The Unbelievable in Pursuit of the Inconceivable: Empiricism and the Social Construction of Corporate Environmental Performance

Research Cluster

Speaker:Markus Milne, University of Canterbury
Date: Wednesday 12 October 2016
Time: 16:00 - 17:30
Location: Kolade Teaching Room. Building One

Further details


The focus of this paper is the perceived inadequacy of empirical work investigating corporate environmental performance and its reporting and disclosure. Ever since Wiseman (1982), social and environmental accounting academics have been aware that what companies say in their annual reports may not correlate with measures of their environmental performance. Empirical studies of performance and disclosure have continued to emerge both in the accounting and management and organization studies literatures (e.g., Clarkson et al., 2008; de Villiers et al., 2011; Cho et al., 2012). Despite the increasing use of sophisticated statistical techniques, and the increasingly scientific appearance of such work, often based on easily available “metrics” and “ratings”, this paper argues that the very notion of corporate environmental performance as constructed in social and environmental accounting research is critically misplaced.

Drawing on examples from the scientific investigation of the impact of chemical substances on birds (e.g., DDT and 1080, Carson, 1962), bees (e.g., neonicotinoids and colony collapse disorder) and the fertility of humans (the birds and the bees!) (e.g., fertility endocrine disrupters), this paper illustrates the complex and uncertain nature of the scientific understanding of chemicals on the natural world. Such complexity and contingency then provides a basis on which to shadow the crudity of approaches taken in the accounting and management disciplines. The paper carefully examines and questions the approach taken to constructing and measuring corporate environmental performance in several empirical studies in accounting. In many cases, researchers are shown to be naive realists who commit fundamental fallacies of reification and ranking (Gould, 1996): the former being to convert abstract concepts into entities (Whitehead, 1997/1925) and the latter being to order complex variation as a gradual ascending scale. To produce inter-firm and inter-temporal commensurability researchers are found to employ abstractions, reductions and aggregations, in a form of mathematicians’ aphasia (Simon, 1960), that likely remain meaningless to ecologists, toxicologists and other environmental scientists.