Organizations as Collective Actors or Legal Fictions - or Both? Reconsidering Organizational Actorhood from a “Communication as Constitutive of Organization” (CCO) Perspective

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In a recent provocation, Hulpke (2017) raises the question whether a “corporate death penalty” would be needed to punish firms that “totally fail to meet accepted standards of conduct” (Hulpke, 2017: 433), such as the automotive firms involved in the recent Dieselgate scandal. The underlying assumption here is that the corporation represents a collective actor in its own right – that would be more than just an aggregation of its organizational members and their actions. This “collectivist view” of the organization as a separate moral agent, as Velasquez (2003) has termed it, finds various further manifestations in organization theory, for instance, in normative calls for corporations to assume the role of a political actor (Scherer & Palazzo, 2007) or a corporate citizen (Matten & Crane, 2005). Furthermore, as Bromley and Sharkey (2017) have empirically shown, organizations tend to increasingly portray themselves as collective actors in their own right (see also King et al., 2010). However, the collectivist view can be criticized for promoting an inappropriate “as if” attribution of intentionality to the level of organizations (Velasquez, 2003). In contrast, a “legal fiction view” would acknowledge that the organization as an institution is merely based on social-legal agreements but ultimately lacks a “real” ontological status as a separate moral agent. Accordingly, Velasquez concludes that only individual actors can serve as the locus of organizational responsibility. Questioning the ontological status of organizations as actors is also visible, for instance, in the work of Savage et al. (in press) who suggest conceptualizing organizations as “fictional games of make-believe”. In this view, organizations as social institutions are similar to 1 the Emperor’s new clothes in H. C. Andersen’s famous fairy tale. They have no existence other than in the (preliminary) social agreement of their existence among individual human actors. In this paper, I put fort the argument that, even if the two opposing positions of a “collectivist view” and the “legal fiction view” may look irreconcilable on first sight, they can be bridged if we acknowledge the fundamental role of communicative attributions in constituting organizations as entities and actors (see works from the “communication as constitutive of organizations” – or “CCO” perspective; Ashcraft, Cooren & Kuhn, 2009). For instance, Bencherki and Cooren (2011) argue that organizations gain existence through two recursively related communicative processes: First, performative speech acts that establish attributive links between individual acts and their occurrence on behalf of a collective actor or address (see Dobusch & Schoeneborn 2015). Second, in turn, this collective actor or address, even it may be an empty shell at first, starts building “possessive” relations to the very activities that are enacted on its behalf, thus gaining a life on its own. Although the CCO view shares significant similarities with the “legal fiction” view in that it acknowledges the fundamentally socially constructed nature of organizations a social entities, it emphasizes at the same time the very material and “real” consequences of having established these legal fictions as actors in their own right. This recursive way of imagining organizations as a mutually constitutive relations between acts of communication and “the organization” as a social address or reference point (see also Dobusch & Schoeneborn, 2015; Schoeneborn, Vasquez & Cornelissen, 2016) opens our view also for new conclusions regarding the question to what extent organizations should be considered as separate moral agents. CCO scholarship puts forth a relational ontology in that the organizations gain existence and become materialized through becoming acknowledged and “voiced” by other actors (Taylor 2 & Cooren, 1997). Cooren (2010) mobilizes the metaphor of ventriloquism to illustrate this relationality and inherent recursivity: Even if the dummy needs the ventriloquist for being voiced, the dummy itself starts to gain (non-human) agency by making a difference and shaping what the ventriloquist says or does to incarnate the dummy’s persona. In other words, the dummy (or the organization, for that matter) is no “neutral” vessel but it is loaded with institutionalized expectations and recurrent patterns of what can be legitimately said or done on its behalf. To conclude, CCO scholarship invites us to place the focus neither on the collective level (as the collectivist view implies) nor on the individual level (as some versions of the legal fiction view would imply; see Velasquez, 2003) – but instead on the intermediate level of communicative interactions as the main locus of the emergence, perpetuation, and maintenance of organizational actorhood and responsibility (see also Schoeneborn & Homberg, in press; Schoeneborn & Trittin, 2013; Taylor & van Every, 2014).
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2018
Number of pages4
Publication statusPublished - 2018
EventKommission Wissenschaftstheorie und Ethik in den Wirtschaftswissenschaften im VHB Jahrestagung 2018: Gibt es kollektive Akteure? Die sozialphilosophischen Grundlagen der Organisationstheorie - Andrássy Universität Budapest, Budapest, Hungary
Duration: 8 Mar 20189 Mar 2018


ConferenceKommission Wissenschaftstheorie und Ethik in den Wirtschaftswissenschaften im VHB Jahrestagung 2018
LocationAndrássy Universität Budapest

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