Constructions of ‘community engagement’ in the Australian minerals industry: A critical study

Mr Richard Parsons (2008). Constructions of ‘community engagement’ in the Australian minerals industry: A critical study PhD Thesis, School of Business, The University of Queensland.

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Author Mr Richard Parsons
Thesis Title Constructions of ‘community engagement’ in the Australian minerals industry: A critical study
School, Centre or Institute School of Business
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2008-06
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Bernard McKenna
David Brereton
Total pages 296
Total colour pages 7
Total black and white pages 289
Subjects 350000 Commerce, Management, Tourism and Services
Formatted abstract
Large, profit-seeking corporations are today expected to apply principles of sustainability and social
responsibility to their business operations, and to be publicly accountable for their social and
environmental impacts. This expectation appears to be a response to public concern regarding
corporations’ perceived power and their control over people’s lives and the environment, as these
corporations have extended their influence globally. In turn, corporations have sought to
demonstrate that they can be responsible with this power and control, and concurrently to persuade
governments that regulating corporate responsibilities is unnecessary (Conley, 2005; Sklair, 2001).
Thus, corporate discourses have evolved to accommodate the notion of ‘community engagement’.
The outcome is a dynamic landscape of ongoing, interdiscursive tensions between the profit-driven,
individualistic focus of capitalism, and social concerns relating to notions of community and
Few companies must navigate these tensions as carefully as minerals companies, whose operations
are commonly in socially and environmentally sensitive locations, often interacting with Indigenous
communities (Ballard & Banks, 2003; Danielson, 2006; Whiteman & Mamen, 2002). Minerals
companies, therefore, appear to be embracing notions antithetical to traditional industry discourses.
However, macrostructural rationalities inherent in the ideology of capitalism may constrain the
ceding of control and power. Thus, social initiatives are generally rationalised on the basis of
presumed, but unproven, economic benefits (Margolis & Walsh, 2003; McWilliams, Siegel, &
Wright, 2006), implicitly privileging the dominant economic paradigm (Korhonen, 2002).
Meanwhile, ‘community engagement’ metaphorically suggests a consensual, social union of two
parties, with the promise of enduring partnership, mutual dedication, and perhaps sharing of
resources. However, apparent consensus can hide subtle forms of power, especially as it operates
through language (Fairclough, 1989, p. 2; van Dijk, 1997a, pp. 17-20). The task of this study,therefore, is to unpack the emerging discourse of ‘community engagement’, to consider what it
means to the people concerned, and how it is socially and discursively constructed.
This study concentrates on two case studies of large minerals processing sites in Australia. The
central research question, addressed from interpretive and critical perspectives, is: How do the
people concerned understand ‘community engagement’, and what shapes these understandings?
Firstly, I explore how the people concerned—relevant site personnel and local community
members—understand, experience, and interpret ‘community engagement’ at a local level.
Secondly, I investigate how competing discourses construct these understandings, experiences, and
interpretations. At each site, I focus on a contentious issue: relations with the local Indigenous
community at Site A, and artesian water use at Site B.
This study also contributes to literature on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and stakeholder
theory. CSR conventionally represents the idea that corporations have moral responsibilities to
society, beyond legal or contractual responsibilities (Jones, 1980; McWilliams et al., 2006).
Stakeholder theory conventionally examines how corporations can affect, and be affected by,
several groups of people (Freeman, 1984). While these definitions are contestable, the dominant
perspectives appear to be those that adopt a utilitarian, instrumental, and economic worldview.
‘Community engagement’ seems to exemplify interdiscursivity, in which sociopolitical struggles
challenge existing hegemonic relations, and where different discourses, genres, or whole systems of
language overlap into new discursive orders (Fairclough, 1992, pp. 115-120; 1995, p. 94; Wodak,
2001, pp. 66-67). Interdiscursivity represents ongoing contestation, which legitimates and preserves
some elements of dominant discourses while accommodating some elements of opposing discourses
(Livesey, 2002).
My methodological approach triangulates phenomenography and critical discourse analysis, within
a case study framework. Phenomenography is an interpretive methodology that investigates the
different ways in which people experience, perceive, understand, and conceptualise various
phenomena (Marton, 1994). Critical discourse studies, meanwhile, are explicitly committed to
justice, democracy, equality, and fairness (McKenna, 2004; van Dijk, 1993), by considering how
historical and cultural systems of power and knowledge constitute people, their worlds, and social
practice, and how, in return, practice is constitutive of discourse (Alvesson & Kärreman, 2000;
Fairclough, 1992, 1995; Gubrium & Holstein, 2000).The empirical analysis begins by analysing how companies construct community engagement
discourse, via the verbal and visual texts in ‘sustainability’ reports and company websites. I find
that company literature appears to assert ‘facts’, and implicitly privileges corporate and managerial,
economic values. It also appears to deny the companies’ agency rôle in constructing reality,
presents an impression of harmony and congruence between company and community interests, and
tends to marginalise dissent.
For the case studies themselves, I describe, analyse, and interpret the empirical material gained
from three visits to each site. Firstly, from documentary research and observation, I describe the
context at each site in terms of discursive tensions. Within the companies, I observed tensions
between social concern and cultural sensitivity on the one hand, versus functionality and control on
the other. Within the communities, I observed tensions between dissent and social concern, versus
acquiescence and individualism. Secondly, I derive phenomenographic conceptions of community
engagement based on interviews with company staff and community members. Conceptions vary
from ‘maximising self-interest’ to ‘culturally sensitive relationship-building’ and ‘a process of
collaborative dialogue’. Thirdly, I use textual analysis to interrogate these conceptions, and to
investigate their discursive construction. I find that conceptions appear to be more comprehensive
when participants articulate statements in relatively collectivist, dialogic, ethical/normative, and
heteroglossic ways. I then find that both company and community participants’ worldviews are
constructed by multiple, sometimes oppositional, discourses, but that the most influential discourse
is Business and management. Where the issue is Indigenous relations, company and community
participants discourses are more oppositional, apparently based upon conflicting worldviews.
Integrating the findings, I develop a new model of community engagement as socially constructed
through discourse.
Keyword community engagement, corporate social responsibility, indigenous, interdiscursivity, interpretivism, mining, phenomenography, critical discourse analysis, poststructuralism, stakeholder theory
Additional Notes colour pages (numbers are as they appear on the page): 107, 109, 110, 111, 112, 114, 179

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Created: Mon, 12 Jan 2009, 15:25:07 EST by Mr Richard Parsons on behalf of Library - Information Access Service