30th CSEAR International Congress – Day 1

The morning begins with meeting new colleagues, and having a cheerful and friendly breakfast in the halls.

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Ian Thomson welcoming us to the first day of the conference

 

We head off to the main building for the congress welcome from Ian Thomson. I am warmly invited to sit down at a table and…

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Recycled notebook, reusable water bottle and a resuable shopping bag!

Presents! Sustainable presents! It is really exciting to see sustainability in action. Although the wool keyring could have been left out, as sheep shearing could be a cruel practice.

There are so many interesting talks and sessions, I find it hard to choose which ones to attend! I decide to go see what my fellow Sheffield friend Matthew Scobie is working on. His title is Renegotiating and reimagining democractic accountability in the process of decolonisation.

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Matt’s context for his research is Ngāi Tahu, a Māori grouping in the South Island of New Zealand who worked their way down from the north, over time. Through the colonisation process Ngāi Tahu were dispossessed from their land. This wasn’t necessarily an overtly violent colonisation, but rather the liberal politics of recognition which Matt draws from Coulthard (2014).

What I really identify with, is Matt’s feeling of disconnection and his wish to reconnect with his roots. This morning at breakfast I shared my own disposession with a colleague who felt the same about her own familial parcours.

Matt defines accountability as a practice of relationships with 6 characteristsics which he sees as crucial, particularly the view that accountability posesses an obligation connected with rights and outcomes, where accoutnability is a means to an end. Matt critiques certain literature on accountability, arguing that it obscures indigenous agency and absence of self-determination.

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The next fascinating session is Matias Laine and Eija Vinnari’s paper titled: Constructing Accountability: The Role of CSR Communication in a Multi-Stakeholder Setting. I love Matias’ research together with Eija Vinnari on animal welfare and animal rights activism in Finland, so I am very pleased to meet him and attend his session.

This study is about constructing accountability and associated relationships. It looks at a Finnish state-owned enterprise and stakeholders, and the way in which forests and nature are managed. Taking a visual and spoken discourse analysis approach to disclosures of the company in this case study: Metsahallitus. In CSR literature accountability is described as “the duty to provide an account by an organisation” to people below. But, as Matias argues, there is a need to elaborate on this definition. Accountability emerges in interaction, with conflicts stemming from differing value positions, and who’s accountable to whom.

Meanings and identities emerge in negotiations between the firm and a wide variety of stakeholders who consider the organisation accountable to them. As a result, there is power and conflict in relationships characterised by discusrive competition where concensus and agreement are only momentary.

The paper investigates which linguistic means are used or have a role in how accountability and associated identities are being constructed in such a setting. The data for the research comes from interview, CSR and annual reports, web-sites, advertising, etc.

Forests have an indigenous role for Finns. This results in conflicts over forest conservation and forest policy priorities. Each year, the company asks for the views of stakeholders. However, the criticism comes from NGOs and the tourist sector. Therefore, this project is an important opportunity to examine the constitution of accountability through CSR communication in a constested multi-stakeholder setting.

We then have lunch where vegan options are very easily accessible! All plates and cutlery are resuable, and there is no single-use plastic in sight!

After lunch is a plenary I was very much looking forward to, given by Christine Cooper on “the Spirit of Capitalism, Neoliberalism and the Cannibalisation of Environmental Legislation and the Welfare State”.

Christine is a role model for me, as she takes an activist approach to her research, and engages with policy. So today, Christine asks: what is neoliberalism? Eva Chiapello in her paper from 2017 argues that it is a change in governmentality, which changes the way we see the world.

Capitalism and neoliberalism still seeks to make profit, and drive down wages. In fact,  economic inequality suffers from the worst social pathologies. Therefore, capitalism is not simply an economic entity, but is pervasive in all areas of social life.

From a Calvinist point of view espoused by Max Weber, wasting time is seen as a sin, where the purpose of life is work, creating individuals’ value only as a beingn that generates money and accumulates wealth. This would then be seen as a sign that you are among the divine, the blessed, and not the depraved that God hates. In this sense, being involved in charity work is seen as a waste of time. Thus from the very beginnings of capitalism, human beings were perceived as economic beings.

Neoliberal discourse is very powerful and makes it seem as though things are god-given and cannot be changed. But what is different about neoliberalism from capitalism? (1) first, neoliberalism seeks out to destroy the welfare state, (2) neoliberalism destroys environmental legislation, replacing it with markets, and (3) the state has been marketised and its architecture has been changed dramatically. So in the current neoliberal climate, every time there is a social problem, the government creates markets to deal with this problem.

Is neoliberalism a new form of capitalism? Christine argues it is, together with a change in governmentality and a change in regulation of markets.

After a coffee break, we go into the last session of the day. A really interesting session I’ll tell you about is by Wm. Dennis Huber who talks about social/critical/emancipatory accounting research: Its failures and prospects for redemption.

Huber’s voice echoes in the room the following rhetorical questions:

“Has SCE (he lumps social accounting, critical accounting and emancipatory accounting together) research achieved its agenda? Has anybody been emancipated lately? Has a theory of praxis made any action more effectively? So what is the reason for the agenda?”

Huber claims the “battleground”, as he terms it, is wrong, ie. academia, using “wrong weapons including wrong terminology, because they don’t have the power. Wrong enemy and wrong target – the accounting profession and corporations are not the enemy.” So who is the enemy?

According to Huber, it’s The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), not the accounting profession because it doesn’t have anything to do with accounting reporting statements. So future research, Huber suggests, should conduct research that can convince the FASB to develop standards to accounting and reporting that do not create and sustain problematic social orders. To change reporting standards you have to address the FASB directly.

Listening to this talk, I feel deceived by the title of his talk, which I interpreted will be about how we can further emancipatory accounting. I am glad to have my blog (emancipatory tool!) to be able to respond to it, after some reflection. First of all, the fact that Huber lumps social/critical/emancipatory elements together is problematic in itself and a confused point of departure. Secondly, he says SCE hasn’t emanciapted anyone, but I am an individual that has been emancipated by this wonderful opportunity to conduct my PhD in this field, and wake up every day to pursue my passion.

In respect to Huber’s comment about social and environmental accounting’s lack of social impact, I would like to invite Huber to reflect on academia and activism I wrote about. To achieve any social change, we will need all manners of engagement: lobbying, engaging with policy, joining grassroots activism, local communities, writing blogs, working with the media and devoting our lives to advancing change.

And finally, using war metaphors in his talk such as: battlefield, enemy, weapons, is not a useful discourse. While SEA critiques corporate and industry actions and disclosures, we aim to HELP industries to transform their activities and impact society in a positive way. It is only as a collective, a whole plaentary collective that works together to assure mutual aid and co-survival that we can halt climate change and tackle social issues.

 

 

 

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