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Rethinking performativity: A critical realist analysis of accounting for corporate social responsibility

Max Baker (University of Sydney Business School, The University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia)
Sven Modell (Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 31 May 2019

Issue publication date: 18 June 2019




The purpose of this paper is to advance a critical realist perspective on performativity and use it to examine how novel conceptions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) have performative effects.


To illustrate how the authors’ critical realist understanding of performativity can play out, the authors offer a field study of an Australian packaging company and engage in retroductive and retrodictive theorising.


In contrast to most prior accounting research, the authors advance a structuralist understanding of performativity that pays more systematic attention to the causal relationships that underpin performative tendencies. The authors explain how such tendencies are conditioned by pre-existing, social structures, conceptualised in terms of multiple, intersecting norm circles. The authors illustrate their argument empirically by showing how specific conceptions of CSR, centred on the notion of “shared value”, were cemented by the interplay between the causal powers embedded in such norm circles and how this suppressed alternative conceptions of this phenomenon.

Research limitations/implications

The findings draw attention to the structural boundary conditions under which particular conceptions of CSR can be expected to become performative. Greater attention to such boundary conditions, denoting the social structures that reinforce and counteract performative tendencies, is required to further cumulative, yet context-sensitive, theory development on this topic.


The paper is the first to adopt a critical realist perspective on performativity in the accounting literature. This perspective strikes a middle path between the highly constructivist ontology, adopted in most accounting research concerned with performativity and realist criticisms of this ontological position for de-emphasising the influence of pre-existing, objective realities on performativity.



Previous versions of this paper have been presented at the 11th Workshop on Management Accounting as an Organisational and Social Practice (MASOP), Copenhagen, the 12th Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Accounting conference, Edinburgh, and research seminars at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH), Turku School of Economics and the University of Exeter. The authors are very grateful for the comments received from Jane Andrew, Oana Apostol, Terhi Chakhovich, Sabina du Rietz, Kari Lukka, Peeter Peda, Jan Pfister, Eija Vinnari and Ed Vosselman.


Baker, M. and Modell, S. (2019), "Rethinking performativity: A critical realist analysis of accounting for corporate social responsibility", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 32 No. 4, pp. 930-956.



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Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

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