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Assessing the Potential for Agonistic Engagement Among Accountants: A quasi-experimental repeated Q study of social and environmental reporting

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Version 1 2021-11-23, 00:54
posted on 2023-09-26, 01:35 authored by Sorola, Matthew

A number of writers have recently criticised a perceived narrowness in accountants’ understanding of their profession. In particular, they claim that the predominant focus on shareholders and capital markets may be at the expense of wider public interests that accounting should serve. As accountants engage increasingly with a variety of complex and politically contentious issues, there is cause for concern regarding their capacity to represent and engage with non-financial interests. Some of these concerns are reflected in ongoing debates regarding social and environmental reporting (SER). Accountants are important players in the SER field. They have high-profile roles as self-proclaimed ‘thought leaders’ in areas such as sustainability and integrated reporting, and are increasingly involved in developing SER concepts and practices, discussion papers and best practice guidance. These technologies increasingly rely on, and are legitimised by, their incorporation of a plurality of perspectives. However, both academics and civil society groups have raised concerns that professional accounting bodies are too closely aligned with business interests, and prioritise ‘business case’ (BC) understandings of concepts such as SER, which favour shareholder-oriented perspectives. As in other areas of policy controversy, the capacity to engage with a plurality of perspectives is important because of its impact on, inter alia, the issues that are recognised, how problems are conceived and responded to, and which or whose perspectives are prioritised.  While prior research has explored management and stakeholder perspectives, there has been very little research to date on accountants’ perspectives on SER. Relatedly, relatively little is known about accountants’ abilities to incorporate a multiplicity of views when attempting to engage with complex issues. This study seeks to fill this gap. My research was designed as a quasi-experimental investigation that uses Constructive Conflict Methodology (CCM) and Q methodology (QM) to examine divergent perspectives of SER among three groups of accountants: academics, practitioners, and students. In particular, my research explores the use of CCM as a framework, which when implemented via QM, can help operationalise the theoretical developments of an agonistic approach to critical dialogic accounting (CDA). Drawing on applications of CCM and QM in political theory and policy analysis, my research design is divided into two distinct phases. Phase One focuses on identifying and understanding the range of perspectives among participants regarding SER. Informed by this understanding, Phase Two develops a workshop, the SER Dialogue, to bring together participants who are representative of the diverse perspectives identified.  In Phase One, 34 participants’ perspectives of SER were explored through a mix of semi-structured interviews, questionnaires and QM. The participants evidenced a range of diverse understandings of SER, with three general approaches identified from participants’ Q data: the Critical (F1(CR)), Business Case (F2(BC)) and Incremental Change (F3(INC)) approaches. These general categorisations helped identify differences, inconsistencies and contradictions in the participants’ ideological orientations and illustrated the contested discursive landscape within which SER is conceptualised. Participants’ alignment with each general category also identified possible constraints in their capacity to recognise and understand divergent perspectives. Informed by these insights, Phase Two focused on developing a discursive space for agonistic pluralist engagement (the SER Dialogue) with a group of participants, representing the three diverse perspectives. Ultimately, these participants had both a larger number and magnitude of shifts in their perspective of SER compared to a control group. There was also a general increase in alignment with F1(CR), with many participants demonstrating the development of critically pluralist and reflexive understandings. These findings illustrate the potential for agonistic pluralist engagement to develop accountants’ capacity for pluralist engagement with perspectives surrounding complex and politically contentious issues, while also enabling resistance to the hegemony of BC perspectives within the field of accounting.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License


Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

School of Accounting and Commercial Law

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Alternative Title

Assessing Agonistic Engagement

Victoria University of Wellington School

Victoria Business School (Faculty of Commerce)


Brown, Judy; Dillard, Jesse