The historical role of the corporation in society

by Leonardo Davoudi, Christopher McKenna and Rowena Olegario

31 Oct 2018
Journal of the British Academy
31 (pp. 17-47)

Abstract: This article charts the historical role of the corporation in society from antiquity to the present day. Using a broad temporal and transnational approach, it argues that social purpose has been a defining trait of the corporation since the concept of legal personhood first appeared in antiquity. The direct connection between incorporation and social purpose formally broke in the nineteenth century, when countries like the United Kingdom and United States introduced general incorporation laws. Yet many corporations continued to act positively on behalf of society on a voluntary basis even as they acted against the interests of workers, consumers, and the environment. This article demonstrates that concerns about corporate power have a long history, and that societies over time have designed a variety of legal systems and forms of corporate governance to address these concerns.

Keywords: corporation, business, social purpose, corporate social responsibility, company, philanthropy, social welfare, charity, business history, economic history.

Article posted to Journal of the British Academy, volume 6,
supplementary issue 1 (Reforming Business for the 21st Century).

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