stake-
holder Approach, I want to suggest what my current thinking is, and how I’m going
about this new project. First of all there will be two books, both of them will be writ-
ten by a team consisting of Freeman, Jeffrey Harrison, Robert Phillips, and Andrew
Wicks. The initial book is tentatively titled, Managing For Stakeholders: Business in the 21st
Century. It is written purely for managers and executives. There will be no academic
arguments, not much discussion of the finer points of how stakeholders are defined,
and no mention of most of the literature and debates that has developed over the last
20 years. The basic argument remains intact except that given the changes wrought by
globalization, information technology, and the recent ethics related scandals, there is
more urgency in adopting a stakeholder approach to value creation and trade (our
name for “business”). We spend a fair amount of time laying out the argument that
concern for stakeholders is just what the business is about. We suggest that there is a
“stakeholder mindset” that consists of a number of key principles that more clearly
guide the implementation of stakeholder thinking. We connect the stakeholder idea to
ethics and values, very explicitly by suggesting that one of the key questions of enter-
prise strategy is how does your firm make each stakeholder better off, and what are
you doing to improve any tradeoffs that may exist between stakeholders. We distill the
process and techniques of the earlier book and our experiences over the last 20 years,
into 8 techniques for creating value for stakeholders. Then we end with an explicit call
for “ethical leadership” that is required by the stakeholder mindset. We are hoping to
include an appendix with FAQs that will prevent a number of the misinterpretations
of the first book. The second book is tentatively titled, Stakeholder Theory: The State of
the Art. We plan for this book to be “everything a doctoral student ever wants to
know about stakeholder theory”. We will cover a number of disciplines, from law to
marketing, including some outside the mainstream of business such as healthcare and
public administration. We plan to both summarize and evaluate the research that has
been done, and to suggest what some interesting avenues of research might be. I want
to emphasize, as I tried to do in my earlier book, that the thinking on which these
books are based has been done by many people, academics and executives alike, over
many years. What we are trying to do is to distill this thinking into a useful form, and
in doing so continue in the spirit of the early founders of the idea. With that in mind I
want to set forth some of the developments by a host of scholars who have taken the
stakeholder concept and placed it squarely in the mainstream of management thinking,
though I want to caution that this section is very abbreviated and incomplete.
4. Stakeholder Theory Since 1984
Since 1984 academic interest in a stakeholder approach has both grown and broad-
ened. Indeed the number of citations using the word stakeholder has increased enor-
mously as suggested by Donaldson and Preston (1995). Most of the research on the
stakeholder concept has taken place in four sub-fields: normative theories of business;
corporate governance and organizational theory; corporate social responsibility and
performance; and, strategic management.1
4.1 A stakeholder approach to normative theories of business
A stakeholder approach emphasizes the importance of investing in the relationships
with those who have a stake in the firm. The stability of these relationships depends
on the sharing of, at least, a core of principles or values. Thus, stakeholder theory
allows managers to incorporate personal values into the formulation and implementa-
tion of strategic plans. An example of this is the concept of an enterprise strategy. An
enterprise strategy (Schendel/Hofer 1979, building on Drucker) describes the relation-
ship between the firm and society by answering the question “What do we stand for?”
In its original form a stakeholder approach emphasized the importance of developing
an enterprise strategy, while leaving open the question of which type of values are the
most appropriate. “It is very easy to misinterpret the foregoing analysis as yet another
call for corporate social responsibility or business ethics. While these issues are impor-
tant in their own right, enterprise level strategy is a different concept. We need to
worry about the enterprise level strategy for the simple fact that corporate survival
depends in part on there being some “fit” between the values of the corporation and
its managers, the expectations of stakeholders in the firm and the societal issues which
will determine the ability of the firm to sell its products.” (Freeman 1984: 107) How-
ever, the illustration that values are an essential ingredient to strategic management
has, indeed, set in train an inquiry into the normative roots of stakeholder theory.
Donaldson and Preston (1995) argued that stakeholder theories could be categorized
from descriptive, instrumental or normative points of view. A descriptive theory
would simply illustrate that firms have stakeholders, an instrumental theory would
show that firms who consider their stakeholders devise successful strategies; a norma-
tive theory would describe why firms should give consideration to their stakeholders.
Thus, the search for a normative justification for stakeholder takes the theory beyond
strategic issues and into the realm of philosophical foundations.
The question this research stream is trying to answer is “above and beyond the conse-
quences of stakeholder management, is there a fundamental moral requirement to
adopt this style of management?” Various attempts have been made to ground stake-
holder management in a broad range of philosophical foundations. Evan and Freeman
(1993) developed a justification of a stakeholder approach based on Kantian princi-
ples. In its simplest form this approach argued that we are required to treat people “as
ends unto themselves.” Thus, managers should make corporate decisions respecting
stakeholders’ well being rather than treating them as means to a corporate end. This
framework has been further developed by Norman Bowie (1999) into a fully fledged
ethical theory of business. From a different perspective Phillips (1997) has grounded a
stakeholder approach in the principle of fairness. When groups of individuals enter
1 Portions of this section are from R. Edward Freeman and John McVea (2001): “Stakeholder Theory:
The State of the Art” in M. Hitt, E. Freeman, and J. Harrison (eds.): The Blackwell Handbook of
Strategic Management, Oxford: Basil Blackwell. I am grateful to my co-author and my co-editors and
publishers for permission to include this material here.
zfwu 5/3 (2004), 228-241 235
voluntarily into cooperative agreements they create an obligation to act fairly. As such,
normal business transactions create a moral obligation for firms to treat stakeholders
fairly and thus to consider their interests when making strategic decisions. Others
(Wicks/Freeman/Gilbert 1994; Burton/Dunn 1996) have tried to justify a stakeholder
approach through the ethics of care. Contrasting the traditional emphasis on an indi-
vidual rights-based approach to business, an ethics of care emphasizes the primacy of
the network of relationships that create the business enterprise. This approach advo-
cates the use of a stakeholder approach because of the need to formulate strategy in
the context of the relationships that surround it, rather than with the firm as a lone
actor. Finally, Donaldson and Dunfee (1999) have developed a justification for a
stakeholder approach that is based on social contract theory.
Recently, Kochan and Rubenstein (2000) have developed a normative stakeholder
theory based on an extensive study of the Saturn automotive manufacturer. In this
study they try and answer the question “Why should stakeholder models be given
serious consideration at this moment in history.” For Kochan and Rubenstein this is
both a normative and positive inquiry “and one that requires research that both expli-
cates the normative issues and poses the theoretical questions in ways that promote
tractable empirical research” (2000). They conclude that stakeholder firms will emerge
when the stakeholders hold critical assets, expose these assets to risk and have both
influence and voice. However, stakeholder firms will only be sustainable when leaders’
incentives encourage responsiveness to stakeholders and when stakeholder legitimacy
can overcome society’s skeptical ideological legacy towards stakeholder management.
4.2 A stakeholder approach to corporate governance and organizational theory
This stream of stakeholder research has grown out of the contrast between the tradi-
tional view that it is the fiduciary duty of management to protect the interests of the
shareholder and the stakeholder view that management should make decisions for the
benefit of all stakeholders. Williamson (1984) used a transaction cost framework to
show that shareholders deserved special consideration over other stakeholders be-
cause of “asset specificity.” He argued that a shareholder’s stake was uniquely tied to
the success of the firm and would have no residual value should the firm fail, unlike,
for example, the labor of a worker. Freeman and Evan (1990) have argued, to the
contrary, that Williamson’s approach to corporate governance can indeed be used to
explain all stakeholders’ relationships. Many other stakeholders have stakes that are, to
a degree, firm specific. Furthermore, shareholders have a more liquid market (the
stock market) for exit than most other stakeholders. Thus, asset specificity alone does
not grant a prime responsibility towards stockholders at the expense of all others.
Goodpaster (1991) outlined an apparent paradox that accompanies the stakeholder
approach. Management appears to have a contractual duty to manage the firm in the
interests of the stockholders and at the same time management seems to have a moral
duty to take other stakeholders into account. This stakeholder paradox has been at-
tacked by Boatright (1994) and Marens and Wicks (1999) and defended by Goodpas-
ter and Holloran (1994). Others have explored the legal standing of the fiduciary duty
of management towards stockholders, Orts (1997), Blair (1995). Many of these de-
bates are on-going, with some advocating fundamental changes to corporate govern-
ance and with others rejecting the relevance of the whole debate to a stakeholder ap-
There have also been a number of attempts to expand stakeholder theory into what
Jones (1995) has referred to as a ‘central paradigm’ that links together theories such as
agency theory, transactions costs and contracts theory into a coherent whole (Jones
1995; Clarkson 1995). From this perspective stakeholder theory can be used as a
counterpoint to traditional shareholder-based theory. While it is generally accepted
that stakeholder theory could constitute good management practice, its main value for
these theorists is to expose the traditional model as being morally untenable or at least
too accommodating to immoral behaviour. This literature has historically consisted of
fractured collection of viewpoints that share an opposition to the dominant neoclassi-
cal positive approach to business. Because of its accommodating framework the
stakeholder concept provided an opportunity to develop an overarching theory that
could link together such concepts as agency theory, transactions costs, human rela-
tionships, ethics and even the environment. More recently Jones and Wicks (1999)
have explicitly tried to pull together diverging research streams in their paper “Con-
vergent Stakeholder Theory.”
4.3 A stakeholder approach to social responsibility and social performance
A significant area of interests for theorists of social responsibility has been the defini-
tion of legitimate stakeholders. It has been stated that “one glaring shortcoming is the
problem of stakeholder identity. That is, that the theory is often unable to distinguish
those individuals and groups that are stakeholders form those that are not” (Phil-
lips/Reichart 1998). Mitchell, Agle and Wood addressed this issue by developing a
framework for stakeholder identification. Using qualitative criteria of power, legiti-
macy and urgency, they develop what they refer to as “the principle of who and what
really counts.” This line of research is particularly relevant in areas such as the envi-
ronment and grassroots political activism. The critical question is whether there is
such a thing as an illegitimate stakeholder, and if so how legitimacy should be defined.
Agle, Mitchell and Sonnenfield (2000) have taken an opposite approach. Rather than
try and theoretically define stakeholder legitimacy, they have conducted an empirical
study to identify which stakeholders managers actually consider to be legitimate.
A large body of research has been carried out in order to test the ‘instrumental’ claim
that managing for stakeholders is just good management practice. This claim infers
that firms that practice stakeholder management would out perform firms that do not
practice stakeholder management. Wood (1995) pointed out that causality is complex,
the relationship between corporate social performance (CSP) and financial perform-
ance is ambiguous, there is no comprehensive measure of CSP and that the most that
can be demonstrated with current data is that “bad social performance hurts a com-
It has often been hypothesized that firms who invest in stakeholder management and
improve their social performance will be penalized by investors who are only interested
in financial returns. This has been referred to as ’the myopic institutions theory.’ Graves
and Waddock (1990) have demonstrated the growth in importance of institutional
stakeholders over the last twenty years. On further investigation they found that firms
zfwu 5/3 (2004), 228-241 237
that demonstrated a high level of corporate social performance (CSP) tends to lead to an
increase in the number of institutions that invest in the stock (Graves/Waddock 1994).
This result is “consistent with a steadily accumulating body of evidence that provides
little support for the myopic institutions theory” (Graves/Waddock 1994 ).
A range of recent studies have been carried out using new data and techniques to try
and shed light on the links between stakeholder management and social and financial
performance (Berman/Wicks/Kotha/Jones 1999; Harrison/Fiet 1999; Luoma/
Goodstein 1999). At a more practitioner level Ogden and Watson (1999) have carried
out a detailed case study into corporate and stakeholder management in the UK water
industry. At present most conclusions in this area are somewhat tentative as the preci-
sion of techniques and data sources continue to be developed.
4.4 A stakeholder approach to strategic management
Harrison and St John (1994) have been the leaders in developing an integrated ap-
proach with many of the conceptual frameworks of mainstream strategy theory. In
their words “[stakeholder management] combines perspectives from other traditional
models such as industrial organization economics, resource-based view, cognitive
theory, and the institutional view of the firm.”
They distinguish between stakeholder analysis and stakeholder management. Stake-
holder management is built on a partnering mentality that involves communicating,
negotiating, contracting, managing relationships and motivating. These different as-
pects of stakeholder management are held together by the enterprise strategy which
defines what the firm stands for. Ethics are a part of these processes, first, because
unethical behavior can have high costs and second, because codes of ethics provide
the consistency and trust required for profitable cooperation.
Harrison and St John are able to combine traditional and stakeholder approaches be-
cause they use the stakeholder approach as an overarching framework within which
traditional approaches can operate as strategic tools. For example, they divide the
environment into the operating environment and the broader environment. Within
the operating environment the ‘resource based view of the firm’ can operate as a use-
ful framework to study the relationships of internal stakeholders such as management
and employees. Equally Porter’s five-force model (Porter 1998) can be used to shed
light on the relationships of many external stakeholders such as competitors and sup-
pliers. However, strategic management does not stop at this analytical/ descriptive
phase. Prioritizing stakeholders is more than a complex task of assessing the strength
of their stake on the basis of economic or political power. The values and the enter-
prise strategy of a firm may dictate priorities for particular partnerships and discourage
others. Thus, a stakeholder approach allows management to infuse traditional strategic
analysis with the values and direction that are unique to that organization.
4.5 Some Promising Future Developments
There are many promising developments in stakeholder theory. The purpose of this
section is to set forth a few of these ideas and point the reader to this emerging litera-
ture. Sandra Waddock and a number of colleagues have used the stakeholder idea as
one of the conceptual centerpieces for their work on corporate citizenship, and have
been involved with a number of NGOs, such as the United Nations, to develop a
consensus around a set of stakeholder principles that corporations could adopt volun-
tarily. A compendium of essays, Understanding Stakeholder Thinking (Andriof/Waddock/
Husted/Rahman 2002) is a good starting point for this very promising work. Jeanne
Liedtka, Laura Dunham and I have suggested that citizenship may well be a problem-
atic concept if it is restricted to an analysis of the “community” stakeholder, and
Waddock may well offer a way out of this morass. “Community” may well by the “soft
underbelly” of stakeholder theory since it is very difficult to pin down a meaning in
today’s world which is nearly absent of a “sense of place” (Liedtka/Dunham/Freeman
Andrew Wicks and Bidhan Parmar have suggested that one of the central tasks of
both stakeholder theory and business ethics is to put “business” and “ethics” together
in a coherent and practical way (Wicks/Freeman/Parmar 2004). Kirsten Martin has
suggested that the separation of business and ethics which is so central to the stake-
holder debate needs to be expanded to take the role of technology into account in an
explicit manner (Martin/Freeman, forthcoming). Venkataraman (2002) has argued
that thinking about entrepreneurship would hasten this combination, strengthening
both stakeholder theory and entrepreneurship as important fields of inquiry.
Open questions remain. For instance:
(1) Is there a useful typology of enterprise strategy or answers to questions of pur-
(2) How can we understand the relationship between fine-grained narratives of how
firms create value for stakeholders, and the idea of stakeholder theory as a genre
or set of loosely connected narratives?
(3) If we understand business, broadly, as “creating value for stakeholders” what are
the appropriate background disciplines? And, in particular what the connections
between the traditional “social sciences” and “humanities”?
(4) How can the traditional disciplines of business such as marketing and finance
develop conceptual schemes that do not separate “business” from “ethics” and
can the stakeholder concept be useful in developing these schemes?
(5) If we understand “business”, broadly, as “creating value for stakeholders”, under
what conditions is value creation stable over time?
(6) Can we take as the foundational question of political philosophy, “how is value
creation and trade sustainable over time” rather than “how is the state justified”?
I am certain that there are many additional research questions, and many more people
working on these questions than I have mentioned here. I hope this paper has clari-
fied some of my own writing in the stakeholder area, and provoked others to respond.
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Stakeholder Theory between general and contextual approa-
ches – A German view
URSULA HANSEN, MATTHIAS BODE UND DIRK MOOSMAYER*
Korreferat zum Beitrag von R. Edward Freeman
Management theory authors have earned an infamous reputation for working on an
endless output of concepts that progress through a life cycle of introduction, growth,
maturity, decline, and cessation. In the literature about management fads, “Business
Reengineering” or “Lean Management” are discussed as potentially on the decline (see
Williams 2004; Collins 2000; Abrahamson/Fairchild 1999). The stakeholder approach,
however, defies this trend and is still alive and kicking, even though it is older than
these theories. Acceptance in academia and corporate practice has grown steadily. The
stakeholder literature has become voluminous, Tony Blair and other politicians pro-
claim the goal of a stakeholder economy, and organisations as diverse as the World
Bank and The Green 9 (nine of the largest European environmental organisa-
tions/networks) are pushing towards (more or less) balanced multi-stakeholder in-
It might be argued that the socio-cultural, political, and economic context that ulti-
mately needs and rewards a stakeholder strategy has only fully developed since the
1990s. When Freeman wrote his initial book on the stakeholder approach in 1984, the
Zeitgeist of “Reaganomics” and “Thatcherism” favoured more a narrow-minded pur-
suit of profit (see Hansen/Bode 1999: 397f.). Still, in this context, Freeman popular-
ised the idea that companies have a responsibility to their stakeholders and that values
are a fundamental part of daily business. Meanwhile, the structural problems of mor-
ally unsatisfying market results are well known. Power agglomeration, the increasing
complexity of doing business in a risk society (Beck 1986), external effects, and accel-
erating dynamics highlight the importance of a moral and strategic discussion of the
relationship between business and society. At the same time, the public increasingly
expects from companies a contribution to solving economic, social and environmental
conflicts in society. In light of current conditions, the question is not so much why the
stakeholder approach is discussed today but how it could prevail?
Referring to the Donaldson and Preston (1995) tripartite aspects, the benefits of the
stakeholder approach are its descriptive accuracy, its instrumental power, or its norma-
tive validity of “doing good”. We think the most significant aspect lies in the 4th as-
* Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c., Hansen, Ursula/Dr. Bode, Matthias/lic. oec. HSG Moosmayer, Dirk, Lehrstuhl
Marketing und Konsum, Universität Hannover, Königsworther Platz 1, D-30167 Hannover, Tel.:
0511 762 5613, Fax: 0511 762 5630, E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Forschungsschwer-
punkte: Handels- und Dienstleistungsmarketing, Relationship Marketing, Marketingethik, Ökologi-
sches Marketing, Verbraucherpolitik.
zfwu 5/3 (2004), 242-254 243
pect, proposed by Freeman (1995: 45) himself: the “metaphorical or narrative quali-
ties”. He developed a “good story” in which it was possible to comprise diverse narra-
tive threads about the inseparability of business and ethics. So he prudently does not
talk about “THE one stakeholder theory” (Freeman 1995: 35), but about a genre of
theories (Freeman 2004: 232). Therefore, criticism of a lack of explicit theoretical
formulations of the theory or the “blurred character” (Donaldson/Preston 1995: 66)
of the concepts misses the point. Instead, this is Freeman’s specific accomplishment:
the connectivity of his stakeholder frame with diverse theories and paradigms and the
potential of ethical plurality. This makes his ideas productive and fertile for diverse
The other major advancement was the rejection of the “separation thesis” (Freeman
1994), that assumes first the potentiality and second the necessity of separating the
business from the ethics discourse. Instead, the stakeholder approach started with the
assumption that doing business always incorporates a moral perspective. A theoretical
analysis that excludes the ethical component is, therefore, not value-free, but ethics
done badly (Wicks/Freeman 1998: 124). So, he positioned his ideas not as a special
case of morally infused business, but as a better, more helpful general managerial ap-
This approach came with a downside that Freeman acknowledges. His work devel-
oped inductively out of American business cases without focusing too much on scien-
tific criteria of theory development and acceptance. He acknowledges his lack of
methodological concern but dismisses methodological rigor as “silly window dressing”
(Freeman 2004: 230). Furthermore, he constructs false dichotomies such as “useful or
theoretical” in an assumingly anti-theoretical manner. What might look like casually
shrugging off scientific standards unnecessarily obscures the viewer from Freeman’s
thorough philosophical, methodological and meta-theoretical clarifications of his
stakeholder approach. Not without its own dead ends and ruptures, he and his col-
laborators finally arrived at a pragmatist methodological foundation (Wicks/Freeman
1998). While blaming positivism for the marginalisation of ethics in business studies,
he favours anti-positivist approaches in their emphasis on culture and meaning. Then
he criticises anti-positivist approaches in their moral relativism. In his view, only
pragmatism incorporates criticism of the positivist paradigm and allows a certain
moral position. With this paradigmatic framing, he is able to clarify the essential crite-
ria for adopting the stakeholder approach. The formerly ambiguous term of “useful-
ness”, oscillating between strategic success and prescriptive value, is now defined as
“useful in the sense of helping people to better cope with the world or to create better
organisations” (Wicks/Freeman 1998: 129). Avoiding prescribing certain fixed values,
he refers the specification of values to the interactions of communities, specifically the
negotiation “within the community of stakeholders who constitutes a given corpora-
tion” (Wicks/Freeman 1998: 131).
This perspective, resembling the discourse ethics of Habermas (1991) and the trans-
formation into stakeholder-dialogues, has two important implications for the evalua-
tion and further advancement of the stakeholder project.
(1) There is still ambiguity regarding the goal of Freeman’s stakeholder approach.
Does he want to develop the stakeholder approach into an elaborating theory of
its own or to advance the function of a theory genre, a frame for connecting the
diverse approaches world wide with similar ideas? He cannot have it both ways,
especially when he highlights the severe difficulties of “building bridges” between
certain paradigms. Nevertheless, he refers favourably to one, central paradigm for
stakeholder theory, incorporating diverse concepts such as agency theory, transac-
tion costs, human relationships, ethics, and the environment (Freeman 2004: 236).
(2) There is a tension between the way the phenomena of stakeholder approaches are
analysed and the status of the approach itself. On the one hand, Freeman empha-
sises the importance of specific cultural values, historically developed patterns of
business interactions and negotiation practices for the concrete realisation of
stakeholder relationships and their moral specifications. Yet, his stakeholder ap-
proach, developed in an American context, based on American business cases,
and fostered by American pragmatism, claims universal applicability.
To exemplify the ambiguity and tension in Freeman’s approach, the adoption of the
stakeholder approach in the context of German markets and German-language1 aca-
demic literature is described. Our hypothesis is that the stakeholder approach can be
advanced most productively by cross-fertilisation when contextual differences in cer-
tain countries are acknowledged on the phenomena and theory level.
2. Development of the stakeholder approach in the German-language busi-
ness administration discussion
As pointed out by Freeman (2004: 229), the stakeholder approach was first received
(contrary to his expectations) in the US in the field of business ethics and then in the
field of strategic management. In the following section, we show the development of
the stakeholder idea in the German-language business administration literature in the
fields of strategic management and business ethics. Similar to the US situation, in
Germany, the stakeholder approach was first discussed in these areas.
2.1 Development in the field of strategic management
Precursors of the stakeholder approach in Germany were systems theory and coalition
theory, which developed in the 1960s. Systems theory entered management discussion
with a view of companies not as autonomous entities but as complex socio-
technological organisms with structural design needs. It considered enterprises as
operating in a specific, dynamic environment with many interest groups, and that
enterprise system design should include the active involvement of the interest groups.
The interest groups concept was well developed in the German-language literature
and the list of interest groups was similar to Freeman’s concept (Ulrich 1970: 183).
The second stream of stakeholder ideas in the German-language management litera-
ture is coalition theory. It addresses the entities involved in the decision-making proc-
esses while system theory addresses system elements. In the decision-oriented ap-
proach, coalition theory states that all entities involved in the goal development proc-
1 We use the term “German-language” to explicitly indicate that the German-language community of
business administration scholars transcend the German borders.
zfwu 5/3 (2004), 242-254 245
ess have their own goals or involvement interests that they may reach only by jointly
building coalitions (Heinen 1978: 24f.). A company can thus be seen as a coalition,
and the coalition partners are the company’s members: for example, employees, man-
The integration of the two concepts, interest group and coalition theory, lead to the
description of enterprises as coalitions of stakeholders (using the German equivalent
“Anspruchsgruppe“). Thus, the only way the coalition can be successful is if each
stakeholder fulfils their respective, goal related duties. This approach assigns manage-
ment the key tasks of balancing different stakeholder interests and actively involving
stakeholders. Dyllick (1984) gives a concise, applicable description of resulting man-
agement tasks in a six-step approach to identifying the relevant stakeholders, analysing
their claims and answering them appropriately.
We have depicted the development of thoughts around the stakeholder ideas in the
German-language strategic management discussion from its debut in the 1960s to
1984, when Freeman’s Strategic Management was published. To understand the scientific
discussion in Germany thereafter, we conducted an analysis of the three leading jour-
nals of business administration2 published in German from 1984 to the present3. The
results of this analysis may be summarised as follows:
Only 12 articles published between 1994 and 20004 included ideas explicitly de-
scribed as stakeholder ideas. The stakeholder discussion in the journals was rather
Only one out of these twelve articles explicitly referred to Freeman (Han-
sen/Hennig-Thurau/Langer 2000). This supports the hypothesis that there had
been a rather independent development of stakeholder approaches in German-
The discussion started in “Die Betriebswirtschaft” with articles on stakeholders as
a relevant variable in public relations (Haedrich/Jeschke 1994 and
Shareholder discussion precedes stakeholder discussion. For each of the journals,
the first article on stakeholder approaches was published at least two years after
the first contribution to shareholder approaches.
An intense debate on shareholder vs. stakeholder took place from 1997 to 2000
(see Speckbacher 1997, Backes-Gellner/Pull 1999, Wentges 2000), which sup-
2 The German term „Allgemeine Betriebswirtschaftslehre“ is here translated as business administra-
tion. The regarded journals deal with general issues of business administration from all business areas
3 We evaluated the appearance of the terms stakeholder (“Stakeholder”, “Anspruchsgruppe”, “Interes-
sengruppe”) and shareholder (“Shareholder”) in the titles mentioned in the index of contents and in
the key word index of the three German business administration journals “Die Betriebswirtschaft”
(DBW), “Zeitschrift für Betriebswirtschaft” (ZfB) and “Schmalenbachs Zeitschrift für betrieb-
swirtschaftliche Forschung” (ZfbF) including “Schmalenbach Business Review” from 1984 until
2004 (for 2004 first six months only).
4 The first mentioning in 1989 was a short reply in the different context of information asymmetries.
ports the hypothesis that stakeholder discussion in Germany has largely been a re-
action to the shareholder value debate.
The most recent articles on stakeholder ideas were published in 2000. One could
infer that the discussion has diminished and that the stakeholder approach disap-
peared from German management theory. However, it is more likely that other
concepts such as Corporate Social Responsibility, Corporate Citizenship and Cor-
porate Governance have accepted the stakeholder approach, and that it is repre-
sented in these discussions.
This journal analysis is an important indicator of the status of the stakeholder discus-
sion in German-language business administration literature, but it does not cover
every instance of the discussion. Thus, the identified research streams also found re-
sponses in other journals and monographs (for stakeholder – shareholder discussion
see, e.g., Janisch 1993, Figge/Schaltegger 1999, Gomez/Wunderlin 2000, Baden
2001). Furthermore, approaches considering stakeholders as relevant groups were
presented in contributions on general management theory (see Steinmann/Schreyögg
1991: 65f., Bleicher 1994, Pfriem 1995). Overall, we have the impression that stake-
holder ideas are less established as a theory in the German-language business admini-
stration literature than in the US.
2.2 Reception in the field of business ethics
So far, we have analysed the discussion of stakeholder issues in strategic management.
Now, we will proceed to the second relevant stream, business ethics. Three relevant
business ethics approaches are discussed in the German-language business ethics
community. The most typical approach is the institution and order ethics (“Institu-
tionen- und Ordnungsethik”) that considers the legal and political frame as the sys-
tematic place of morals in a market economy (Homann/Blome-Drees 1992: 35). In
this perspective, market actions are systematically dispensed from “ostensible” indi-
vidual moral requirements (Pies/Blome-Drees 1993: 752). Thus, stakeholders are
pushed back to the strategic management level, where the enterprise should use them
as a means of profit maximisation.
Two further streams in business ethics evolved by applying discourse ethics from
philosophy (Apel 1973, Habermas 1991) to the relationship between business and its
environment. This lead to the view that dialogues between companies and their stake-
holders are a central tool of ethical business practice. The debate continues regarding
to which cases the idea of discourse should be applied.
The first discourse ethics approach is conflict ethics (“Konfliktethik”). Conflict ethics
understands societal peace as the key goal of any (corporate) citizen’s activity and
discourse as the regulative idea for achieving societal peace. Due to the imperfection
of the institutional frame (Steinmann/Löhr 1995: 144) in which an enterprise oper-
ates, conflicts may arise. In this situation, companies have the responsibility of making
peace. This is achieved by using the entrepreneurial action scope, i.e. involving stake-
holders in a dialogue aimed towards the goal of societal peace. Business ethics in this
context can be understood as the self-commitment of a company to a set of norms
that is justifiable through dialogical agreement with affected stakeholders. This set of
zfwu 5/3 (2004), 242-254 247
norms should aim to reduce conflict-relevant impacts of the profit principle (Stein-
mann/Oppenrieder 1985: 174). The stakeholder dialogue in this approach is under-
stood as a situational corrective. In case of conflicts, a compromise that is acceptable
for all stakeholders should be jointly developed. This approach clearly separates the
economic and ethical view by taking the latter into account only when the former is
about to fail.
The limitations of this established two-world-view have been addressed in a rational
ethics (“Vernunftethik”) of business (Ulrich 1997), which joins both concepts - busi-
ness and ethics - in a dialogue aimed at an integrated business ethical view. In this
view, business legitimacy is not achieved by profit generation but through a dialogue
among all stakeholders that constitutes the ethical foundation of business operation.
Ulrich (1987), taking an ethical perspective by explicitly denying a harmonistic ethic
economical view, mentions two concepts answering the question of which stake-
holders should be considered: a strategic concept and a normative-critical concept.
The first defines stakeholders as groups that can affect an organisation, i.e. who have
power to affect or influence the company’s financial results. In this context Ulrich
explicitly discusses Freeman’s approach and identifies, agreeing with Goodpaster
(1991: 59), this perception of stakeholders as narrowed (Ulrich 1997: 444). While
Goodpaster (1991: 59) sticks to the profit maximisation principle, Ulrich (1997: 442)
sees the normative-critical concept as ethical, considering all groups that have legiti-
mate stakes as stakeholders, be their concern contractual rights or general moral
The theoretical discussion of stakeholder dialogues is strongly shaped by the analysis
of practical cases. The conflict ethical approach was very much enhanced by the cases
of Siemens (Steinmann/Schreyögg 1982) and Nestlé (Steinmann/Oppenrieder 1985).
A non-conflict based dialogue approach was analysed in the case of Procter & Gam-
ble, who conducted extensive stakeholder dialogue programs in Germany to evaluate
stakeholders’ relevance in skin and health care, without any immediate issues to re-
solve (see Hansen/Schoenheit 1994). The differentiation of monological and dialogi-
cal approaches was developed in the case of Daimler Chrysler Aerospace Airbus
(Roloff 2002). A theoretical evaluation of dialogue approaches applied in Germany
was presented by Rettberg (1999).
In the German-language business management literature, as in the US, there have
been two quite similar research streams integrating stakeholder ideas. Nevertheless,
three major differences can be identified:
(1) The discussion has altogether been less extensive in the German context than in
(2) The distance between business and ethics is even larger in Germany.
(3) The discussions in the German context highlight other aspects and make connec-
tions with different research approaches.
To understand better the differences between the development of stakeholder theory
in the German-language literature and the US, and to evaluate which of them could
augment the international stakeholder discussion, we will look at the context in which
the theories developed.
2.3 Interpreting the results: An analysis of different contexts
As indicated by Freeman (Wicks/Freeman 1998: 137), specific cultural values and
historically developed patterns of business interactions and negotiation practices are
highly relevant for the concrete realisation of stakeholder relationships. Since these
relationships affect theory development, one can deduce that cultural values and prac-
tices are important for development of stakeholder theory. Therefore, in the following
section, we discuss some specifics that might have influenced the development of
stakeholder theory in the German-language business administration literature. Starting
with the values view, we elaborate on the practical perspective for taking an academic
Through analysing the basic values of the German and US economy, it is possible to
relate the specific connection of business and ethics to the respective religious tradi-
tions. In the US, the dominant puritan work ethic, which promotes the assumption of
maximised private wealth used for doing God’s work on earth, eases a favourable
relationship between business and ethics (Palazzo 2002: 200). In German society,
success in business and profit are not seen as proof of closeness to God but as mali-
cious. Therefore, the relation between ethics and business is often even seen unfa-
vourably. This difference in the basic value system strongly influences the stakeholder
relationships via the legal framework.
Based on religious foundations as well as historical developments, in the US there is a
deep belief in the self-regulation and the self-responsibility of business. Therefore,
government regulation and power is restricted in favour of business freedom (Dyllick
1989: 103), expecting businesses to use the freedom positively, for increasing private
profit and thereby common wealth. This includes the assumption that the participa-
tion of stakeholders is necessary for companies to create profit and that this participa-
tion results in economic advantages.
In Germany, conversely, a stronger demand for an external entity balancing the social
differences in society restricts companies’ action scope. The regulating entity is ex-
pected to be the government, which, as a democratically authorised entity, is supposed
to intervene on behalf of the people. For example, in Germany, some critics consid-
ered the Davos manifesto undemocratic and diluting the civil liberal order due to the
corporate power and responsibilities given to large enterprises (Steinmann 1973). In
Germany, the state rather than the manager is considered responsible for assuring
justice in the company-stakeholder relationship. This aspect strongly supports the
institution and order ethical approach. From a company perspective, this approach
makes pro-active stakeholder thinking less necessary.
One example of that development is the corporate governance structure of listed
joint-stock companies, which is different in the US and Germany. In Germany, the
legal requirement of considering more interests than just the shareowners tends to
result in a stronger stakeholder-orientation per se than in Anglo-Saxon countries (Blair
1995: 107ff.). Employee representatives are mandatory in the German supervisory
board. Taking up stakeholder thinking explicitly in strategic management is less impor-
tant since stakeholder involvement is considered a given for practice and research.
zfwu 5/3 (2004), 242-254 249
Because law requires regulation, the evaluation of dialogues and self-regulation be-
tween business and stakeholders is less emphasised as a management task in business
operations. For a long time, this was also the case for stakeholders such as unions,
consumer organisations and environmental groups in Germany. In their opinion, the
government sets norms in a rather narrow frame. These stakeholders tend to use their
countervailing power (Galbraith 1967) by defending the little remaining action scopes
in hard fights. This results in stakeholder relationships that are more oriented to con-
flict than dialog. In the US, the limited reach of government legislation and the larger
action scope of companies tend to constitute a precondition that supports dialogical
communication between stakeholders and companies. German stakeholder organisa-
tions mainly understood their countervailing function in terms of criticism, opposi-
tion, and prevention rather than in dialogue, compromise and agreement. These or-
ganisations rejected offers of a dialogical communication since this was (not always
erroneously) understood as “pure PR” without serious societal concern on the com-
pany side. This perspective was supported by scientific research that evaluated the
stakeholder perspective of PR, as found in the above stated journal analysis. The de-
bate on this issue continues. Nevertheless, more and more stakeholder organisations
tend to understand the positive function of stakeholder dialogues. Currently, this turn
is also supported by the current socio-economic situation in Germany. High unem-
ployment rates, the reduction of social services through federal laws as well as the
debate around the worsening competitive position of Germany as business location
not only represent societal conflicts but also reduce the power of most stakeholder
groups (except owners and management) and thereby increase their readiness to enter
into a dialogue. This increases the possibility of constructively integrating stakeholders
into dialogues aiming for peace by consensus as depicted in the conflict ethical ap-
Differences between the academic systems of the US and Germany represent a sec-
ond stream of arguments that could have relevance for a diverging discussion of
stakeholder approaches in both countries. US researchers tend to have a more prag-
matic approach to analysing problems than their German colleagues, whose academic
culture requires a more rigid theoretical foundation based on a methodologically ap-
proved approach. This seems most evident for the rational ethics approach that does
not try to improve incrementally the current business landscape but rather aims to
redesign the way business operates through a dialogue between all possible stake-
Despite Freeman’s criticism of the separation thesis, in Germany the distance in aca-
demic treatment of business and ethics is even larger than in the US, a fact that is
supported by the already described set of underlying values. Although in the 1920s
business administration approaches with a normative foundation were quite promi-
nent in Germany and often included stakeholder interests by proclaiming public wel-
fare as a goal of business administration (e.g. Nicklisch 1933), their easy ideological
utilisation by the Nazi Government deeply discredited normative approaches. There-
fore, Gutenberg, one of the founding fathers of modern business administration in
post-war Germany, became prominent by establishing the “value-free” conception of
the corporation as an autonomous, profit-oriented entity detached from society. To-
gether with his microeconomic theory of the firm, the “value-free” approach was the
dominant theory in the German-language business administration context for a long
time. On the meta-theoretical level, this theory was flanked by Max Weber’s
(1951/1904: 151) notion of a science free from value-judgements. This established in
Germany a theory of business administration that defends its scientific status by
equating objectivity with non-normativity. Concerning the development of the stake-
holder approach in the German-language literature, we think that its normative con-
notation and its diction of contradicting the profit principle limit the extent of its dis-
cussion in the same context as the freedom of value-judgement paradigm. Freeman
(Werhane/Freeman, 1999: 7) states that the stakeholder approach per se questions the
separation thesis and undercuts the “normative-descriptive” distinction. The devel-
opment of German-language academic literature exemplified developmental roads
different from Freeman’s: in addition to ignoring the stakeholder approach, it is char-
(1) discussing the stakeholder approach within a separation thesis context (e.g. within
the conflict ethics approach) and
(2) even criticising the stakeholder approach for still incorporating notions of the
separation thesis (e.g. within the rational ethics approach).
The old saying ascribed to Sir Isaac Newton that seeing further by standing on the
shoulders of giants addresses a fundamental principle of scientific progress. It is by
exchanging ideas and by further elaborating already existing ideas that science can be
advanced. Freeman did not start from scratch, and in the German-language literature,
the stakeholder approach also proceeded through connecting ideas to existing con-
cepts. We outlined some of the basic differences, which influenced the integration of
Freeman’s stakeholder ideas into the German contexts of practice and theory. In
Germany, a stakeholder orientation was primarily adopted by companies due to gov-
ernment regulations, often with a more confrontational tendency. Based on different
historical and religious backgrounds, the stakeholder orientation of US companies
developed more out of the companies themselves, whose ethics were already more
tightly intertwined with the business sphere than in Germany. Both contextual differ-
ences, the main background and the company experiences, also influenced academic
reception in the German-language business administration literature. Freeman initially
criticised the separation of business and ethics in the American context. But this sepa-
ration was (and often still is) much more established in the German context. This
separation was perpetuated largely by the strong meta-theoretical domination of the
so-called “positivist” paradigm5 in the German context.
If the stakeholder approach does not function as one grand theory but as an open
frame, connecting different threads into a better story, then the differences can be
5 The historical philosophical position of positivism has long been abandoned. In the meta-theoretical
debate, the term “positivism” is therefore often seen as a straw man argument. In the German con-
text it is more appropriate to speak of a “critical rationalism” based on Karl Popper.
zfwu 5/3 (2004), 242-254 251
transformed through productive cross-fertilisation. In this way, understanding experi-
ences of existing stakeholder relationships in different contexts can further enrich a
stakeholder approach acknowledging different stakeholder groups, different power
relations between companies and stakeholders, and different regulative frames. This
research can contribute to the still underdeveloped dynamic stakeholder behaviour
model and to the depiction of changing stakeholder-company relations over time.
On an academic level, a contextualised approach to a stakeholder frame can acknowl-
edge the different perspectives and traditions without notions of a “take over” emerg-
ing6. This could possibly be counter-productive, as the European perspective can be
especially valuable when looking at the relationship between Corporate Social Re-
sponsibility (CSR) and the stakeholder approach. This is important because CSR is an
emerging topic in practice, especially since globalisation causes severe problems of
injustice and social disadvantages and raises concern for companies’ action scope.
CSR implies that companies take responsibility for their actions by considering the
consequences for others who are affected, i.e. for stakeholders. Stakeholder theory is,
therefore, an implicit part of CSR and is reasonably integrated via multi-stakeholder
dialogues (EU commission 2003). Still, CSR has two facets: normative and strategic.
The strategic facet understands CSR as a business case. This is based on the notion
that socially responsible behaviour results in a positive return on investment, at least
in the long-run (Habisch 2003). The second facet, the normative view of CSR, de-
mands responsible behaviour beyond the business case, i.e. also in times of crises and
argues for responsible behaviour even if it is not profitable (Hansen/Schrader 2004).
Freeman claims that stakeholder theory makes “the idea of ‘corporate social responsi-
bility’ […] probably superfluous” (2004: 231). We, however, are convinced that the
CSR concept goes beyond the stakeholder approach. Furthermore, we believe that the
US discussion of the stakeholder approach could benefit from considering three of
the most important levels of the European discussion. First, the scope of the CSR and
stakeholder concepts is different. CSR explicitly includes regional aspects as well as
temporal aspects. Thus, topics such as the north-south conflict or responsibility for
future generations become part of the concept. As a result, a new quality is added:
while Freeman’s stakeholder approach is primarily limited to existing stakeholders
who can express their opinion, the notion of CSR includes societal responsibilities
that are not claimed by any interest group. This especially supports the sustainability
idea as expressed by the World Commission on Environment and Development
(WCED 1987). Second, the CSR concept includes a goal system that provides the so-
called triple bottom line connecting economic success, social justice and ecological
compatibility (Enquete Kommission 1998) as a structure. Goals that are more detailed
are made concrete on the lower levels of the CSR goal system. The triple bottom line
in the CSR concept corresponds with the sustainability approach. In this respect, the
German-language research output can be considered advanced. Third, the level of
6 Sometimes in the German-speaking community of scholars, who developed similar ideas independ-
ent of Freeman’s stakeholder approach, a feeling of uneasiness about a possible replacement by the
imported stakeholder approach is articulated (see e.g. Ulrich 1999: 37 or for the Scandinavian context
elaboration of the CSR concept goes far beyond that of the stakeholder dialogue. The
elaboration includes methods and instruments (e.g. Sustainability Reporting, Labelling,
Life Cycle Analysis), as well as norms and values (e.g. SA 8000, GRI-Guidelines, ISO
Acknowledging different traditions and realisations of stakeholder approaches means
accepting that scholars in the US and in the German-language context stand on the
shoulders of partly different giants, with dissimilar views. Freeman himself acknowl-
edges the significance of multiple interpretations. Openness to different versions of
stakeholder approaches can also, in the end, serve even better his pragmatist criterion
for the stakeholder idea: fulfilling “human aspirations and the desire to live better lives
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