Stakeholder analysis: power, legitimacy and urgency

Purpose:

  • To describe a way of identifying relevant stakeholders
  • To provide a way of prioritising which stakeholders to engage with
  • To specifically examine this stakeholder analysis method in a research context.

Description: The framework by Mitchell and colleagues (1997) presents a definition of stakeholders, describes how the attributes of power, legitimacy and urgency can be used to identify relevant stakeholders and shows how prioritising which stakeholders to engage with can be based on whether and how these attributes are combined. The framework was developed in a business context, with adaptations required for a research context (not presented in the original) briefly described. 

Definition of stakeholders

Business definition: “A stakeholder in an organisation is (by definition) any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organization’s objectives” (Freeman, 1984, p. 46).

Research-relevant definition: Stakeholders are those affected by the problem being researched and those in a position to do something about it (Bammer, 2019).

Stakeholders can include “people, groups, neighbourhoods, organizations, institutions, societies, and even the natural environment.” (Mitchell et al., 1997, p. 855).

Identifying relevant stakeholders

A key challenge in business and research is identifying which stakeholders are relevant. A systematic way of doing this is through considering who has power, legitimacy and urgency.

Power has three dimensions:

  • Coercive – “based on the physical resources of force, violence or restraint”
  • Utilitarian – “based on material or financial resources”
  • Normative – “based on symbolic resources,” such as prestige, esteem, love and acceptance.

One attribute for identifying relevant stakeholders is therefore whether they have or can marshall coercive, utilitarian or normative means to impose their will. Quotations above from Mitchell et al. (1997), p. 865, based on Etzioni (1964).

Legitimacy can have its base at the individual, organisational or societal level and implies a desirable social good. Examples relevant to choosing stakeholders in research are:

  • An individual stakeholder who clearly works for the good of others rather than their own self interest
  • A community group that has transparent governance and clear mechanisms for representing the community’s views, rather than an entity that claims to be a ‘community group,’ but in essence represents only one or two individuals
  • A societal stakeholder such as a democratically elected government, rather than a military junta.

There is also a trickier area, which is when legitimate entities act in illegitimate ways. For example, governments, businesses, civil society groups and individuals can act in fraudulent ways or put profit or self-interest above the public good. The marketing of tobacco and gambling are two examples.

A second attribute for identifying stakeholders is therefore the desirable social good that they represent. While legitimacy is often entangled with power, it is important to treat it separately.

Urgency is the “degree to which stakeholder claims call for immediate attention.” (Mitchell et al., 1997, p. 867). In a research-context, a third attribute for identifying stakeholders is therefore to look for those for whom understanding and/or acting on the problem is urgent.

This analysis helps identify “who or what really counts.” (Mitchell et al., 1997). It is also important to identify not only actual but also potential power, legitimacy and urgency and to note that these characteristics can change over time.

Prioritising stakeholders

Stakeholders are then mapped according to how they rate on each attribute. A Venn diagram such as that shown in the figure below (from Mitchell et al., 1997) can be helpful.

In the research context, it is useful to think about three roles for stakeholders: being an advisor (eg., on an advisory board), being a participant (eg., being consulted or collaborating on part of the research) and being a co-producer of the research (ie being fully involved in all the research decisions and undertakings). Which roles are relevant will depend on the specifics of the research and the stakeholders.

Highly salient stakeholders (high power, legitimacy and urgency): The most important or “highly salient” stakeholders are those are those who rate high on all three characteristics of power, legitimacy and urgency. These are “definitive” stakeholders (group 7 in the figure).

In the business context, “managers have a clear and immediate mandate to attend to and give priority to” the claims of definitive stakeholders.

In the research context, definitive stakeholders have the greatest call on being able to influence the direction of the research and the research processes, through advisory boards, participation or co-production.

Expectant stakeholders (high in 2 of the 3 characteristics of power, legitimacy and urgency): Next in importance or “expectant” are those who rate high on two of the three characteristics:

  • High power and high legitimacy characterises “dominant” stakeholders (group 4)
  • High legitimacy and high urgency characterises “dependent” stakeholders (group 5)
  • High power and high urgency characterises “dangerous” stakeholders (group 6).

Dominant stakeholders (high power and legitimacy): In the business context, these stakeholders “matter” to managers and there are often mechanisms in place to maintain good relations with them. In the research context, similarly, it can be argued that dominant stakeholders should have a significant call on being able to influence the direction of the research and the research processes, through advisory boards, participation or co-production.

Dependent stakeholders (high legitimacy and urgency): These stakeholders are characterised as ‘dependent’ because they depend on those with power to support them in achieving what they think is important. In business this can be other stakeholders or the firm’s managers. In the research context, these stakeholders are often those affected by the problem. Researchers themselves often ensure that these stakeholders are included and try to reduce power differentials among different stakeholder groups (and the researchers themselves) so that these dependent stakeholders are also influential.

Dangerous stakeholders (high power and urgency): Stakeholders who lack legitimacy often resort to coercion, which makes them dangerous. In the business context they may use tactics that hold the firm to ransom, such as hacking and adverse publicity. In the research context an example is stakeholders whose vested interests are threatened by the research, who may, for example, seek to discredit the research and/or the researchers.

Latent stakeholders (high in 1 of the 3 characteristics of power, legitimacy and urgency): Least important or “latent” are those who only rate high on one characteristic:

  • High power only characterises “dormant” stakeholders (group 1)
  • High legitimacy only characterises “discretionary” stakeholders (group 2)
  • High urgency only characterises “demanding” stakeholders (group 3).

Whether or not these stakeholders are taken into account depends on the time and energy that managers (in a business context) or researchers (in a research context) have. They are often worth keeping an eye on in case they develop a second characteristic over time. The first two groups of stakeholders also often have little interest or motivation to get involved in the business or research. ‘Demanding’ stakeholders may seek to influence the research, but with no power or legitimacy, may be treated as an annoyance. An example in a research context is a lone individual concerned about a particular problem who uses various means to try to get researchers interested.

The diagram and analysis can also be helpful to stakeholders in figuring out how to position themselves to be more influential.

 

stakeholder typology - attributes present

 

References:
Bammer, G. (2019) Key issues in co-creation with stakeholders when research problems are complex. Evidence and Policy, 15, 3: 423-435. URL (DOI) https://doi.org/10.1332/174426419X15532579188099

Freeman, R. E. (1984). Strategic management: A stakeholder approach. Pitman: Boston, United States of America

Mitchell, R. K., Agle, B. R. and Wood. D. J. (1997). Toward a Theory of Stakeholder Identification and Salience: Defining the Principle of Who and What Really Counts. Academy of Management Review, 22, 4: 853-886. URL (DOI): http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/259247

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Posted: June 2016
Last modified: March 2020