On March 23, 2018, co-organizers of the Duke University Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law, professors Rachel Brewster and Philip Stern, welcomed Prof. Gwendolyn Gordon from Wharton’s Legal Studies and Business Ethics department for their fourth spring public seminar event. Prof. Gordon earned a JD from Harvard and a PhD in anthropology from Princeton, researching indigenous Maori corporations in New Zealand.
The Seminar’s discussion was rooted in Prof. Gordon’s PhD work among the Maori, using cultural and ethnographic inquiries to approach corporate law. She explained, early in the conversation, that the Wakatu community was deeply reluctant to be displayed as another example for Westerners of indigenous business entities adopting Western corporate legal models. She elaborated upon several ways in which Maori cultural values regarding corporate responsibility align with and diverge from modern Western corporate governance. While these differences are largely non-economic, and therefore not part of traditional Western economic analysis, corporations are necessarily shaped by the scope of the roles to which society holds them.
Prof. Gordon expanded on her work through a lengthy article in the Seattle University Law Review, which articulated and advocated for “a modern anthropological concept of culture characterized by attention to process and movement.” She also prepared a short paper for the Seminar in advance, which continues to analyze patterns in the “shifting stability” of social understandings of corporate roles and relationships, as well as the ways in which these conceptions impact corporate governance behavior, particularly among Maori corporations. In doing so, she defines Maori companies culturally and analyzes how they operate within their consequently broader set of responsibilities.
Throughout the discussion, Prof. Gordon analyzed Maori cultural elements that shape the state of New Zealand corporate law governing Maori incorporation. Among others, she described the Maori view of social responsibility, which envisions a vaster network of relationships across people and over time than Western corporate law. Reciprocal relationships, and consequent responsibilities towards the interests of others, are believed to extend at least 500 years into the past and the future. The Maori do not conceptually separate corporations from the rest of their networks, so Maori corporations have responsibilities not only to their shareholder constituencies of the present, but also to the interests of the Maori community stretching 500 years into the past and future. This cultural interest has been incorporated into New Zealand’s corporate law through statute and Supreme Court rulings.
Prof. Gordon explained that the Maori’s emphasis on long time horizons stemmed from its view of a firm as a tool for the community, which has existed long before the corporation, and which will continue to have interests far into the future. In defining a new form of incorporation with responsibilities towards the Maori people, New Zealand also recognized that corporate responsibility towards a people’s values requires such corporations to respect the people’s cultural understanding of the scope of corporate responsibilities. Maori corporations must therefore legally act for the interests of past and future communities, which includes developing a 500-year business plan that accounts for necessary responses to potential catastrophes and gradual changes in the land.
Seminar attendees also inquired into Prof. Gordon’s understanding of corporate roles in society, as well as her views regarding how her research and methods should be applied by others. She described a complex understanding of corporations sharing characteristics with persons, societies, and members of societies. Reflection of these characteristics varies among relationships and across issues, with key points of difference arising from the interaction of corporate interests, social values, and other economic and non-economic factors. The relationship between a community and a corporation is partially determined by the values of the corporate persona, but Prof. Gordon distinguished between ethnographic inquiries into the qualities of a corporate person and their application to the broader task of predicting corporate behavior, to which cultural conclusions have often been overextended and misapplied. Her research on Maori corporations has the most value in its original context, and her methods should augment other avenues of analysis when extended beyond the scope of corporate personas.