hearing voices: can a corporation speak?

The Wall Street Journal carried an op-ed last week by Simpson and Sherman about Stephen Colbert’s difficulties in setting up a PAC post-Citizens United. I wrote a letter to the Journal but (no big surprise) they don’t seem eager to print it, so I am posting it here. It has sociological as well as political content, since the essential question is whether an administrative collectivity can be said to “speak”.

To the Editors-

The op-ed in Thursday’s paper appropriately demonstrated that there remain hurdles to forming PACs, even in the post-Citizens United environment. But the authors have missed a more fundamental point: corporations cannot “speak.” People speak. Corporations can pay–or inspire–people to speak on their behalf, and they can even organize groups of people to speak (or, for that matter, to write op-eds). In the case of media companies, they can provide spaces in which real people
can speak.

The “real people who want to speak out during elections” do not in fact run into the barriers Stephen Colbert encountered, because real people have a battery of opportunities to speak: conversations, town meetings, telephone calls, petitions, campaign work, street demonstrations, individual contributions, even letters to the editor! All of these and more are available to “real people,” including Mr. Colbert and the shareholders, CEOs, employees, customers, and critics of corporations
across the nation.

Andrew J. Perrin

Chapel Hill, NC

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

16 thoughts on “hearing voices: can a corporation speak?”

  1. While I agree with your philosophical intuition, I think the point of the Citizens United case was that in the eyes of the law the corporation can speak. Moreover, in our everyday interaction the corporation has become so institutionalized as an actor that we treat organizations as if they can speak, act, contract, etc. Whether or not the corporation has a physical brain capable of cognition is irrelevant to its ontological status as an actor.


    1. I had the same reaction as Andy when I first started learning organizational theory – what do you mean we treat organizations as actor? What does it mean for an organization to make a decision or take an action? It seemed like a hokey simplification. But I think I’ve come around to Brayden’s position, in part because it scales better. Individuals, as we learn from all sorts of fancy European social theory from Foucault to Latour, are just as much legal, psychological, social, whatever fictions as organizations. To talk about an individual speaking unequivocally – for an observed action to be attributed to some fundamental property of an individual – is not a different leap than doing so for organizations. The former is more naturalized – and certainly more biologized* – but the two situations have a lot in common, especially given the state of corporate law in the US. When the CFO of a company explains something to the shareholders on a conference call, we think of that as the organization’s position, not the individual’s, in part because we assume the high level officials in the corporation made decisions about what to say collectively, and in part because the CFO is in a legal position to speak for the corporation.

      *Although, biology has started to break apart the unified individual too, talking about organisms (including humans) as a gene’s way of producing another gene. Given that, you can then talk about conflicts between different genes, and how they play out at the level of the whole organism. The unity of “individual” breaks down.


      1. Then again, it’s a separate question as to whether or not organizations should be able to speak in political contexts. That we decide organizations are actors for some purposes – in law, in social theory, etc. – does mean that they normatively should be considered as such for the purposes of thinking about a representative democracy and how that’s supposed to work.


  2. Dan makes two great points, one from a more phenomenological perspective and the other from an institutional. Phenomenologically, organizations are actors because we experience them in much the same way that we do an individual. Using actor network theory as a guide (and I never thought I’d say that), an organization’s position as actor is uncontroversially not that different from saying an individual is an actor.

    The institutional point is that organizations’ actorhood has become solidified because supporting institutions lend legitimacy to that status. When I discuss this idea with people, sometimes I get the “they’re just legal fictions” argument thrown back to me. Exactly, I’d say. And that means that we can constrain them legally in the same way we would any other actor. We have some control over what legal actors do through law and regulation; if you don’t like the way corporations exercise their rights, then you can potentially do something about that by tweaking the institutions that support that interpretation of rights. Unfortunately, I think most people take a more passive approach and say, as the Supreme Court seems to have done, that if we experience organizations as actors then we must treat them as we would a human actor. I don’t see why that must be the case, but it’s currently the official position of the courts. That will only be changed by individuals mobilizing against it.


  3. Interesting comments, all. Just to be clear: I do not dispute for a minute that corporations can act. Nor do I dispute that the Individual is just as much an administrative product as is the Corporation. But different kinds of actors have different kinds of potential actions–dare I say “repertoires”–at their disposal. Thus as an individual I cannot sell shares of myself as securities, an action that is commonplace for corporations. Similarly, I hold that a corporation cannot in fact speak. (Importantly, a corporation also cannot go to prison, which raises issues surrounding its governability.)

    To return to the WSJ column to which I was responding, let me just point out that the authors moved smoothly from corporations facing PAC restrictions to “real people who want to speak out,” with nary a mention of the fact that corporations and people are certainly different kinds of speakers, even if we were to grant that speech is in an organization’s repertoire.


  4. Andy et al: you might find this paper of mine to be relevant/useful: http://web.mit.edu/ewzucker/www/Speaking_with_One_Voice.pdf. Bob Freeland and I also have a follow-up paper that we’ll be presenting at the ASA. Essentially, the argument is that centralized control of voice is in fact the lynchpin of what transforms a collection of individuals into a collective actor. And I would argue that this is as true for individuals as it is for organizations.


  5. Ezra – sounds like an interesting paper. I have a paper with Chris Steele, a Phd student at Northwestern, that addresses the issue from a slightly different perspective. In that paper we try to explain the source of collective intentionality in organizations, which I’ve argued is one of the essential features of organizational actors. My paper with Chris makes the case for how identity is the mechanism that facilitates intentionality. I describe the paper as Mead meets Coleman.


      1. Sure, I’ll email it to you. If anyone else is interested in reading the paper, let me know and I’ll gladly share. It’s still in a developmental stage and so we could use the feedback.


  6. Hi Brayden. I don’t think you’ll find that paper so interesting… since it is the same one you read last year. But the paper with Bob should hopefully be of interest. And thanks for the plug to this new paper. IT sounds like it builds nicely on your earlier paper with Teppo and Whetten, which also used Coleman in a very productive way. I look forward to reading it.


  7. Oops. I should have hit the link first. I now understand: the paper with Steele is in process and the link is to the paper with Whetten and Felin. Got it. Please send the new one when you’re ready to share.


  8. Ezra, I read the paper you referenced only cursorily, but from a quick read I think you’re addressing a bigger (and more interesting) point than the one I was trying to make. If I understand your claim right, it’s about the authority to speak on behalf of the collectivity. But once again, it is ultimately the case that only a person can literally speak. My point is pedestrian: speech (and by extension, writing) is a uniquely human facility, so organizations (including corporations) can only engage in it by enrolling humans. Those humans, in turn, are fully capable of speaking on their own; humans seeking to speak in the public sphere are licensed to do so under the first amendment. What corporations are restricted from doing is not speaking (since they can’t anyway) but spending.


  9. Hmm… I agree to a point, but I’m not sure that the distinction you are making will buy you much. For one thing, you seem to require that “person” and human are the same thing. But is the same physical human being, as it moves through a myriad of social contexts and plays different roles [never exactly the same way], the same person? And if not, then ‘personhood’ is something that is different from physical human being, and it needs a human spokesman at any given time/context just as an organization does. (This is obviously very hard to think about since we take for granted the continuity of personhood through time) A more mundane issue is that some human beings are not capable of expressing voice in the usual ways and so they delegate another human as a spokesman. Is that different than when a CEO speaks on behalf of an organization? And if it’s not, does that make them less human? I should say not.


    1. Ezra, first, sorry for the delay in responding, it’s been a very busy few days!

      Is it your position, based on your objection above, that all types of actors are endowed with precisely the same set of capacities? In other words, that as a class, corporations and humans are equivalent in their capacities, and that variation in capacities is marginal (i.e., humans without voiceboxes)? That strikes me as much more problematic than conceding that types of actors tend to have sets of capacities that vary within as well as across actor types.

      The fact that the same physical human being will of course never be “the same” person doesn’t strike me as relevant to this problem. The fact that you can’t step in the same river twice does not mean that a given river as a physical feature isn’t still a river. Similarly, the fact that I behave differently before a classroom lecture from at my son’s basketball game doesn’t change the fact that I have the capacity to speak in both of these situations.


      1. Hi Andy. That is a useful reply, though I’m not sure that it will be productive to continue engaging on such a subtle issue online. Maybe at the ASA? In the meantime, I’ll just say that I am fully on board that *humans* have different capacities than organizations and that organizations need humans to execute the actual act of speech. My point was that *persons* are (depending on your definition) not necessarily the same as *humans* and that persons also need human representatives– so that organizations and persons were sorta (a technical term) equivalent in that respect.


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