Interconnectedness and the web of accountabilities: Humboldtian approaches to social and environmental accounting

Othmar Manfred Lehner*, Orthodoxia Kyriacou

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: Current accounting practice tends to split environmental complexities into quantifiable, codified elements, producing codified simplifications of the “complex” in pursuit of environmental externalities. This has led to standardization, but has done little to motivate organizations to engage in more environmentally-aware behavior that transcends the coercive dimensions of codification. The work of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) can bring new insights and perspectives to social and environmental accounting (SEA). In discussing Humboldt's philosophy of understanding the interconnectedness between people, their contexts (cultures) and their environment, the authors contribute to the emerging SEA literature on notions of interconnectedness and the web of accountabilities. The authors also explore how a Humboldtian approach may help break through the current epistemological boundaries of SEA by combining accurate measurement with imagery to make the “complex” manageable whilst embracing interconnectedness and hermeneutics. Design/methodology/approach: In this conceptual paper, the authors humbly draw on Humboldt's legacy and explore the underlying philosophical assumptions of Humboldtian science. The authors then contrast these with current SEA approaches in the literature and derive new insights into their intentionality and practical use.
Findings: Re-examining Humboldt's pioneering work enables us to pinpoint what might be missing from current SEA approaches and debates. Humboldt upheld an “ethics of precision,” which included both measurement accuracy and qualitative relevance, and combined hands-on scientific fieldwork with the aesthetic ideals and interconnectedness of the age of Romanticism. Drawing on Humboldtian science, the authors propose focusing on the interconnectedness of nature and humanity, embracing the qualitative and hermeneutical and including aesthetics and emotion in environmental visualizations.
Originality/value: The paper elucidates why and how Humboldtian science might inform, guide and enhance the emancipatory potential of SEA in the 21st century. Specifically, the authors discuss Humboldt's approach of linking accurate measurement with imagery to convey a sense of interconnectedness.

Original languageEnglish
Peer-reviewed scientific journalAccounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal
Issue number6
Pages (from-to)1529-1553
Number of pages25
Publication statusPublished - 21.03.2023
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article - refereed


  • 512 Business and Management
  • Accountability
  • Historical accounting research
  • Humboldt
  • Interconnectedness
  • Social and environmental accounting (SEA)

Areas of Strength and Areas of High Potential (AoS and AoHP)

  • AoS: Financial management, accounting, and governance


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