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Should we banish the word “stakeholder”?

Updated: Mar 27

I talk about stakeholders a lot because I study how decisions are made and how the people who are affected by or have the power to shape those decisions are engaged in decision-making processes. I therefore regularly meet people who have an allergic reaction to the word “stakeholder” as a hideous piece of policy-speak or jargon that people in power often abuse. More recently, there has been extensive debate on social media about whether the word might be racist or at least have colonial connotations that mean we should avoid using the word entirely:

After looking at the replies to this tweet and doing a bit of digging of my own, it turns out that a number of negative historical uses of the word "stakeholder" have been used to suggest that the word is no longer used. Sharfstein (2016) advocated to “banish” the word from modern usage on the basis of failed or irresponsible stakeholder engagement processes, for example which allowed elite capture (see also Cook and Kothari, 2000) or were used to neutralise threats to firm profits (see early references to stakeholder analysis in business management in Reed et al., 2009), which Sharfstein (2016) argued echo its “mercenary” roots as the person who physically held the stakes in a bet. This argument follows in a long line of publications that have argued that stakeholder engagement does not work or leads to negative consequences, and so should be abandoned in favour of top-down approaches, on the basis of evidence from poorly designed and facilitated processes (e.g. see de Vente et al. (2016) and Reed et al. (2018) for this debate and the counter-argument that there is opposing evidence from well designed and facilitated processes). While it is clear that poorly designed and facilitated processes that are used to exploit stakeholders are “are complicit with colonialist attitudes and values” (Banerjee, 2003), such abuses do not justify abandoning attempts to responsibly engage with those affected by decisions. Nevertheless, arguments persist that the word should be avoided on the basis of its use in colonial times, when settlers used wooden stakes to claim land prior to any treaty or land negotiations with Indigenous groups.

In this context, it is worth examining the etymology of the word in greater depth. The word stakeholder derives from the word “stake”, which is a stick or post, sharpened for driving into the ground, for example to make a fence, tether an animal to or support a structure such as a tent (Online Etymological Dictionary, 2019). Similar words emerged to describe stakes in Old English (staca), Proto-Germanic (stakon), Old Frisian, Middle Dutch and Middle Low German (stake), which it is thought derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *steg for stick or pole. There are many historical and cultural uses for the word, including to be “burned at the stake” (a form of capital punishment), “stake a claim” (using stakes to mark out Indigenous land to be claimed by colonising settlers), “stake out” (to claim ownership over or keep a place or person under surveillance), and “pull up stakes” (moving on or abandoning a position, referring to pulling up the stakes tethering a tent) (Online Etymological Dictionary, 2019). Hence, the first uses of the word literally refer to sharpened sticks or poles.

Building on this original meaning, these literal uses were followed by its use as a verb, “to stake” (c. 14th Century), meaning to fasten, support or tether something (originally to a sharpened pole driven into the ground), including those condemned to burn at the stake (Online Etymological Dictionary, 2019). The word was used to refer to the stakes in a bet, as the money or item of value being offered in a bet, around 1600. These wagers were often placed on a post so that all parties to the bet could observe and later have easy access to them. This function was later fulfilled by an independent person who would hold the wagers until the bet had been won, referred to as the “stakeholder”. This then led to the word “stakes” being used to refer to the wagers themselves by the 1580s, leading to the idea that someone with a stake in a bet held an interest in the outcome of that bet, meaning that they could win or lose their stake. This was then used more widely in 1784, meaning that to have a stake in something is to “have an interest in the turn of events, have something to gain or lose" (Online Etymological Dictionary, 2019). It is this meaning that was used by Freeman (1984) to define stakeholders as being those who are affected by or can affect a decision” (Freeman, 1984). Crucially, in this definition, a stakeholder is not only affected by a turn of events or decision, but may alternatively (or also) be able to affect the decision or influence the turn of events.

By tracing the etymology of the word from its use in betting to Freeman’s (1984) definition, it is possible to see that this was not explicitly linked to its use by colonialists to stake out and lay claim to Indigenous lands. However, it is clear that the word should be avoided when working with Indigenous groups, and there is an argument for avoiding the word more generally as part of the wider decolonisation of research. Whether intended by Freeman (1984) or not, the concept of a stake is something that is owned, and that may be held, possessed or hoarded. These are Western ways of being that are at odds with Indigenous concepts of sharing, and by using the word "stakeholder" to describe those who have an interest in an issue, we use a Western term that implicitly normalises Western ways of being as the norm in research.

In this context, it has been suggested that stakeholders should instead be referred to as “partners” or “rightsholders” (e.g. Government of British Columbia, 2021). However, the word “partner” is not a suitable substitute, as it only implicitly conveys the meaning of being affected by a decision or turn of events (because a partner is co-invested in the outcome). It does not convey the idea that the partner could simply have the power to influence a decision or event for example by acting as a gatekeeper. Moreover, it is difficult to apply the word partner to anything other than a relationship, so you could be a partner in an initiative but not in an issue, landscape or event. The same issue applies to “rightsholder”, as this cannot apply to an issue or event. An alternative may be to use “interested parties” or “interest groups”, but this too does not convey the relative influence of different groups or how they might be impacted by an issue.

This leaves a cumbersome alternative of using the definition of the term (those who are affected by or can affect a decision or issue) rather than using the word itself. In my most recent paper, Reed and Rudman (2022), I adopted this approach by replacing the word “stakeholder” with “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) (following my 3i’s approach to stakeholder analysis which considers interest, influence and impact).

One limitation of this approach is the implication that “groups” are human, when many decisions and issues also affect non-human species. 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. As such, “interested/affected parties” might be a more inclusive option. The terminology of interested and/or affected follows Freeman’s (1984) definition of the term stakeholder, and by using the word “affected”, we implicitly conveyed the concepts of both influence and impact, both of which could be perceived as either positive or negative by different groups. Alternatively, our use of “non-academic research partners” in Reed and Rudman (2022) conveys equality between partners whilst denoting their different backgrounds in relation to research. While this may be useful in relation to research impact however, the use of a negative prefix may still imply the superiority of academic partners, so alternatives still need to be considered.

This has led me to the conclusion that “relevant parties” might be a suitable alternative 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, and most people are familiar with the term “relevant parties” without having to consult a dictionary or the literature.

The goal of my next paper is to enable "stakeholder analysis" (about the 3i's approach) to be used as a tool for inclusion, but to be truly successful in centering excluded and marginalised groups in participatory processes, it is necessary to decolonise these processes and the systems they are part of. And ultimately that means re-thinking our use of the word "stakeholder".

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Find out more in the Alternatives to the word 'stakeholder' blog post



Thanks to Prof Laurie Prange for useful feedback on an earlier draft of this blog. I am still on a journey with this, but hopefully this blog is closer now to being on the right side of history.

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