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Journal cover: Qualitative Research in Accounting & Management

Qualitative Research in Accounting & Management

ISSN: 1176-6093

Online from: 2004

Subject Area: Accounting and Finance

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Sustainable “what”? A cognitive approach to understanding sustainable development

Document Information:
Title:Sustainable “what”? A cognitive approach to understanding sustainable development
Author(s):Christine Byrch, (University of Otago, New Zealand), Kate Kearins, (Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand), Markus Milne, (University of Canterbury, New Zealand), Richard Morgan, (University of Otago, New Zealand)
Citation:Christine Byrch, Kate Kearins, Markus Milne, Richard Morgan, (2007) "Sustainable “what”? A cognitive approach to understanding sustainable development", Qualitative Research in Accounting & Management, Vol. 4 Iss: 1, pp.26 - 52
Keywords:Cognitive mapping, Leaders, New Zealand, Sustainable development
Article type:Research paper
DOI:10.1108/11766090710732497 (Permanent URL)
Publisher:Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to explore the meaning of sustainable development held by New Zealand “thought leaders” and “influencers” promoting sustainability, business, or sustainable business. It seeks to compare inductively derived worldviews with theories associated with sustainability and the humanity-nature relationship.

Design/methodology/approach – Worldviews were explored through a cognitive mapping exercise. A total of 21 thought leaders and influencers constructed maps of their understanding of sustainable development. These maps were analysed to reveal commonalities and differences.

Findings – Participant maps illustrated disparate levels of detail and complexity. Those participants promoting business generally emphasized the economic domain, accepting economic growth and development as the key to sustainable development. An emphasis on the environmental domain, the future, limits to the Earth's resources, and achievement through various radical means, was more commonly articulated by those promoting sustainability. Participants promoting sustainable business held elements of both approaches, combining an emphasis on the environmental domain and achievement of sustainable development by various reformist means.

Research limitations/implications – This study identified the range of worldviews expressed by 21 thought leaders and influencers across three main domains only – promoters of sustainability, business or both. Extending this sample and exploring how these and other views arise and are represented within a wider population could be the subject of further research.

Practical implications – Such divergence of opinion as to what connotes sustainable development across even a small sample does not bode well for its achievement. The elucidation of the worldview of promoters of sustainable business points to the need to consider more carefully the implications of environmentalism, and other aspects of sustainability, integrated into a business agenda.

Originality/value – This paper contributes to empirical research on environmental worldviews which has barely penetrated discussion of sustainability within the management and business literature. It shows cognitive mapping to be an effective technique for investigating the meaning of a conceptual theme like sustainable development.

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