Reflecting on our Language: Stakeholder

Published: December 16, 2022

Written by: Sarah Bentley

“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.” -Angela Carter

The Austin Campus Diversity & Inclusion Committee is committed to sharing best practices that foster an inclusive environment and encourage open and honest communication. This includes confronting the systems and policies that have perpetuated generational injustice and health inequities. One way to approach this is by addressing the language we use daily, both in our professional work as researchers and in our personal interactions outside of work. The words and phrases we use matter and shape the interactions we have within our communities and work spaces. For the first Reflecting On Our Language series, we explore the term stakeholder.

Stakeholder is a term that is ubiquitous in public health research, but is it an innocuous term? The word actually has a colorful past that is offensive to certain populations, particularly indigenous communities. With Native American Heritage Month having just ended, it’s a great time to dig into this topic a little more.

Merriam?Webster's online dictionary defines “stakeholder” as “one who is involved in or affected by a course of action.” Typically when public health researchers and practitioners use the term stakeholder, the reality is we are often purposely empowering those who may have been excluded from decision-making in the past. We are turning the table and making stakeholders of individuals and communities who haven’t had a voice. While our intent with “stakeholder” is one of inclusivity and representation, it is imperative to understand any inadvertent use of offensive and insensitive language the term brings.

When people think of stakes, they may conjure either gambling or sharp sticks. In gambling and betting, a stakeholder is someone who holds all the wagers (money) until the bet is resolved (won/lost). On its own, this association could be problematic due to the power differential between the one holding the money and those without.

Historically, the term stakeholder has covetous connotations and has been used by people in power or the “holders.” Merriam-Webster also defines stakeholder as “a person holding property or owing an obligation that is claimed by two or more adverse claimants and who has no claim to or interest in the property or obligation.” This definition seems to have roots in colonialism – settlers would drive wooden stakes in the ground to literally stake their claim on indigenous land. The term has also been used in mining prospecting in which one would drive four stakes in the corners of the property they wanted to claim. Obviously, this definition of stakeholder is problematic and sheds light on a situation in which public health researchers should reflect on intention versus impact. 

So, what are some alternatives? Depending on the target population some options may include partners, community collaborators, or community partners. Other examples suggested on the CDC’s Preferred Terms page include: contributors, community, community members, community impacted, community affected, community of solution, coalition members, allies, colleagues, clients, advocacy groups, interested parties/groups, implementing partners, working partners, and funders.

As a research center and school of public health, we have a responsibility to interrupt any practices that may perpetuate harm and/or stigmatize any community, including language use within our public health practice and research.