Essentially Contested Concepts in social sciences: The case of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is commonly described as the contribution of companies to sustainable development. However, as CSR is an essentially contested concept (ECC), individuals (i.e., consumers, employees, or leaders) may have a different understanding of its meaning and its applications in companies. This makes us wonder:

How do individuals develop knowledge about Corporate Social Responsibility? and

What is the role of conceptual change and socio-cognitive conflicts in the learning of this concept?  


 In this context, the goals of the project are: 

  1. To identify the different perceptions individuals have about CSR, and analyse how the framing of perceptions varies with their individual and cultural profile.
  2. To analyse the evolution of individuals’ CSR perceptions while interacting with sustainable development experts and other individuals, and
  3. To investigate pedagogical mechanisms that can stimulate content-related debate and facilitate learning about CSR in online educational platforms. 


For this purpose, we focus on micro-CSR literature to analyse the processes by which individuals interpret and evaluate CSR and the way they frame their perceptions. We put into perspective the development of individuals’ knowledge about CSR by two conceptual learning theories from educational science research (i.e., conceptual change and socio-cognitive conflict theories). To answer our research questions, we analyse the CSR perceptions and learning process of more than 23,800 registered participants (up to now) in a MOOC on CSR through a mixed-method approach. 


Expected contributions for Management Research

The expected contributions for management research are twofold.

First, we aim to contribute to the literature on micro-CSR by better understanding the sources of individual variation on the perception of CSR.

Second, the research will assess the extent to which theories of conceptual change and socio-cognitive conflict can be applied to essentially contested concepts such as CSR. This hopes to contribute to a change in consumers, employees and leaders’ mentalities.

A better understanding of the individual variation on the perception of CSR and the theories that could be applied to the learning of ECCs is necessary to trigger beneficial actions and decisions for the transition to a more sustainable society. 


Contact person:

PhD Candidate: Pauline de Montpellier d'Annevoie 


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