Murphy on Gordon, “The Contingent Corporation”

On March 23, Gwen Gordon spoke to the Sawyer Seminar about her anthropological and legal scholarship regarding a case study of Maori incorporation. Gordon emphasized that the goal of her work was to provide a new way of conceiving of the corporation’s social and ethical responsibility without attempting to apply the Maori example to western corporations. Her paper is best used as a tool to help us expand our examination of the corporation from the typical legal and economic lenses and to better understand issues with the current conception of the corporation exemplified by Citizens United and Hobby Lobby.

A central theme of the discussion was the growing role of culture in examinations of the corporation. This may have the positive repercussion of allowing academics and legal jurists to better understand the full implications of the modern corporation. One example was cited regarding United Kingdom’s use of a culture of compliance as evidence in corruption cases. However, Gordon pointed out that even as culture is being used as a metric with greater frequency, the understanding of “culture” remains uncertain, which provides a challenge for regulators. Also, as culture is increasingly being used in corporate discourse, there remains substantial potential for it to become more confused in the conversation.

During the discussion, professor Gordon clarified her opinion on aggregate versus entity theory, that the scholarship on the matter is incomplete. In discussing Citizens United and Hobby Lobby she was clear that the prevailing opinion of the court is incoherent. Aggregate and entity theory are imperfect concepts but combining them does little for logical consistency. Instead more scholarship needs to be devoted to intentionally thinking about corporate culture and identity and how it will be recognized by law. If not, it is likely more cases will be brought and the trajectory of the decisions remains frighteningly uncertain.

The topic of colonialism came up at several points through the discussion. A short description of the legal history of the recognition of Maori incorporation by New Zealand prefaced the talk. The tension of how to discuss a group that had been the victims of colonialism but also emerged from colonialism much better than other similarly situated native communities was explored throughout the discussion. The conclusion seemed to be that colonialism can still be seen as a heinous institution while concurrently acknowledging that there were some limited positive consequences for certain groups.

The final question posed was: based on her academic backgrounds, did she conceive of the corporation best as a person in society, a society, or something else entirely? She responded that the corporation is simultaneously person-like, society-like, and person in society-like. She was careful to state that while she is interested in the anthropological perspective of the corporate person, it can be problematic to extend that understanding to a corporate entity. Much of Gordon’s talk was cached in a sense of hesitation and an unwillingness to overextend the version of corporate culture she had observed among the Maori people to the wider discussion of corporate culture. Implicitly she seemed to be saying that there is so little caution in how the aggregate and entity theories have been combined and the breakneck speed by which culture has evolved to be misapplied in a variety of contexts that in her work she would not make the same error.

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