Economic elites between pressure of competition and social responsibility


This is a joint project of the University of Bielefeld and the Social Science Research Center Berlin that studies the societal responsibility of economic elites. It is part of the interdisciplinary research network “Strengthening the integration potential of a modern society”. Financing: Federal Ministry for Education and Research.

Main content

Research Questions

The project investigates the positions of economic elites in Germany with regard to societal and political problems beyond the immediate economic sphere – positions that are expressed both verbally and via concrete actions. Economic elites are often said to refuse to take societal responsibility by pretending their increased submission to economic competition (in particular with reference to globalization). They are pursuing a neoliberal strategy of modernization in which power is shifted from political to economic actors (see a number of publications under the motto “Terror of Economics”, critic of globalization, etc.). Economic elites are more generally holders of power insofar as they take decisions whose consequences reach far beyond the immediate economic context and even are relevant to society as a whole, e.g., by supporting particular political candidates and parties, by selection places for major investment, by hiring or firing people. Critics argue that the instrumental usage of this power of economic elites threatens the constitutive alliance of the social market economy, the welfare state and democracy. This view, however, has not yet been substantiated through the systematic collection of data. The research aims to contribute to closing this gap by empirically answering the following questions:

(1) How do economic elites describe the relationship between economy and society?
(2) Which societal models do economic elites promote?
(3) How do economic elites define their own societal responsibility?
(4) To what extent and how do economic elites actually take societal responsibility?

Research Methods

The research is not guided by hypotheses, but is rather of explorative nature. The main assumption to orient the empirical work is that the findings pertaining to the research questions vary across time and space. A division of labor exists between the teams in Berlin and in Bielefeld:
- The temporal dimension is primarily analyzed via a quantitative content analysis of nation-wide daily newspapers (SZ, FAZ) and documents produced by economic elites in selected years (1965, 1976, 1983, 1990, 1998, 2002). This task is performed in Berlin.
- The Bielefeld group is responsible for the spatial dimension of the investigation. To this purpose, ten semi-structured interviews are carried out with local economic elites in each of four selected regions (economically prosperous vs. economically critical; old vs. new states). In addition, ten further interviews will be carried out with representatives of general and more specific business and employers’ associations.

First results (only based on content analysis)

- Development of a categorization system (“Taking societal responsibility“)
- The extent of addressing the problem of societal responsibility increases significantly over time (doubling or even tripling)
- Environmental protection is the most important single issue
- The readiness of economic elites to accept societal responsibility peaked in 1990, the year of German unification Since then, economic elites tend to take more vague and non-binding positions regarding their societal responsibility.