Bankers’ description is one example of how companies use corporate social responsibility to strengthen their position. In her thesis, Sara Persson has studied Bankers Petroleum’s hegemony, or position of power, in relation to their work on sustainability standards and corporate social responsibility – a company where she once worked with issues relating to social responsibility.
“We had dialogue groups and conducted environmental impact analyses that included the local community. Individually, all these efforts can be regarded as positive. However, together they lead to the oil company’s narrative being the one that applies: that the area is an oil field and not a site for agriculture or human habitation. Looking at this from a discursive perspective, it is the corporate vision that wins, because they use responsibility as part of the idea of a sustainable oil field,” says Sara Persson.
Social responsibility as a means of exercising power
The overarching question she has asked is how the company’s implementation of the World Bank’s Environmental and Social Standards has influenced their relationship with the local community. However, a bigger issue is how these standards and corporate social responsibility are used to exercise power. The study shows that three hegemonic processes, which are three types of methods, are used by the company to strengthen its position: isolation, co-optation and depoliticization.
“An initial process, isolation, is based on isolating complaints, dealing with each one individually. The company compensates people or offers various individual solutions. This means that the complaints never pile up or grow into a social force that opposes the company, so residents are unable to mobilise,” says Sara Persson, and continues, “Another method is co-optation, including opponents by employing people who live in the area or leasing land from them. It becomes a form of financial compensation that is enabled by sustainability work, but which turns opponents into supporters,” she says.
She calls the third process depoliticization. It works by the company focusing its discussions with the local community on technical and practical issues, such as how gas emissions are measured or how the technology used by the company works. This prevents discussions of more fundamental issues, such as how the profits from oil extraction are distributed or whether the oil field should continue to expand.
Building on her own experience
The thesis is based upon interviews with employees at the oil company, local politicians and local residents. However, an important part also comprises her own memories and experiences, as part of an autoethnographic method. She has also investigated PR material, news reports about the conflict, social media posts and other documents.
During Sara Persson’s employment at Bankers Petroleum she worked with social impact analysis, social investment and communication programmes. She left the oil industry in 2015.
“I believed that change was possible from the inside, that what we were doing actually helped people. Part of the corporate hegemony is that this really works and isn’t just PR. I see my study as a model for how to critically examine work on sustainability in a range of industries, that it helps answer the question of whether corporate social responsibility changes the business model and makes it truly sustainable, or whether it simply preserves the company’s power and structure,” she says.