«Abstract This paper revisits the debate on the units of Content Analysis (CA) for the purposes of Corporate Social Reporting (CSR) research and also ...»
It should be noted, however, that when Hackston and Milne (1996) later employed a proportion of a page approach, they found “extremely high correlations between the three measures of disclosure amount (measured pages, derived pages, and number of sentences)” (p. 93, note that non-narrative information was excluded). In essence, this finding suggests that the theoretical advantages that the page size approach possesses (with regards to report and font sizes, margins and blank pages) do not hold in practice and both approaches are equally valid in measuring CSD. In this case, the remaining benefits of the page size measure is the increased reliability due to the ease in measurements and validity from considering pdf/microfiche in a more accurate manner (Hackston and Milne, 1996, did not check for those) and from triangulating with sentences, whilst the proportion of a page one maintains the benefits in detail and in straightforward aggregate comparability of the findings (but in A4 and not in actual page size terms).
It seems therefore that, given that words and sentences do not account for nonnarrative information, page size and proportion of a page approaches are more suitable. If detailed empirical investigation, involving all measurement techniques and examining both narrative and non-narrative information and possible effects of pdf/microfiche printouts reveals high correlations, this would grant validity to both and the choice should be then clearly subject to the research objectives. If however case a weighted average number of sentences per page was estimated. A similar approach was employed to estimate the average page size grid of the report to measure the pictorial space.
- 23 these correlations are not identified, and if the investigation does not provide any indication on which technique is more suitable, then probably page size data should be considered the superior recording unit, given the theoretical advantages and the additional validity gained from the sentence counts. It should always be remembered, though, that this discussion on the recording units of volumetric studies is based on the assumption that volume indicates importance. However, volume is not always equivalent to the content of CSD (Patten and Crampton, 2004) and it seems that “asking the right question of the data is even more important than the system of enumeration used to present the findings” (Holsti, 1969a, p. 12). The following discussion negotiates these issues.
In this section ways of defining/classifying the context units in CA to further increase the method‟s contribution to researching CSR are discussed. According to Krippendorff (2004), units in CA can be identified according to one or more of five kinds of distinctions: physical, syntactical, categorical, propositional, and thematic.
As the following discussion reveals, categorical and thematic distinctions are of more relevance to CSR research and are now respectively reviewed15.
Categorical distinctions Categorical distinctions define units “by their membership in a class or category – by their having something in common” (Krippendorff, 2004, p. 105) and are by far the ones most frequently employed in CSR research. Common characteristics of these 15 Physical distinctions relate to time, length, size or volume but not information and they have been thus largely considered in the preceding section. Syntactical distinctions relate to the grammar of the medium of the data. Arguably “no content analysis can ignore grammar” (Deese, 1969, p. 42); to the extent however that these distinctions involve the selection of a recording unit from e.g. words or sentences, they have been considered in the preceding section whilst to the extent that these relate to the consequences on CA from differences in grammar in the context of the reports, a detailed discussion on those, albeit interesting, is beyond the scope of this paper. Propositional distinctions relate to decomposing language to identify certain linguistic relations and as with syntactical distinctions, despite their potential contribution (see e.g. Clatworthy and Jones, 2006) are beyond the scope of this paper.
- 24 distinctions are that they can all be quantified; that to a certain extent, they mostly focus on the manifest rather than the latent content and the syntactic and semantic dimensions of communication, and that they are all deductively defined (and thus, as opposed to subject categories, they all relate to a theoretical framework [Stone et al.
1966]). Clearly, however, these approaches are not equally useful in contributing to CSR research. As Table 4 illustrates four types of categorical distinctions were identified, one of them regarding the type of CSD (positive, negative and neutral) and three regarding the quality (monetary vs. non monetary; general vs. specific, and substantive vs. symbolic).
Positive vs. negative A number of large-sample studies have revealed that managers “attribute negative organizational outcomes to uncontrollable environmental causes and positive outcomes to their own actions” (Abrahamson and Park, 1994, p. 1302, see also Bowman, 1976; Bettman and Weitz, 1983; Staw et al., 1983; Salancik and Meindl, 1984 for similar arguments). Pfeffer (1981) suggests organisations would be expected to adopt strategies involving “the selective release of information which is… defined along criteria more favourable to the organization… measured along criteria which are more readily controlled by the organization, and… acceptable to those interested in the organization” (p. 30).
In an attempt to investigate these propositions, a number of CSR studies have often employed the positive vs. negative distinction for CSD, one of the earliest CA distinctions dating back to the 1640s and some studies of censorship (Stone et al., 1966; Rosengren, 1981) and e.g. Patten and Crampton (2004) illustrate that that the annual report contains proportionately more negative data than does the website suggesting that “the focus of Internet disclosure may be more on corporate attempts at legitimation” (p. 31). There are, however, some theoretical and practical limitations encountered when using this approach. In theory, for example, organisations may
- 25 disclose a significant quantity of positive information to satisfy targeted stakeholders (Pfeffer, 1981) indicating a more opportunistic organisational stance towards CSD (Gibbins et al., 1990) but they may also do so because this simply reflects their reported actions. And when conducting CA it is often difficult to e.g. differentiate between a positive and neutral disclosure and achieve consistency and comparability across studies. In these cases, as Weber (1990) underlines, “perhaps the best practical strategy is to classify each word, sentence or phrase in the category where it most clearly belongs” (p. 36).
It seems, therefore that the positive or negative CSD when considered per se can not contribute significantly to CSR analysis. On the contrary, more sustainable arguments seem to be built when the positive or negative CSD is related to similarly classified evidence from e.g. news papers or periodicals, related to community concern (Guthrie and Parker, 1989; Deegan et al., 2002), or when, as in the BA study, the changes in this type of reporting are considered as potential reaction to major social accidents.
Under all circumstances, this distinction is even more useful when viewed in relation to an approximation to CSD quality, as discussed below.
Substantive vs. symbolic
Often researchers attempt to assess the quality/evidence of the disclosure. Hammond and Miles (2004) offer a comprehensive account on quality assessment of CSR and note that what is most frequently regarded as quality disclosure is quantitative disclosure, third party verification and the adoption of reporting guidelines and standards. Most frequently CA index studies on the basis of disclosure/ non disclosure have been employed to assist in both third party verification (Ball et al., 2000;
O‟Dwyer and Owen, 2005) and adoption of reporting guidelines (Jones, 2006;
Movena et al., 2006; Turner et al., 2006). This type of assessment though is limited “as this precludes assessment on scope, coverage, completeness, relevance, reliability, and other such desirable qualities of external financial statements” (Hammond and Miles, 2004, p. 64).
- 26 Whilst both third party verification and adoption of reporting guidelines are relatively new CSR research fields, CA studies employing the basic distinction of quantitative vs. qualitative have a long history and are frequently identified in the CSR literature.
Behind this evidence, there is the intent of researchers to identify whether companies disclose hard-fact, substantial information or not. However, a major limitation of this distinction is that it is not normatively rooted; as Erusalimsky et al. (2006) note, “Content analysis got us so far but more substantive, explicitly normative templates would seem to be essential to guide future work” (p. 19). With regards to this distinction, it is uncertain whether all the quantitative information that companies disclose is of relevance (since they may as in the BA study disclose some CSR data of the industry) or that all declarative statements are of less importance (e.g. description of policies adopted providing specific examples). Likewise, it is unlikely that the general vs. specific distinction that was also identified in the literature (De Villiers and Van Staden, 2006) would be of particular usefulness to CSR, considering that it brings some relatively limited benefits in context (by focusing on more normatively oriented, latent information) comparing to the limitations in validity (in case that an index approach is employed, as in De Villers and Van Staden ) or reliability (from the otherwise possibly vague definitions).
A more useful CA distinction, based on Legitimacy Theory, appears to be the substantive vs. symbolic distinction. This distinction was suggested by Pfeffer and colleagues (Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978; Pfeffer, 1981, see also Meyer and Rowan, 1977; Richardson, 1985; Ashforth and Gibbs, 1990; Suchman, 1995; Weisul, 2002 for related arguments) and has not been employed widely in the CSR context (but see Savage et al., 2000; Day and Woodward, 2004; for exceptions). Substantive legitimation is evident in the works of Rousseau and Habermas and involves “real, material change to organizational goals, structures and processes, or in socially institutionalized practices” (Savage et al., 2000, p. 48). Symbolic legitimation on the other hand traces its roots to the work of Marx and Weber; it involves “the symbolic transformation of the identity or meaning of acts to conform to social values” and is predicated on that “the acceptance of authority resides in the belief in the legitimacy of the order independently of the validity of that order” (Richardson, 1985, p. 143, emphasis in original).
- 27 Drawing on organisational theory and their own research, Savage et al. (2000) have offered 12 legitimation strategies, three substantive and nine symbolic which could also incorporate the oft cited strategies by Perrow (1970), Lindblom (1994) and O‟Donovan (2002) and are presented in Appendix A (I). However, when it was attempted to apply this framework as such in the BA study it was quickly realised that some of the symbolic strategies were easily conflated and it was decided to merge some categories, adopt a more „pragmatic‟ approach and customise it to reflect the set research questions, focusing on the impacts on CSR of detrimental activities. This resulted in the employment of six legitimation strategies, as depicted in Appendix A (II). The new categories were thus less ambiguous, although it should be noted that two categories, the role performance and the identification of symbols, end up being used more often (arguably, there is no way out of this unless complicated, exhaustive and time consuming decision rules are established allowing for the use of more detailed categorisations).
The main benefit of this distinction, albeit categorical, is that it assists in identifying some latent characteristics of the data. Further, since parts of these arguments may also lend support to other theoretical frameworks (such as institutional theory, business ethics theory, resource dependence theory and even image and competitive advantage arguments), the categories may also identify relationships between these theories and synthesise theoretical arguments underpinning CSR research (as in e.g.
Roberts and Chen, 2006). However, as in the case of the positive vs. negative CSD, some theoretical inconsistencies may also arise from the adoption of this approach and e.g. even more „ethics‟- oriented organisations, following a major legitimacy threat, may disclose increased symbolic rather than substantive CSD through admitting guilt and offering apologies. As also pointed out earlier, therefore, if this categorical approach is complemented with a clearly inductive one, in a mixed CA design, this would further bring some triangulation benefits to the analysis. Two of these approaches are now discussed.
- 28 Thematic distinctions Although Boyatzis (1998) considers that “a theme may be identified at the manifest level or at the latent level”, Berelson (1952), Holsti (1969a) and Krippendorff (2004) seem to agree that thematic distinctions, as opposed to the categorical distinction of the oft termed „theme‟ (the subject) of the disclosure described in the CA protocols, such as the one depicted in Figure 1, refer to “unitizing freely generated narratives thematically” (Krippendorff, 2004, p. 107). Two such approaches were identified in the reviewed literature. Both did not take a quantitative form, therefore may consist of a CA in the broader view, as defined by Stone et al. (1966), Holsti (1969a,b) and Krippendorff (1969).
Quantising – Miles and Huberman (1994)