Four Varieties of Social Responsibility: Making Sense of the 'Sphere of Influence' and 'Leverage' Debate Via the Case of ISO 26000

Research output: Working paper


One of the key controversies in social responsibility discourse is whether an organization’s responsibility should be based on its capacity to influence other parties or only on its actual contribution to social and environmental outcomes. On one side of the debate are those who argue that the limits of an organization’s responsibility should be defined in terms of its “sphere of influence” (SOI): the greater the influence, the greater the responsibility to act. On the other side are those who reject the SOI approach as ambiguous, misleading, normatively undesirable and prone to strategic manipulation. Foremost among the critics is the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for business and human rights, Professor John Ruggie, who rejects SOI as a basis for defining the boundaries of the business responsibility to respect human rights. The newly published ISO 26000 guidance standard on social responsibility was at the centre of this controversy during its final stages of drafting. This paper examines how the concept of SOI is articulated in ISO 26000 and the extent to which it responds to the concerns identified by critics. It proposes a four-part matrix of “influence-based” responsibility, defined by the intersection of two distinctions that are often elided in SR discourse: the distinction between “influence as impact” and “influence as leverage,” on one hand, and the distinction between negative and positive responsibility, on the other. The paper argues that ISO 26000 avoids the conceptual ambiguity identified by critics by defining SOI exclusively in terms of “leverage”; that it avoids the main operational ambiguity identified by its critics by eschewing the problematic concept of “proximity;” that it embraces all four varieties of social responsibility to varying degrees, repudiating the normative claim that social responsibility is only negative and impact-based; and that it provides at least a partial response to the problem of strategic gaming.

Original languageUndefined/Unknown
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1 2011

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