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

Max Baker, Sven Modell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Purpose – We advance a critical realist perspective on performativity and use it to examine how novel conceptions of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) have performative effects.
Design/methodology/approach – To illustrate how our critical realist understanding of performativity can play out, we offer a field study of an Australian packaging company and engage in retroductive and retrodictive theorising.
Findings – In contrast to most prior accounting research, we advance a structuralist understanding of performativity that pays more systematic attention to the causal relationships that underpin performative tendencies. We explain how such tendencies are conditioned by pre-existing, social structures, conceptualised in terms of multiple, intersecting norm circles. We illustrate our 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 implications – Our 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.
Originality/value – 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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)930-956
JournalAccounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 24 May 2019


  • accounting
  • Corporate Social Responsibility
  • Critical Realism
  • Performativity


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