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Embracing ambiguity – lessons from the study of corporate social responsibility throughout the rise and decline of the modern welfare state



In the work of Karl Polanyi, the negative effects of a self-regulating market economy are described as being limited by societal forces such as the policies of the welfare state. With the decline of the modern welfare state since the late 1970s, social activities of business firms are increasingly regarded as an important complement to or even as a substitute for welfare state policies by a part of the literature. However, and controversially, another stream of argumentation regards these activities as being aimed at advancing the reach of market forces. To fully grasp the ambiguous nature of the social activities of business, in this paper I provide an account of affirmative as well as of critical interpretations of these activities throughout the history of modern capitalism. On this basis, the power of critique to disentangle the diverse motivations that underlie the social engagement of business is highlighted as a condition for facilitating a role of business in society that balances economic and social considerations.

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