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Alternatives to the word ‘stakeholder’

Updated: May 10


connotations in countries like Canada, where settlers staked and held land that was not theirs to take. Although it is possible to argue that there are other older histories to this word, it is impossible to escape the Western ways of knowing and being that it expresses. We stake out, mark as our own and keep others out – and increasingly that’s the sort of behaviour we see as researchers compete to build exclusive relationships with stakeholders that could give them high value impacts. However, this stands at odds with non-Western ways of knowing and being, as Josievf expressed so powerfully when she wrote:

Colonised minds

hear

“ours”

and think of

possession.

Decolonising minds

hear

“ours”

and feel

connection.


Why we need to decolonise research

Finding alternatives to the word “stakeholder” is just one small step towards the decolonisation of language in research. It is one small step that might make academia more inclusive and welcoming to people who might otherwise feel judged by the Western ways of knowing and being that are implicit in so much of the research community. But it is a step that I personally feel compelled to take, given that I have been responsible for a number of highly cited articles that have unthinkingly promoted the use of the word. It was for this reason that I facilitated a discussion on Twitter that led to a workshop earlier this week to discuss the issue with other researchers, who like me,were looking for alternatives.

Appropriately, the first thing that happened was an unexpected discussion about the word “Indigenous”, which I had used to describe non-Western ways of knowing, and which colleagues explained is considered offensive in many parts of the world. One colleague worked in West Africa and another was from South Asia, and in both of these regions, the word was considered to be insulting, implying inferiority or being backward. You can find out more about the basis for these objections in this article in the Journal of Educational Philosophy and Theory. I’ve often simply used the word “local” to describe the context-specific nature of these knowledges, ways of being and ties to the land, or another alternative that has been suggested is “autochthonous”, meaning “of the land” in Greek.

Similarly, the use of a non-English word for stakeholder had been suggested by a number of people prior to the workshop, on the basis that alternatives shouldn’t be chosen to suit the needs of English-speaking researchers who need to be able to remember and pronounce the word. After all, this anglo-centric approach to research is what has given us words like this in the first place. However, others argued that it is an English word, and so it is a problem primarily for English-speakers. They also pointed out that if an alternative could be found in plain English, then these words could more easily be translated into other languages than the word stakeholder currently is, helping promote the spread of alternatives.

Why we will never find a universal alternative

However, finding an alternative is fraught with challenges, leading some to suggest that we should encourage people to find their own context-specific replacements, rather than trying to suggest a universal solution to the problem that could be adopted by everyone. No term will work universally given the very different purposes for which we want to use it (e.g. to refer to partners versus other interested groups that we’re not collaborating with directly) and different geo-political and ethnic contexts in which we want to use it. In addition to this, many people have multiple roles (or “hats”) that they occupy simultaneously, making it impossible to find a term that will work for everyone. Moreover, there is a high likelihood that any attempt to generalise to a single term will cause offence. In Canada, researchers are encouraged to refer to the individual group(s) they are working with rather than using Indigenous groups or First Nations as a catch-all. In the UK, you might offend someone from Northern Ireland or Scotland by referring to them as Brits, because Britain only refers to the island of Britain (England, Scotland and Wales), not the United Kingdom which came into being with the addition of Northern Ireland, and for many Scots, the Brit label is the label of a colonial power they are striving to achieve independence from. Universal labels are a handy shorthand, but are rarely accurate, and inaccuracies when it comes to a person’s national or ethnic identity have real potential to upset people.

But the issue goes deeper than just the need to adapt the term to the purpose and context in which it is used. Without the right principles underpinning the operationalisation of a new term, the new wordhas the potential to become just as problematic in the way that it gets used (just look at why we stopped talking about “sustainability”). Instead, we should be focussing on the people and species affected by decisions, interventions, projects and issues, and spending our time creating processes that can empower them to have equal voice and benefit from our work, using whatever terms are appropriate totheir context, rather than trying to come up with a universal term. Essentially, we should encourage people to self-identify the labels they prefer in the same way we do now with pronouns, rather than assuming our labels will be right. But the principle of giving people the right to choose their own preferred terms is just the start. Other principles underpinning any new approach to stakeholders might include the need to systematically represent interests, manage power dynamics between participants and empower everyone to have an equal voice in decisions that affect them.

As long as we are clear on our definition, then there are many ways we could accurately and appropriately refer to those who are “affected by or can affect a decision”, as Freeman (1984) originally defined stakeholders. However, this definition only includes two characteristics – those who are impacted by decisions, either positively or negatively, and those who have the influence to shape those decisions. Interest is a third and crucial characteristic which is routinely considered, for example in interest-influence matrices, or in the idea of interested parties and interest groups, who should also be engaged in decision-making processes.

My experience of replacing the word in my next paper on “stakeholder analysis” showed me how lazy I had been in using the word as a catch-all, when in some sentences I was in fact specifically referring to project partners, and in others I was referring to publics or specific groups, which I could now specify more accurately than before. However, there are going to be some contexts where a phrase is going to be necessary, especially given the prevalence of tools like stakeholder analysis. How can we refer to tools like this when we are not referring to any specific group who we could consult to find an appropriate word?

Alternatives to stakeholders

A number of suggestions have been made in the literature, including “partners” and “rightsholders”. However, you can see in my previous blogthat there are problems with both of these terms, as they aren’t sufficiently inclusive.

Before going too much further, you have to decide whether to call these people, actors, groups or something else. The problem with all of these is that they imply stakeholders can only be human, when it is important to recognise non-human stakeholders if we want to tackle interconnected global challenges. Although “group” doesn’t necessarily imply people, I find when used in prose that I can’t help thinking of people. On the other hand most of us are quite familiar to the idea of “parties” to an agreement and interested parties that could include a company or nation state and so this is more clearly inclusive of non-human entities. 

However, a number of people have pointed out that this word has a quite specific meaning in legal contexts, which might be confusing. A number of people suggested "entities" as an alternative, but others suggested this was too impersonal and worries people might not be happy being referred to as entities. While many agreed with the need to choose a word that is inclusive of non-human species, only a very small proportion of existing stakeholder analyses include non-human species, so it may in fact be acceptable to just use "groups". Having said this, this implies that we are only interested in groups or categories of people, rather than individuals, which might take us back to reconsider “parties”.

Next we need a descriptor for these parties or groups, and starting with Freeman’s (1984) definition, we might therefore opt for “affected parties” or "affected groups". However, this only implies those impacted (whether negatively or positively), not those who are unaffected themselves but have an interest in or power to facilitate or block something (e.g. gatekeepers). You have the same issue if you choose any of the individual criteria – you only communicate one dimension of the concept: “interest groups”, “interested parties” or “influencers”, for example, are only one type of stakeholder. 

In our most recent paper, Hannah Rudman and I used “interested/affected groups and non-academic partners”, referring to each group separately when wishing to distinguish between those who are not directly engaged with the research (and so cannot be referred to as partners), but who may, for example, have significant influence without sufficient direct impact or interest to engage (typically individuals and organisations in gatekeeper roles) or who may, for example, be significantly impacted by research but have limited interest or influence (typically marginalised, powerless and often oppressed groups). However, the use of a negative prefix in “non-academic research partners” may still imply the superiority of academic partners, so alternatives still need to be considered  

In view of all of this, “relevant parties” or "relevant groups" might be a suitable alternative term, for the contexts in which you need a term. The word “relevant” is problematic because who defines relevance matters, opening the term to abuses of power that could lead to exclusion of groups not considered sufficiently relevant by those with influence. However, for me this word has merit because it makes the issue explicit and leads directly to the need for a systematic analysis of who should be included. It is also important to remember how important it is to find a phrase that resonates widely and is memorable, if we are to actually succeed in our endeavour to replace the word stakeholder. Most people are familiar with the term “relevant parties” without having to consult a dictionary or the literature, and if the legal meaning of this term is problematic, then "relevant groups" is immediately understandable. 

The approach thus far has been based on finding terms that fully express the concept and each of its characteristics, including interest, influence and impact. However, an alternative approach to the problem lies in the development of typologies, that is, identifying the different types of groups that might exist, and referring to them by name. There have been many lists generated over the years to help people think holistically and avoid marginalising certain groups. While there is no exhaustive list, there is a lot of overlap between these lists, for example including citizens, policy colleagues or industry. While these lists are useful to help us specify exactly who we are writing or speaking about, they don’t help us find a short hand for referring to everyone who might be relevant to consider or engage with. However, if it were possible to boil these down to the fewest possible categories, then this might have some utility. For example, we might identify nature, people and organisations who are relevant to our research, or do a nature-people-organisations analysis instead of a stakeholder analysis.

Moving beyond definitions, typologies and terms

Ultimately though, if the goal is to include and empower more people to engage with research, whether as researchers, partners or as other who are relevant to the work we do, then to truly decolonise and include, we need to move far beyond language. Instead, we need to use debates around language to open our community’s eyes to the everyday racism we perpetuate by continuing to use words like “stakeholder”, and use this to galvanise us into developing processes that can identify, represent, empower and give voice to those we want our research to serve.

In summary:

  1. Avoid using the word stakeholder wherever possible

  2. Where possible, design processes that enable those you work with to self-identify how they would like you to refer to them

  3. Where this isn’t possible, use language that accurately describes the groups you are working with, for example as nature, people or organisations, or as partners, relevant groups or relevant parties

  4. In all cases, if you focus more on principles (such as humility, inclusion, empowerment and voice), than you focus on the terms, you will be able to adapt your language effectively to your purpose and context, and learn from your mistakes.




This is a continuation of the Should we banish the word 'stakeholder'? blog post

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