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Pragmatism and new directions in social and environmental accountability research

Max Baker (University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia)
Stefan Schaltegger (Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM), Leuphana University Lueneburg, Lueneburg, Germany)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 16 February 2015




The purpose of this paper is threefold. To clarify what is meant by “pragmatism” as a philosophy for social and environmental accountability (SEA) research, to survey its use within this research field and to explore how a further pursuit of pragmatism may extend this research field.


An extensive review of the SEA literature was conducted in order to determine what aspects of the philosophy of pragmatism have been used within the research. The authors organised the discussion of the literature around the pragmatist ideas of “truth” and “sensemaking”.


SEA research is a heterogeneous space in which various ideas are commonly attributed to the philosophical notion of pragmatism. However, there is a tension in the literature between seeing accounting as a medium for representing social and environmental organisational activities and a pragmatist view of accountings as a way of allowing managers and stakeholder to make sense of these same activities.

Research limitations/implications

A clearer development of the ideas of pragmatism may be used to redirect the focus of SEA research in a number of useful ways. Seeing accounting as a medium of sensemaking between organisations and their stakeholders allows the authors to widen the exploration of accounting not only to the production of reports but also their interpretation by users. The ideas of pragmatism also allow the authors to explore the ways stakeholders might affect change within organisations and how accounting may support this process rather than capture or limit it.

Practical implications

This paper concludes by providing a set of methodological prescriptions for conducting future SEA research in a way that is inspired by pragmatism. It outlines an approach to research that focuses on users and their sensemaking and encourages an exploration of the possible ways accounting may create positive change in organisations.


Overall, this paper refines what it means to follow pragmatism within SEA research. It will promote a clearer understanding of how we, as a research community, may engage with practice in more positive ways in order to facilitate corporate social responsibility.



The authors are grateful for the feedback received when presenting this paper at The University of Sydney Business School, the 2013 APIRA conference in Kobe, The Stockholm School of Economics, Manchester Business School, the University of Essex, the University of South Australia, Leuphana University and the University of Technology, Sydney. The authors also appreciate the efforts of Fiona Crawford and Zornitza Baker for their editorial assistance. Last, the authors would like to extend a special thanks to Jane Andrew for her detailed feedback.


Baker, M. and Schaltegger, S. (2015), "Pragmatism and new directions in social and environmental accountability research", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 28 No. 2, pp. 263-294.



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Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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