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Struggles at the summits: Discourse coalitions, field boundaries, and the shifting role of business in sustainable development

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    Rights statement: The final version of this paper has been published in Business & Society 58(3), November 2019 by SAGE Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © George Ferns, Kenneth Amaeshi, 2017. It is available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0007650317701884

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1533-1571
Number of pages39
JournalBusiness & Society
Issue number8
Early online date28 Mar 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2019


This research explores the field dynamics that facilitated the emergence of a dominant understanding of business’ role in sustainable development (SD). Based on a study of the UN Earth Summits, we examine how actors meet every decade to battle for definitional control of what SD means for business, and what business means for SD. Through a discourse analysis of texts from business, policy, and civil society actors during each Summit, we illustrate how an ensuing discursive struggle shifts the role of business in SD from being largely undefined 1992, to being considered a SD partner in 2002, and finally to becoming a driver of SD by 2012. We contend that these shifts occurred largely due to two field dynamics: (1) rearranging of field boundaries; and (2) forming of a discourse coalition. Accordingly, our study highlights how disparate actors coalesce around a shared meaning system and collectively shape the role of business role in SD. However, we argue that despite the allure of a unified meaning-making process between once antagonistic actors, business-SD relations are underpinned by politicized interaction where certain actors come to dominate, and, in doing so, marginalize others.

    Research areas

  • corporate sustainability, organizational discourse, strategic action fields, sustainable development, United Nations Earth Summits

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