by Terry L Besser. London: Praeger, 2002. Cloth, ISBN: 0275975894, $62.95. 216 pages.
First a confession: I'm an economist reviewing a sociological study. However, in nay defense, the assumption that underlies this study is near and dear to every economist: the notion that business decisions are driven (solely) by the need to maximize profits.
Terry Besser explores why business owners would engage in and support community activities that, at least on the surface, would have little benefit, and some risk, to their bottom line. Besser's study suggests that businesses often do consider more than profit; many owners feel a social responsibility to be actively engaged in their community. Or, as one business owner put it, "there's no question that they (businesses) have an obligation to their community" (p. 13).
The Conscience of Capitalism is the result of more than 1,600 telephone interviews of business owners and managers from forty towns and cities in Iowa ranging in population from 500 to 200,000. While most of the communities are classified as rural, Besser included some urban and metropolitan communities as well. The survey was designed to collect information on the business, the owner and employees, the local community, and the level of civic involvement. In addition to the statistical data from the survey, the author also conducted personal interviews with business owners in five of the communities in an effort to provide a human dimension to the study.
Besser's book is very well organized and documented, if at times a bit pedantic, and while she is constantly aware of placing her study in a larger, more theoretical framework, one cannot help but wonder how idiosyncratic her results are. The book starts with a discussion and definition of business social responsibility and, for the purposes of this study, Bessler limits the definition to discretionary social responsibility, as opposed to, say, legal responsibility, in order to focus on business contributions to the community. The survey also attempts to isolate firm-level characteristics that are associated with business social performance, as well as community factors that contribute to such activity. She finds, for example, that firm size does matter, as do the values of the owner/manager. Communities that have higher levels of social capital--the various qualities that bind communities together--are also more likely to receive the benefit of business involvement in civic activities. Any such...