Micro-processes of justification and critique in a water sustainability controversy: Examining the establishment of moral legitimacy through accounting

Emilio Passetti, Leonardo Rinaldi

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To analyse the micro-processes of moral justification and critique, this paper explores how managers combine different moral principles through the use of accounting, in order to establish the moral legitimacy of water sustainability practices. Drawing on the Economies of Worth framework and based on an exploratory case study of a water utility, this paper reveals four micro-processes of justification and critique - neutralising, enlisting, summoning and sensegiving - that reflect the different ways of moral legitimation mobilised by the managers. It also reveals the presence of different orders of worth which refer to the market, industrial, civic and green moral principles, and the dynamic role of accounting as a test of worth used to combine and bring them together. The findings suggest that moral legitimacy is not necessarily a dichotomous variable, but that it operates on a continuum established by managers and negotiated through the use of accounting. The paper illuminates the role of accounting in the unfolding of moral legitimation processes, and advances the micro-analysis of moral legitimacy in sustainability accounting research. It also contributes to sustainability disclosure research by showing that external disclosure reflects internal deliberations, and together they participate in the establishing of moral legitimacy.
Original languageEnglish
Article number100907
Pages (from-to)1-23
Number of pages23
JournalBritish Accounting Review
Issue number3
Early online date12 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - May 2020


  • moral legitimacy
  • orders of worth
  • water
  • sustainability
  • micro-process
  • accounting

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