A Limb, not a lens: re-thinking theory’s role in social and environmental accounting research

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This paper critiques the metaphor of theory as a ‘lens’ in social and environmental accounting (SEA) research, and proposes alternatives. The main purpose is to challenge images of SEA theories as essentially interchangeable perspectives that are more or less valid on their own terms and which provide incremental contributions to knowledge. Lens metaphors matter, therefore, insofar as they imply or cultivate this perspective. The paper begins by analysing more precisely what understandings of the function and role of SEA theory lens metaphors lead towards, and identifies conceptual and practical risks of these perspectives. The paper then proposes two alternatives: (i) A metaphor of theory as limb; and (ii) the related image – drawn from Hans-Georg Gadamer and Charles Taylor – of theories as part of ‘bodies’ of tradition rather than discrete units. The paper argues these twin images offer an embodied and engaged perspective on theory’s role that aligns more closely with SEA’s distinctive agenda to hold organisations accountable to civil society, and can also help maintain vibrant SEA communities. Where prior research advocates passion, agonism or less theory, this paper advocates more visceral and reflexive engagement with the theories and theoretical traditions our research applies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-92
Number of pages18
JournalSocial and Environmental Accountability Journal
Issue number1
Early online date19 Feb 2020
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Gadamer
  • hermeneutics
  • lens
  • social and environmental accounting
  • tradition


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