The purpose of this study is to examine and interpret the characteristics of social responsibility in general, and business responsibility in particular, that were evident during a period in European history that was plagued by widespread social problems and change. Based on that interpretation, the authors explore the lessons those characteristics may have for social responsibility in a contemporary world that is facing similar conditions.Design/methodology/approachThe paper presents a qualitative analysis of the proceedings of the Bienfaisance Congress held in Frankfurt in 1857, where societal leaders from different nations met to answer the question, who has responsibility for whom, and for what? The authors use grounded theory, as it is operationalized in what is known as the “Gioia template,” to conduct a structured analysis of this particular text, and to in turn produce a theoretical interpretation of how that question was answered.FindingsThe interpretation from this study is that congress participants articulated certain established dimensions of responsibility (individual, organizational, national), as well as one new dimension (international), and did so by differentiating boundaries of responsibility; in turn, the authors suggest that these dimensions and boundaries work together to form a nested system of responsibilities.Research limitations/implicationsThere is limited empirical evidence available that documents the variety of responsibility-based initiatives that were being conducted during the 19th century. An analysis of the congress proceedings allows us to gain a better understanding of how the 19th-century world, particularly the upper echelons of European society, approached the question of under what conditions actors in different domains have responsibility for another. While the implications are limited by the analysis of the proceedings of one congress that was attended by elites, they do provide a snapshot of how Europe sought to articulate a system of bounded responsibilities during a time of widespread social problems and change.Practical implicationsAlthough the nested system of responsibilities framework that emerged from the grounded theory analysis is not applicable to all situations, it should sensitize policymakers and business leaders to the need to address social problems in a systemic way.Originality/valueThe authors both present a systems-based framework for understanding how responsibility is differentiated among actors (individual, organizational, state and international) and demonstrate how a theoretical interpretation of historical documents can be accomplished through the use of grounded theory, as operationalized through the Gioia template.
Journal of Management History – Emerald Publishing
Published: Jul 7, 2021
Keywords: Public policy; Business history; Corporate social responsibility; Research methodology; Europe; 19th century; Systems of responsibility; Grounded theory; Bienfaisance Congress