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Legitimacy theory: Despite its enduring popularity and contribution, time is right for a necessary makeover
Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to reflect upon the contributions made to the social and environmental accounting literature by papers that comprised a 2002 Special Issue of Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal (AAAJ) entitled social and environmental reporting and its role in maintaining or creating organisational legitimacy. This paper will also provide insights into the origins of legitimacy theory as used in the social and environmental accounting literature as well as providing reflections about the strengths, and shortcomings, of the theory. Suggestions are made with respect to the ongoing application, and development, of legitimacy theory.
Design/methodology/approach: As a commentary, this paper utilises a review of the social and environmental accounting and institutional literature across a number of decades to reveal insights about the development and use of legitimacy theory as a basis to explain social and environmental reporting practices. Citation data are also used to indicate the potential impact that the papers in the 2002 Special Issue had upon subsequent research.
Findings: This commentary shows that the 2002 Special Issue is the most highly cited issue in the history of AAAJ. It also shows that individually, some of the papers in the Special Issue represent some of the most highly cited papers in the social and environmental accounting literature. The commentary provides arguments to suggest that the development of legitimacy theory is in need of further refinement, and suggests a way in which this refinement might take place.
Research limitations/implications: This paper is largely based on the opinions of one researcher, and the evidence presented in the paper is selected on the basis that it is deemed sufficient to support the opinions being projected. The paper also relies on citation data as an indicator of “impact”. The implication of the research is that it identifies a “way forward” for the development of theory applicable to the understanding of organisational social and environmental reporting practices.
Originality/value: The study provides evidence to show that the 2002 Special Issue was significant within the context of AAAJ, and also within the context of the evolution of the social and environmental accounting literature. The description of the history of the development of legitimacy theory, and of the theory’s subsequent application, provides a solid impetus for future refinements to the theory.
Publication titleAccounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal
PublisherEmerald Publishing Limited
Place of publicationUnited Kingdom
Rights statementCopyright 2019 Emerald Publishing Limited