“We need utopias to make life meaningful”

Her research interests are feminist sociology and post-colonial studies. In recent years, she has been doing research in the Middle East, thus combining her scholarly fascinations with experiencing work in anti-discrimination programmes home and abroad. Dr Kowalska’s research work has also been reflected in the courses she delivers both in developmental and gender studies. She is a recipient of the most coveted Pro Arte Docendi prize awarded by the Jagiellonian University Rector for teaching achievements. Her key foreign bursaries and lectures have taken place at: Cambridge University, Institute for Human Sciences (Vienna), American Centre for Oriental Research (Amman), New School for Social Research (New York), Rutgers University, Buffalo University.

An interview with Dr Beata Kowalska, lecturer at the Jagiellonian University.

Ireneusz Białek: Why don’t you like CSR?

Dr Beata Kowalska: I am not a great fan of it in its current form, indeed and there are a few reasons for it. Habermas says that one problem contemporary societies have is that there is less and less thinking in terms of common good as we are too preoccupied with individual goals. CSR may be an attempt at combining these two spheres, but in practice the notion too often takes the form of an ordinary marketing strategy. Many enterprises have skilfully learnt the notion of CSR, using it to build their image and winning competitive advantage over the competitors – but is that real CSR?

I.B.: And you find the phenomenon itself so very negative?

B.K.: This is my basic criticism although I am in two minds about it myself as most of my unconventional ideas could be put into practice thanks to support from private institutions: foundations or local entrepreneurs. But they were not corporations, which frequently use CSR to improve their image. We hear, for instance, that after scandals involving poor employee treatment suddenly social responsibility programmes are launched in order to quickly change the perception of the company.

I.B.: But they could as well not want to improve that image, which would not be better for society.

B.K.: That’s correct yet the fact remains that CSR viewed that way is nothing more than an effectively adapted marketing strategy and not a long-term systemic combination of economic, social and environmental perspectives in the company’s daily operations, which is what it should be in theory.  If we, however, move slightly away from capitalist logic and think about the role that enterprises, particularly local ones, can play in their communities, it may turn out that something much more interesting takes shape there than misunderstood CSR. The notion of common good should be implemented in cooperation with social organisations and public institutions. Business can assist them rather than do things for them. As a sociologist, I can see perfectly well that indicators that tell us something about the improved quality of social life are high everywhere the concept of common good has become a part of a broader political project. The standards, however, were defined by public institutions, with business playing an auxiliary role.

I.B.: And what happens when it is business that takes the leading role in the process?

B.K.: This relates to the structure and organisation – one asks here about whether managerial responsibility towards stakeholders and accountability rules can be formalised. In reality, managers are responsible before the management board and shareholders. Another challenge is the inclusion of the stakeholders in the process where the goals are set for the organisation. There is one more thing that usually worries me when I read about social responsibility on many corporate websites. The implementation of the notion of common good, like acting for the benefit a socially marginalised group, is presented as something extraordinary, not a standard stemming from, for instance, civil rights. True CSR assumes continuity and long-term action, which is what I like about the idea. Still, I stress the importance of collaboration between business and civil society organisations and public institutions, and first and foremost groups or communities which are to become partners rather than just beneficiaries. It is then possible to make real social change happen and it is more than just about action-based deployment of a few charity projects. It contributes to exercising human rights.

I.B.: The exercising of those rights can be far from perfect, as you have mentioned yourself.

B.K.: Indeed, as corporate operations are highly complex. They take place in centres and in the periphery. Standards are respected in the former, not necessarily in the latter. Looking at the countries where CSR has developed well, one can see that they developed primarily high-quality public institutions, and business is as if a reflection of that quality; it has indeed become a vital part of the system, yet not the only agent of change in such societies. CSR is not a perfect panacea and it should be part of a standard-driven system rather than just a business strategy.

I.B.: Many such strategies indeed ended the moment a crisis appeared in the capitalist word.

B.K.: In each crisis, economy comes to the fore and so the question arises how human rights fit into this as they are truly what makes western thinking unique. We should not forget about it in times of crisis, a role to be played by public institutions. In times of crisis business rarely sets standards in that area. It usually cuts costs thus reducing socially-minded actions.

I.B.: Speaking of human rights, why is it you think there are so very few social engagement programmes focusing on the rights of persons with disabilities, not just charitably satisfying some of their needs, not necessarily the key ones?

B.K.: I consider this a key question in terms of both research and activism. In the case of disability, charity-based thinking kicks in almost immediately, based on sympathy rather than appreciation and empowerment. Please note that persons with disabilities are one of the last social groups not having gone through emancipation. The process of their emancipation began in the last century.  In our culture no-one openly questions the principle of gender equality any more, or racial equality.  The social inclusion of persons with disability, however, is still an ongoing process. And a very painful one, too, as many of them only now realise the marginalisation they have been experiencing. And participation in social life is more than consultations, which often are not that easy, either. It is about power sharing and co-decision, which entails the recognition of the full empowerment and citizenship of such persons.

I.B.: Such co-decision can be very difficult due to lack of experience and education on the part of persons with disabilities. This is used as a pretext not to share power after all.

B.K.: They have never co-decided so at the beginning it is obviously very difficult, but exercising the rights of persons with disabilities must lead through participation, there is no other way, and experiences of other minority groups confirm the fact. At the end of the road there are only winners, though. Conscious of their own potential, persons with disabilities are not just included in society but they also co-create it. They become active most frequently through activities benefitting the group with which they share the experience of a specific disability.

I.B.: And this has also negative consequences: specific groups become homogenous and shut to the needs of other groups. For instance, blind persons know nothing about the needs of deaf persons, and the other way around.

B.K.: The experience of other marginalised groups tells us that it is a price of sorts one pays for the process of emancipation. Building group identity is a political decision and means the wish on the part of a minority group to express their views more vocally, in a group, and showcase their own rights and interests.

I.B.: Why then won’t many socially marginalised groups get together to showcase their interests jointly?

B.K.: It seems at first that such particular interests cannot be reconciled, but if one analyses, for instance, the success of urban movements, it is obviously possible. There is a general idea of the right to a city, which should be a space friendly to all the citizens. We can see, for example, that cities without architectonic barriers are friendly for a much larger number of people than those with disabilities. The second reason why the interests of marginalised groups should be combined is very simple: the fewer excluded people there are in society, the higher the quality of social life is. Let us return to the notion of common good, that is a utopia of sorts, but I think that we must have a utopia to strive to reach it. To make life meaningful. A common good is an idea worth both combining the potentials of groups so far excluded and building broader systems leading to social change, also on the basis of such notions as corporate social responsibility. Society is somehow more complete then.

I.B.: Does that utopia make sense in times of prosperity or in poorer times, too?

B.K.: If a company owner is guided by such a utopia at all, I am just delighted because research of capitalism suggests that it is difficult to reconcile the desire to draw a profit with such ideas. It goes without saying, however, that the number of initiatives which are something more than marketing strategies is growing. It is important, particularly at a time of decreasing social trust and electoral turnout, when politicians are not seen as acting for our good. An answer to that is looking for new forms of organising social life through the inclusion of groups and citizens who have been excluded from it thus far. Their so-called specific needs may become after all the needs of many citizens or they should at least be accentuated as mainstream needs important for a specific group of people.

In summary, I would then say that such ideas as corporate social responsibility, fair trade or social inclusion policy may present an answer to the deficiencies of affluent capitalist societies and teach people collective, not just individualist, thinking.

I.B.: Thank you.