Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has become a pervasive topic in the business literature, but has largely neglected the role of institutions. This introductory article to the Special Issue of Socio-Economic Review examines the potential contributions of institutional theory to understanding CSR as a mode of governance. This perspective suggests going beyond grounding CSR in the voluntary behaviour of companies, and understanding the larger historical and political determinants of whether and in what forms corporations take on social responsibilities. Historically, the prevailing notion of CSR emerged through the defeat of more institutionalized forms of social solidarity in liberal market economies. Meanwhile, CSR is more tightly linked to formal institutions of stakeholder participation or state intervention in other advanced economies. The tensions between business-driven and multi-stakeholder forms of CSR extend to the transnational level, where the form and meaning of CSR remain highly contested. CSR research and practice thus rest on a basic paradox between a liberal notion of voluntary engagement and a contrary implication of socially binding responsibilities. Institutional theory seems to be a promising avenue to explore how the boundaries between business and society are constructed in different ways, and improve our understanding of the effectiveness of CSR within the wider institutional field of economic governance.