The role of law in corporate accountability. Special issue on Corporate responsibility, edited by Julia Eckert and Laura Knöpfel. Journal of Legal Anthropology 4(2): 100-109, 2020. This special issue addresses the role of law in corporate accountability. Case studies reference people affected by asbestos in Italy, a coal company anticipating closure in Colombia, and both activists and human rights lawyers concerned with the impacts of mining in Ecuador. The afterword cLorts to expand the1 prospective reach of both the law and state policy. It describes the perspectival character of the law in which the forum determines how the underlying facts are seen. It examines how responsibility, against a backdrop of distributed agency, is conceptualized by shortening or expanding chains of liability. It also points to the need for stronger connections between the anthropology of suffering and the discipline’s ethical turn. Finally, it suggests that the legal claims discussed here are aspirational in the sense of describing how the world ought to be. 

Peter Benson and Stuart Kirsch, The capitalist corporation. The international encyclopedia of anthropology. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018.

Virtuous language in industry and the academy. In Corporate social responsibility? Human rights in the new global economy, edited by Charlotte Walker-Said and John D. Kelly, 92-112. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Peter Benson and Stuart Kirsch, editors, special issue on Imagining corporate personhood. Political and Legal Anthropology Review, with an introduction by Kirsch and essays from Peter Benson, Robert Foster, Ilana Gershon, Dinah Rajak, and Kedron Thomas, and an afterword by Ira Bashkow, 2014.

Imagining corporate personhood. Political and Legal Anthropology Review 37 (2): 207-217, 2014. 

Mining industry responses to criticism. In Cash on the table: Anthropological perspectives on markets and morality, edited by Edward F. Fischer, 195-210. Santa Fe: SAR Press, 2013.

Peter Benson and Stuart Kirsch, Capitalism and the politics of resignation. Current Anthropology 51 (4): 459–486, 2010. Anthropologists since the 1990s have paid greater attention to the state and governmentality than to one of the most consequential forms of power in our time, the corporation. The lack of attention to corporations is especially problematic when the harm they cause is readily apparent and substantial. We propose to reorient the study of power in anthropology to focus on the strategies corporations use in response to their critics and how this facilitates the perpetuation of harm. We identify three main phases of corporate response to critique: denial, acknowledgement and token accommodation, and strategic engagement. In case studies of the tobacco and mining industries, we show how corporate responses to their critics protect these industries from potential delegitimization and allow them to continue operating in favorable regulatory environments. Finally, we connect these corporate strategies to pervasive feelings of discontent about the present and the perceived inability to change the future. Although corporations usually benefit from the politics of resignation, we argue that widespread dissatisfaction with corporate practices represents an important starting point for social change. [With comments by Jedrzej George Frynas, Chris Hann, Gustavo Lins Ribeiro, Erica Schoenberger, and Ajantha Subramanian].

Peter Benson and Stuart Kirsch, editors, special issue on Corporate oxymorons. Dialectical Anthropology, with an introduction by Benson and Kirsch, contributions by Peter Benson (Safe cigarettes), Kim Fortun (Essential2Life), Kirsch (Sustainable mining), Adriana Petryna (Paradigms of expected failure), and Suzana Sawyer (Human energy), and an afterword by Robert Foster (Corporate oxymorons and the anthropology of capitalism), 2010. 

Peter Benson and Stuart Kirsch, Corporate oxymorons. Dialectical Anthropology 34 (1): 45–48, 2010. Corporate oxymorons are a vivid and dangerous part of the contemporary world. Think of the safe cigarette myths of big tobacco, the calculated repositioning of big oil amidst climate change debates, and questionable claims about sustainability made by mining and other extractive industries. Across various industries multinational corporations have strategically turned to a language of social responsibility in order to legitimize capitalist activities that entail very clear negative human and environmental consequences. While neoliberal market reforms and international free trade agreements have benefited corporations by reducing regulation and permitting the flexible organization of production and consumption chains around the world, the realm of images, culture, brand names, and advertising has remained crucial to contemporary multinational capital. Corporations like BHP Billiton, Chevron, DuPont, Google, Merck, and Philip Morris claim to operate for the public good and address the problems of human life more efficiently and effectively than the state. They are not bad actors who harm people or the planet and unabashedly produce uneven geographies of accumulation, inequality, and suffering in the name of increased shareholder value. Much like governments, these corporations claim to play a beneficial and indispensable role, making healthier communities, cleaner environments, and better functioning economies and societies. Corporations also astutely appropriate the discourse of critique, manipulate and package science, and borrow the tactics and strategies of oppositional movements. Anthropologists are well-positioned to document and analyze the paradoxes that underpin these claims and practices. Ethnographic research can unpack oxymoronic claims about corporate social responsibility by revealing social, health, economic, informational, and environmental quandaries (often catastrophes and crises) that the tobacco, petroleum, mining, information, and pharmaceutical industries help make. Moreover, by connecting in-depth ethnographic studies to larger issues of social and public policy, anthropologists can provide a critical perspective on how corporate oxymorons are legitimized at multiple levels, often with government support, despite their contestation by various social actors, agencies, and movements. The papers collected here take corporate oxymorons in various industries as entry points into critical ethnographic and theoretical engagements with the constitution of contemporary capitalism on local and global scales.

Sustainable mining. Dialectical Anthropology 34 (1): 87–93, 2010. The mining industry moves more earth than any other human endeavor. Yet mining companies regularly claim to practice sustainable mining. Progressive redefinition of the term sustainability has emptied out the concept of its original reference to the environment. Mining companies now use the term to refer to corporate profits and economic development that will outlast the life of a mining project. The deployment of corporate oxymorons like sustainable mining is one of the key strategies corporations use to conceal harm and neutralize critique.

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