What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago the term “stakeholder” was slang for any neglected group affected by a corporation. To be sure, the word had been molded with precision by a thin, important line of management theorists. And to be sure also the word was sometimes used by managers who wanted to justify their personal commitments to groups other than stockholders, such as employees and customers. But like slang, “stakeholder” seemed perfectly plastic and therefore conceptually flawed. It meant one thing to one person, something else to another.
Today the term has arrived. Management journals and consultants flaunt it, and articles devoted to one or another interpretation of stakeholder theory are commonplace. Both the Encyclopedia of Management (Freeman 1998) and the Blackwell Encyclopedic Dictionary of Business Ethics (Freeman 1997) identify stakeholder theory as one of a tiny handful of recognized models for interpreting corporate responsibility. As the term rose to prominence, it acquired more solidity, and while varying interpretations of it can be found, a core of meaning pervades current stakeholder literature.
The success of the stakeholder terminology and of its accompanying theory has not been accidental. One of the influential forces galvanizing attention was the six-year effort on the definition of the corporation, sponsored by the Sloan Foundation, that situated the stakeholder concept at the center of its project. Through this project, books, conferences, meetings with stakeholder groups, and finally the “Principles of Stakeholder Management,” commonly referred to as the “Clarkson Principles,” brought energy and interest to stakeholder research.