Internationalizing firms from emerging countries often face legitimacy deficits and often adopt standards and norms as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts, to achieve legitimacy through isomorphism and alignment to global standards. However, these firms face a world of considerable institutional complexity, particularly attributable to conflicting legitimacy imperatives at international versus local levels.
In our study, published in the Journal of Management Studies, we suggest that firms face a legitimacy trade-off, where the hoped-for legitimacy benefits of isomorphism must be weighed against other home-country institutional considerations. We advance and test this notion that firms will navigate this institutional complexity by engaging in “anisomorphism”, i.e., espousing general acceptance with international values but selective “translation” based on home country differences.
What does anisomorphism mean?
The term comes from the field of linguistics and it refers to the absence of an exact correspondence when translating words across languages, particularly in terms of differences in the semantic scope of a term.
In the realm of CSR, the focus on linguistic anisomorphism suggests that firms’ communication of adherence to CSR likely reflects a strategic and symbolic response, whereby firms take some semiotic elements from the isomorphic pressure while downplaying others. In other words, rather than predicting a convergence to Western standards, the authors predict and find that firms’ CSR rhetoric suggests a specific tailoring that reflects sensitivity to the varied local institutional landscape faced by these firms, consistent with the notion of accommodating divergent (and changing) global and local legitimacy pressures.
Which are the main CSR frames used by companies in their CSR reports?
Environmental protection and human rights represent the two main frames adopted by companies in their CSR communication. On the one hand, in an international context, climate change and environmental risk have strong resonance and one would expect that the hoped for legitimacy benefits of emphasizing on the environmental aspects of CSR would accrue to firms that can make the most assurances of environmental responsibility. On the other hand, human rights are key elements in modern democracies and the human rights frame of CSR has become part of the business language of international companies due to the need to account for supra-national institutional pressures.
Which are the main findings of the study?
Results of the study, based on a sample of 245 largest publicly listed firms with headquarters in 8 emerging countries, suggest that firms from emerging markets often downplay potentially discordant CSR frames in the home country environment. Specifically, the use of environmental frames for CSR is significantly less likely for firms from countries whose economies depend heavily on natural resource extraction, whereas the use of human rights frames for CSR is significantly less likely for firms originating in firms with more autocratic countries.
This result is moderated by the level of companies’ internationalization. As a firm’s exposure to the international arena increases, firms seek to reassure international audiences about the firms’ commitments to CSR and the influence of home country considerations wanes, thus reducing the magnitude of the fundamental legitimacy by accentuating acceptance of the two CSR frames (environmental protection and human rights).
What does this mean for companies and managers?
Our study highlights how the multifaceted nature of many organizational practices and forms (such as CSR) provides an opening for firms to use language anisomorphically. Rather than treating the adoption of a labelled practice (such as CSR) in singular terms, one could view it as providing firms with a menu of rhetorical options. These options can then be strategically exercised, with firms simultaneously signalling rhetorical commitment to a globally legitimate practice and anisomorphically translating that practice in ways that are more culturally consonant with local institutional demands.
As emerging market firms highlight their support for CSR to match the expectations of international audiences, the specific “translation” of their rhetorical commitment to CSR reflects a clever blend whereby some aspects of CSR are avoided, and other aspects are accentuated: CSR is both “lost —and found—in translation.”