Ian Thomson, Jan Bebbington and Matias Laine
Convenor, from the Latin convenire – to come together, meet together, assemble; unite, join, combine; with a transitive sense of calling together and causing to assemble.
Ian Thomson (CSEAR Convenor 2012-2023)
CSEAR has been ever present on my academic journey from the frantic 22 contact hours a week teaching post to full-time director of a research centre. A journey with far too many twists and turns to recount in a blog and polite company, but at its core, doing a job that I love and continue to love. But there is no doubt that the highlight was being elected convenor of CSEAR Council, even more so as it was bestowed by peers for whom I have the utmost respect and admiration. Convening the Council was an opportunity to pay back some of my intellectual debt and a way to pay forward, co-producing with hundreds of scholars a community committed to social, environmental and economic transformation. The collective action of this community is needed more than ever as we are confronted by intolerable social injustice and cascading environmental catastrophes. I have been fortunate to walk with that community from the margins of the accounting academy to a respected international academic network, with members from and conferences held all over the world.
One of the proudest things I witnessed was paradoxically the decentring of the Centre. As CSEAR emerged from the shadows on conventional accounting scholarship, there was a need for a single rallying point, a place of refuge for accounting scholars, to build capacity, develop our methodology and a safe place to experiment and fail. On reflection, like many others, I cringe at some of my earlier work that I thought was pushing boundaries, but was in reality, poorly thought-out research projects and papers. But that trying, testing, failing and occasionally succeeding amongst critical friends is core to the CSEAR ethos. Honest, open feedback, appreciating possibilities accompanied by critical commentary is what CSEAR strives to provide, and we are all the better for that. Trust me, being convenor does not exempt you from that criticism! Something I take as a mark of a vibrant community.
But as the community grew alongside the scale of the social and environmental crisis, it was not possible or desirable to channel everything through a remote, albeit beautiful, part of Scotland. The key to developing the Centre as an empowering network was to support and encourage the emergence of locally relevant learned societies in South America, North America, Australasia, France, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Africa (with more under consideration) in order to facilitate development of the field through dialogue, experimentation and learning. But to do so in a way that connects the global community of social and environmental accounting academics in an inclusive, engaging and coherent fashion. A balancing act which is a little harder than it seems. However, the nourishing and flourishing of these other de-centres remains a source of pride and intellectual renewal. A nourishing and flourishing achieved with virtually no money, built from the passion and sweat of willing volunteers.
It has been a tumultuous period of office – from the fallout of the global financial crisis, age of austerity, rise of populism, internet madness, Covid, climate emergencies and culture wars. It has also been a period where the recognition of the social injustice and environmental emergencies has moved from the periphery to become mainstream. Who would have thought in 1991 that sustainable accounting would form part of professional accounting syllabus or that professional accounting bodies would commit to become net zero (a commitment we need to hold them accountable for!).
It has also been a period punctuated with loss. A period of sadness as we lost our founder, architects of the now, inspirational scholars and damn fine human beings. Individuals, giants in our field, taken far too soon with much still to give. Many tears were shed and many more will be in the future. Life is cruel and unpredictable, but it was the strength and love within the community that kept us going. Not just ticking over or coping but developing and enhancing our capacity to deliver on CSEAR’s purpose and values. Evidence of this growing capacity is evident and experienced at each CSEAR event. Innovative scholarship, inventive research design, intellectual achievements coupled with knowledge sharing and practical impact.
My abiding memories of convening the Council is laughter, companionship, commitment and collective endeavour. Productive engagement with many friends, friends with a shared purpose and passion for fighting against social and environmental injustice through the medium of accounting and finance. That may seem a strange sentence to many and a strange transformational medium. But as time has gone on and having the privilege of sharing insights from so many respected and inspirational scholars, I remain convinced of the dark power of accounting and finance and the urgent need to transform this powerful practice. Even if it is just to stop its promotion and perpetuation of unacceptable, unsustainable ways of being.
There is a saying in martial arts that if you teach your pupils to be a good as you are, you are only half a teacher. You are a good teacher when your pupils surpass your ability. CSEAR is both a brilliant and dialogic teacher, and I know that all future convenors will maintain that tradition, updating it to changing circumstances and emerging crises. I will finish by expressing my enormous gratitude to all involved with CSEAR for the opportunity to simultaneously teach and learn and play a useful part in this awesome community.
Jan Bebbington (Co-Convenor, 2023 onwards)
There is an oversized sense of responsibility that comes with taking on a role which has been outstandingly executed by the person who preceded you in guiding and shaping an institution that you believe in. At the same time, following Ian (a very longstanding co-author, intellectual buddy and friend) in custodianship of CSEAR is also a joy. My connection with CSEAR has been through several incarnations and will (I am sure) continue to evolve.
Rob Gray, David Collison and I worked together at the University of Dundee when CSEAR was established in the early 1990s, and I have been part of the intellectual and institutional journey of social/environmental accounting ever since. As Ian as alluded to, CSEAR was first conceived of as a safe space for colleagues to flourish who had little by way of support in their home institutions. While this nurturing purpose remained central, CSEAR evolved to become a shaper of the social, environmental and sustainability accounting field engaging with policy, practice and academic communities: CSEAR members have been institutional entrepreneurs in many settings across the globe. Moreover, I perceive that the community stands on the cusp of another critical phase in its development with sustainability concerns having moved into the mainstream (with the angst that being in the mainstream sometimes engenders after so long on the margins).
Seeing a larger number of scholars addressing sustainability issues can be disconcerting, but I am firmly of the belief that the CSEAR collective has an even greater role to play in bringing insights from our long history to bear on contemporary debates (while resisting the temptation to think we have seen it all before); embracing new practical and intellectual challenges from integrating social/environmental insights into systems that remain somewhat blind to these factors; and doing so at a speed that might start to match the urgency for a transition to a just and safe operating space for humanity. Having a secure intellectual community from which to gain insight, seek support and test out ideas that may be critical to the future is where CSEAR excels and I am looking forward to continuing my long association with our community as we go forward.
Matias Laine (Co-Convenor, 2023 onwards)
The first CSEAR conference I attended in Dundee in 2004 was a memorable one for me. I made new friends, met scholars whose work I had been reading through the early stages of my PhD studies, and experienced the friendly and energizing vibe of a small community, clearly passionate about the things I cared about. Towards the end of the event, I recall sitting at the back (no surprise there, this is where you continue to find me) of a lecture room and listening with awe as some established academics called Jan Bebbington and Ian Thomson went through their presentation. Engagement, theorizing, dialogics, Friere. Having trouble comprehending, I looked up at their knowledge and the ideas they spoke about. While I did not instantly dare to approach them and ask about the things I found puzzling, it was presentations like this, together with the lovely people and overarching feel, that made me come back soon again. And again. And then never leave.
Becoming the Co-Convenor of CSEAR feels surreal. CSEAR has been my academic home for the past 20 years. A place where I have presented some bizarre initial research ideas which never went anywhere. A community offering the space to exchange thoughts and reflect on whatever has been going on in the academia and beyond. At CSEAR I have over the years had the chance to serve the community in different roles, be that as a council member, conference organizer or with the Social and Environmental Accountability Journal. Throughout, however, I have always felt that there were mentors around, that somehow the community was looking over and making sure that things were in order, that a youngster like me would not mess things up. And now, all of a sudden, I have the honour to serve the community as Co-Convenor after being elected by great colleagues. Amongst the various tasks ahead, I am already thinking about the opportunity to speak at opening of the forthcoming CSEAR Conference, which I know will be both an enormous privilege and a great challenge for me (cannot do that from the back).
Similarly to Ian and Jan, I have also experienced the community and intellectual collective of CSEAR evolve over the years. The practices of CSEAR also keep developing, as the institutional environment evolves and the expectations of our membership change. Take our conference in St Andrews as an example: for many years, the CSEAR conference was capped in size, with the intention to maintain a friendly atmosphere and homely feel. Overtime, as the community has grown, steps have been taken to develop CSEAR’s annual flagship event. The number of delegates we can accommodate has grown significantly, we now take full papers alongside abstract submissions and we have experimented with different types of sessions in seeking to stimulate debate and keep the conference environment vivid and lively. The Emerging Scholars Colloquium, this year in its 10th iteration, has become established as a regular and significant feature of the meeting. Fringe events, such as the ECoP4 this August, take place almost every year around the St Andrews conference. These are signs of how the community has evolved. We will continue to explore new opportunities in an effort to make the most of the carbon, time and money we use to get to the beautiful, but indeed remote, part of Scotland. Here, it is also worth noting that all these experiments, initiatives and developments have arisen from the community, with active CSEAR members suggesting that perhaps we could try something different, and subsequently volunteering their time and energy to make things happen. This illustrates the value and power of the community, in which people share the passion for sustainability.
Alongside striving for academic excellence and seeking to find ways of policy relevance, I find it extremely important that we all put in effort to maintain the friendly ethos prevalent at all CSEAR conferences around the world. For many, the need for a safe haven has not disappeared, and there continues to be considerable need for support and mentorship in the community. While it feels odd, I am aware that there are young scholars in the community who have read my work and would be interested in having a chat, but hesitate to approach me at the conference – just like I back in the day in Dundee hesitated to approach Ian and Jan. Fostering the friendly ethos, I hope, encourages people to approach each other and facilitates our engagement as equals, as human beings with a shared purpose and passion. The various events CSEAR members organize provide each of us with opportunities to get to know people, some of whom might perhaps turn into one’s collaborators years later. I have experienced this first hand myself, as several of the young colleagues I got to know and grow up with at CSEAR events during my time as a fledgeling PhD student have since become great co-authors and beloved friends for me. This is one of the many things for which I remain forever grateful to the CSEAR community, and as a Co-Convenor I hope to be able to give back by ensuring that CSEAR events remain venues for critical scholarly conversation with a strong community ethos for many years to come.