I Don't Like 'Social Impact'
Updated: Jun 17, 2022
I didn’t decide to major in sociology until my second year at university, but looking back now, there were plenty of signs that I’d end up here. Destiny, I guess.
It’s a field of study that’s allowed me to explore answers to questions I’ve had all my life. Bourdieu’s theories of capital gave meaning to my nine years feeling like a fish out of water as a student at a private girls’ school. Hochschild’s studies of emotional labour helped me make sense of how I always feel obligated to be nice to people, as a woman. And standpoint theorists, especially the women of colour who’ve put their own experiences at the forefront in the search for knowledge, provided me with reassurance and validation of my own self-hood. Sociology is my way of studying who I am, and how I fit into complex social realities.
Trying to sum all this up in a sentence, when people ask me my career goals, is difficult. I defer to this oft-used phrase: ‘I want to create social impact.’ It condenses a lot of complicated thoughts into just a few words, and people get the gist — I aim to do some good in the world, to help people, to serve some kind of justice, to make a difference. I take advantage of the convenience of this. At the same time, I find myself growing ever more frustrated with the concept of ‘social impact’.
My gripe with ‘social impact’ is that it’s become such a buzzword, thrown around very easily but without much scrutiny or substance.
I think I notice this especially because I’m a university student. Many of us Gen Zers are left-leaning progressives who are concerned about pressing social issues; as youth unemployment looms over us, we’re also looking at leadership and civic engagement as skills and attributes that are more important than ever. So I, and many of my peers, try our best to do meaningful work in our communities. We volunteer, we fundraise, we establish organisations and programs to end poverty and climate change and gender inequality.
I really like that about us. But sometimes I speak to people who can tell me all about what they do and how they’ve been ‘inspired’ and ‘empowered’, and yet falter when I want to hear more detail about what measurable outcomes they’ve actually effected, or even who their beneficiaries are. Sometimes I meet other young people returning from stints of charity work overseas, and I feel uncomfortable about how unaware they are of the many criticisms that voluntourism has rightfully attracted.
Sometimes the visions and values are very good, but the results just don’t match up. There are also businesses that latch on to ‘social impact’ as a good PR move. ‘Greenwashing’, for example, is the latest trend in the fast fashion industry. Stores like H&M have recycling programs for your old clothes, even though their profits rely upon poor-quality items being purchased and disposed regularly, to generate consumer demand for new styles every other week. Like other brands, it also has its ‘conscious’ collection of ethically (or at least, less unethically) made pieces, as if this somehow makes up for the subpar wages and atrocious working conditions that they otherwise perpetuate.
I’m uncomfortable with how sustainability, fair trade, community development and ‘social impact’ are trends — they become virtue signalling only, rather than real commitments.
To be very clear: I don’t think any person or business can be perfect, and I don’t even think it’s productive to allow perfection to get in the way of progress. Tahani says it best in Episode 10, Season 3 of The Good Place: ‘There are so many unintended consequences to well-intentioned actions, it feels like a game you can’t win.’ Now that our social world has become so much more complex, even the simple gesture of gifting somebody a bouquet of roses is now ethically tainted in a way that it wasn’t 500 years ago. There’s no escaping it.
What I see as fundamental is that we acknowledge this, and I think that’s what frustrates me when people make bold claims as to ‘social impact’. I don’t expect anyone to avoid all the risks and harms that may accompany what is otherwise positive social change. But I do think there is a responsibility to be cognisant of the limitations to what we’re achieving, and to be transparent about them. Otherwise, we’re just overstating our ‘social impact’, causing particular issues to be swept under the rug — often disproportionately affecting people who are already vulnerable.
I’m fascinated by social enterprises precisely because they seem to epitomise this movement towards ‘social impact’ in our market-driven societies. Definitions vary, but I’m working here with the understanding of social enterprise as the happy marriage between charity and business: organisations that use the trading of goods and services to generate revenue, as a means to address social or environmental problems.
This idea seems almost too good to be true; a perfect solution to all our problems. It goes a step beyond just redirecting a chunk of a business’ profits to a charity, as is often done for good publicity. It’s more than merely colouring within ethical lines, as mandated by the principles of corporate social responsibility. It’s different because social enterprises embed their values into every aspect of their strategy and operations.
Social enterprises have certainly made strides in the right directions when it comes to issues like environmental sustainability and the provision of much-needed public goods. In particular, my thesis is based around work integration social enterprises (WISEs), which create training and jobs for workers who have been disadvantaged in the labour market. Think The Big Issue, which employs people experiencing or at risk of homelessness to sell magazines. With claims of ‘helping people help themselves’, and giving people a ‘hand up, not a hand out’, the philosophy of this enterprise is the notion of individual agency, of returning power to the people. Sellers of The Big Issue aren’t just the passive recipients of charity — they’re put in control of their own journeys out of unemployment and poverty. They’re empowered.
At least, they’re supposed to be.
There’s plenty of evidence of social enterprises providing jobs, and therefore giving workers access to all of the benefits of being employed: greater income, skills development, access to social networks, and so on. For some people, that’s probably enough to conclude that yes, WISEs empower. But I’m not quite sold; here are some of the doubts I have —
One. WISEs have their benefits, but are there costs that we aren’t accounting for? Does it hurt people to take up jobs that have been labelled and designated as jobs for disadvantaged workers, for instance? Disability advocates have definitely raised some concerns: take a look at reactions that people have had to the Australian Labor Party’s plan to support ADEs. There have long been criticisms of sheltered workshops, so what makes WISEs different? Are there ways in which they’re actually reinforcing structural disadvantages, by playing into the discourses and narratives that cement people who are unemployed as second-class citizens?
Two. Even if we can agree that WISEs are great, what makes them different from other programs or institutions that can achieve the same outcomes? What makes them more efficient, or more effective — more empowering as a response to unemployment? Consider this 2018 study, for example: Tanekenov, Fitzpatrick and Johnsen interviewed participants in homelessness-focused WISEs in the UK, and came to an interesting conclusion. They found that while these people did report some empowerment benefits, most were completely oblivious to the fact that the organisations that had supported them weren’t just traditional charities. In other words, perhaps the outcomes that social enterprises bring about result from organisational processes or features that charities also offer, and don’t really have anything to do with the fact that they offer employment or training.
Three. WISEs supposedly give people opportunities to exercise power, but to what extent? Some proponents of social enterprise claim that they’re empowering because they emphasise participatory models of engagement — their beneficiaries get to be part of decision-making processes. And yet, sometimes this isn’t really the case. Kuosmanen’s 2014 study of Swedish WISEs provides some insights here: social enterprises, constrained by all the imperatives that come with running a business, sometimes end up being too bureaucratic, and unable to provide adequate support to workers who might have complex needs. Amin, Cameron and Hudson raise another pertinent issue in their 1999 paper: what if social enterprises just pass on the responsibility of addressing social problems onto individuals, without actually transferring the resources necessary to make change? There’s clearly a risk here of empowerment being superficial: although having a job has benefits in and of itself, this doesn’t always come with greater ability to exert control over the circumstances around you.
Sometimes, it’s hard to be the critical voice in the room when everyone else just seems so excited about this movement towards socially conscious businesses — the market being used as a force for good. Yet, it’s so important to be vigilant and continue questioning aspirational claims regarding ‘social impact’, because too often, they simply aren’t validated.