Based on Research By Douglas A. Schuler, Kathleen Rehbein and Colby D. Green

Is It Time To Treat Corporations’ Political Activity As An Academic Field?

  • Corporate political activity looming increasingly large on the U.S. landscape.
  • Events in the market, including China’s increasing heft as an economic power, suggest rich areas of research that could one day make corporate political activity its own academic field.
  • Even so, research into this activity hasn’t emerged as a distinct field.

Companies’ efforts to yank the levers of power are drawing intense scrutiny. Growing populist movements question corporate sway in citizens’ lives, while the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has loosened government reins on corporate political giving. Even before assuming office, meanwhile, a new Trump administration has not hesitated to intervene in corporate decisions about where to source production or how to price multi-year governmental procurement contracts – choices that clearly could reverberate politically.

But does this activity merit its own academic field? Not yet, according to Douglas A. Schuler, a professor at Rice Business, Kathleen Rehbein of Marquette University and Colby D. Green, a Rice doctoral candidate.

Corporate political activity, Schuler, Rehbein and Green say, is any effort by firms to sway public policy to advance the firms’ market goals. Firms might do this individually or via industry trade groups through lobbying, political contributions or testimony at public hearings that bear on their business.

The framework for the trio’s research is a 2008 study by D.C. Hambrick and M.J. Chen, who identified three traits fundamental to an academic field. These are differentiation from other disciplines, mobilization of the supporters of the discipline and legitimacy of the discipline to those outside it.

To reach their conclusion about corporate political activity as an academic field, the researchers looked at several metrics associated with those three things. Among them: course requirements for students working toward masters degrees in business administration; conferences and scholarly communities on corporate political action; and views about the publications devoted to the topic.

The results spoke volumes.

Researchers studying corporate political activity do ask questions that other disciplines don’t, Schuler and colleagues found. And their lines of inquiry distinguish them from scholars in related fields such as management, economics, political science and sociology.

Researchers in other fields, for instance, have studied how corporate political activity affects public policy. Specialists, in contrast, look at the motivations for that activity. One such paper shows that corporate political involvement rose after firms proposed mergers that needed regulatory approval.

At the same time, business school leaders say that articles in the two journals most specialized in addressing corporate political action don’t count for much when they assess underlings who must publish to advance their academic careers. There’s also a relative lack of corporate political action research in more established management and strategy journals.

Back in the classroom, of the MBA programs at the top 20 business schools ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek, only four – Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Rice – require courses in corporate political activity. Most other schools on the list offer the topic as an elective.

Similarly, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International, an accrediting agency, lists courses that tackle corporate political activity as central to graduate management programs. But it doesn’t go as far as to label the topic a unique field.

Applying these findings to their framework, Schuler and his colleagues conclude that as an academic field of study it still falls short.

They see opportunities for fostering deeper interest, however. China, in particular, provides plenty of fodder for research into the intersection of company and government behavior. The topic is increasingly pressing with the growing international market strength of Chinese companies under a state-centered, authoritarian government.

But Schuler’s group also notes that the birth of any new discipline has its own political component – inside academia. Any time a new field emerges, it can siphon attention and funding from existing disciplines.

There’s no question, in other words, that the U.S. and international political environments offer rich material for the examination of corporate political activity. But at least for now, specialized study of this topic must remain in political campaigns, governmental offices, news shows and editorial pages. The academy will have to wait.

Douglas A. Schuler is an associate professor of business and public policy at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Schuler, D.A., Rehbein, K. & Green, C.D. (2016). Is Corporate Political Activity A Field? Forthcoming in Business & Society.