Back to search

FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam

Norwegian energy companies abroad: Expanding the anthropological understanding of corporate social responsibility

Alternative title: Norsk energi i utlandet: Mot en bredere antropologisk forståelse av samfunnsansvar

Awarded: NOK 8.9 mill.

Project Manager:

Project Number:


Application Type:

Project Period:

2015 - 2020


Partner countries:

In recent decades, Norwegian energy companies have increasingly invested in projects outside Norway's borders. These are often projects with significant and contested environmental and social consequences, and companies must adhere to a variety of expectations and guidelines: International standards for corporate social responsibility (CSR), the Norwegian state's expectations towards corporate responsibility, and local expectations that companies act responsibly and ?give something in back? to affected communities. The main objective of this project has been to explore whether it makes a difference if the company's business ethics are shaped in relation to a state (as owner) and whether it is based on a so-called 'Nordic model for CSR?. This is particularly interesting as studies have shown that international companies often use CSR as an instrument to replace the state's role in financing and organizing welfare, education, administration and social development. Recent anthropological research on CSR focuses primarily on privately owned companies and how they are increasingly bypassing the state and using CSR for PR purposes. This project, on the other hand, has sought to bring the state back into the academic debate on CSR and, by extension, to contribute to academic debates on broader issues such as neoliberalism, capitalism and globalization. Compared to the companies on which most other studies of CSR have focused, the largest Norwegian energy companies are wholly or partly state-owned. Energethics has explored three Norwegian energy companies' approach to CSR; Statkraft, Equinor and Det Norske Oljeselskap. These companies represent three different ownership models; state-owned, 67% state-owned and privately owned. The aim of the project was not to evaluate the quality of companies' work with CSR, but rather to explore how they handle CSR. Not only in the energy project itself abroad, but throughout the company. We have examined how companies' management of CSR is shaped by state ownership, the interaction between company-state-communities, global debates on CSR, international standards and reporting regimes, and the negotiations and resistance the companies encounter in the countries in which they operate. In the Nordic countries, it is precisely the state that has taken the lead in promoting corporate social responsibility, and the authorities in Norway expect multinational companies (such as Equinor and Statkraft) based in Norway to act responsibly when operating abroad. The project has included eight field studies. These have focused on the companies' headquarters in London and Oslo, their country offices, as well as at the energy plants and affected communities in Turkey, Tanzania, Brazil, Canada, Northern Norway, Indonesia and Kurdistan-Iraq. The individual studies in the project have - through participant observation, conversations and interviews, document analyzes and more - followed how companies design, reformulate, circulate, report and execute their CSR policies and practices. Through numerous workshops - several in which companies and other stakeholders have also been involved - the project group has compared, discussed and analyzed the collected material. The case studies do not provide a clear answer to the research questions. On a general level, it can be said that the Norwegian companies we have studied operate like any other multinational company in terms of how they conduct CSR. Furthermore, we argue that the driver for the adaptation to global capitalism is not coming from the embracing of neoliberal policies in Norway, but is rather inherent to the way in which internationalization of the Norwegian economy is unfolding. In addition, companies' way of handling CSR is generally characterized by pragmatic adaptation. While Statkraft's work with CSR in Turkey is largely based on international standards (IFC performance standards), Equinor's CSR project in Brazil is a requirement from the Brazilian authorities and a prerequisite for Equinor's 'license to operate'. In Tanzania, Equinor, in collaboration with Norwegian trade union representatives, has actively promoted the establishment of a trade union among its employees, and can thus be said to try to reproduce a Nordic consensus-seeking tripartite cooperation, although without active involvement from the Tanzanian state. For Det Norske Oljeselskap, on the other hand the Norwegian identity is something that is actively mobilized for public relations purposes, but where their CSR activities in Northern Iraq may appear to be intertwined with local politics characterized by patron-client relations, corruption, etc. In some cases, the activities of companies abroad are coordinated with the Norwegian state's international ambitions (especially as 'humanitarian superpower'). Nevertheless, there is significant variation in proximity / distance between company and state in countries of operation.

Prosjektet har resultert i faglig oppgradering og reorientering for mange av prosjektdeltakerne, særlig knyttet til debatter om stat, det norske samfunn, bedrifter, og globalisering. Utfordringer knyttet til å studere eliter i eget samfunn har gjort prosjektmedlemmer oppmerksom på og stimulert refleksjon om metodologiske og etiske utfordringer. Innsamlet datamateriale, ny-etablerte nettverk og oppnådde innsikter vil være grunnlag for videre forskning for en rekke av de involverte. Prosjektet vil ha virkninger for de bedrifter som har vært involvert i prosjektet ved at studier av ulike måter CSR utspiller seg på åpner opp for mer reflektert tilnærming til hvordan CSR håndteres i bedriften. Relevante enheter innen norsk statsforvaltning har uttrykt stor interesse for prosjektets funn. Gjennom forventet videre dialog med disse aktørene håper vi å bidra til effekter på samfunnsnivå ved at debatter om statseierskap, energipolitikk, bærekraft og utenlands-engasjement blir mer nyanserte.

When Norwegian energy companies invest abroad - in projects that often involve contested environmental and social issues - they must relate to standards for corporate social responsibility (CSR). Recent anthropological work on CSR has mainly focused on privately owned companies and how they, particularly within the energy sector, increasingly bypass the state. The largest Norwegian energy companies, in contrast, are wholly or partly state owned. Considering that CSR often articulates typical neoliberal governance techniques, does it make a difference whether the corporate ethics of a company is framed in relation to a corporatist state and based in a 'Nordic model of CSR'? This project will explore this question by focusing on the CSR work of three Norwegian energy companies, representing varying ownership models: Statkraft, Statoil and Det Norske Oljeselskap. We ask how CSR policies are shaped by the following factors: state ownership, the Nordic corporate model for company-state-society interaction, a globalized CSR discourse, resistance and negotiation in country of operation, and the materiality of energy and environment. Aiming to track empirically the production, circulation, reformulation and outcomes of CSR policy and practice, case studies will follow the whole chain in the CSR process and focus on company headquarters (in Oslo and London), the companies' country offices, as well as the project sites and affected local communities in Canada, Northern Norway, Tanzania, Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil, and Kurdistan-Iraq. The project will draw together researchers in Norway and Britain. We seek full funding from NFR for two of the case studies, including a PhD position, and support for fieldwork for two case studies. In addition we will include three ongoing PhD projects. The project is innovative in bringing all these case studies under one umbrella, providing synergy effects that will enable us to make a substantial contribution to the anthropological study of CSR.

Funding scheme:

FRIHUMSAM-Fri hum og sam