Accounting’s past, present and future: the unifying power of history

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Institutional history

During the past 15 years or so there has been a strong focus in historical accounting research on the professionalisation of accounting. Researchers in Anglo-American countries have continued to examine the professional accounting project in historical contexts, while the formation and early development of the modern accounting profession in Scotland and the export of pioneering Scottish accountants continue to attract considerable scholarly enquiry (see, for example, Lee, 2000, 2006a, 2006b and Walker, 1995, 1996, 2003a).18 More noticeably, however, a number of accounting historians since the late 1990s have examined the professional project in the non-Anglo-American world, in countries such as Brunei Darussalam (Yapa, 1999), China (Hao, 1999; Xu and Xu; 2003, Yee, 2009), India (Verma and Gray, 2006; Sidhu, 2010), Jamaica (Bakre, 2005, 2006), Kenya (Sian, 2006, 2007), Malaysia (Susela, 1999), Nigeria (Uche, 2002; Okike, 2004), the Philippines (Dyball and Valcarcel, 1999; Dyball, Poullaos and Chua, 2007), Sri Lanka (Yapa, 2006) and Trinidad and Tobago (Annisette, 1999, 2000, 2003).19 Many of these studies have examined the professional-state engagement with Britain (also see Poullaos, 2009). Some studies have examined race as a determinant of professionalisation in certain countries in the context of British colonisation (see, for example, Annisette, 1999, 2000, 2003; Bakre, 2005, 2006; and Sian, 2006, 2007), while Sidhu (2010) investigated caste as a determinant of professionalisation of accounting in India. A recent volume entitled Accountancy and Empire: The British Legacy of Professional Organization (Poullaos and Sian, 2010) has explored the professionalisation of accountancy in key constituent territories of the British Empire (also see Parker, 2005). While recognising the growing number of studies concerned with race as a determinant of the professionalisation of accounting, Walker (2008, p. 304) referred to a “disturbing tendency in the non Anglo-American” histories of professionalisation as being “not as indigenously sensitised as they might be” (also see Poullaos, 1999).20

Apart from referring to the growing number of accounting history studies adopting race as an orientation, Walker (2008) also addressed the other two elements of the “trinity” of bases of exclusion and oppression, namely gender and class. The gender research agenda in accounting history is seen as underdeveloped, with scholarship in the field remaining “in the ‘pioneer’ and ‘recovery’ phases of feminist and gender history” (Walker, 2008, p. 307). Recent investigations focusing on gender include Cooper (2010), on the campaign by women in Australia to gain admission to professional accounting bodies, and Emery, Hooks and Stewart (2002) and Devonport (2008), on the development of the status of women within the New Zealand profession.21 With reference to the northern hemisphere, McKeen and Richardson (1998) reported on the entry of women into the Canadian accounting profession, while Shackleton (1999) examined gender segregation in Scottish chartered accountancy. Walker (2003b) himself considered how bookkeeping in Britain had been regarded as a mainly female occupation. Turning to research on accounting and class, Walker (2008, p. 307) noted that class “merits attention by accounting historians”, but observed that accounting historians “have had even less to say” on class than on gender. Hammond, Clayton and Arnold (2009) have included class as a factor in their examination of South Africa’s transition from apartheid during the last quarter of the twentieth century, when the professional project excluded the majority of the population from the ranks of the profession on the basis of race and class. Lifestyle, status and occupational differentiation have been explored in the context of Victorian accountancy in Britain (Edwards and Walker, 2010).

Brian West of the University of Ballarat was awarded the 2008 Notable Contributions to Accounting Literature Award, sponsored by the American Accounting Association and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, for his book Professionalism and Accounting Rules (West, 2003).22 Taking a historical perspective and embedding his investigation in the literature of the “sociology of the professions”, West argued that the accounting profession struggles to administer its occupational authority and, in the absence of a solid cognitive foundation, has instead turned to the regulatory fiat of “accounting standards”, thus leading to the institutionalisation of deficient technical practices. Accounting rules become the goal rather than a means to an end. Sterling (2004, p. 76) described West (2003) as “the best book on accounting I have ever read”, while Staubus (2004, p. 156) stated that West “has made a masterful analysis of a problem of great importance to the accounting profession”. The development of international accounting standards themselves has been subject to in-depth investigation, especially by Camfferman and Zeff (2007) in a history of the International Accounting Standards Committee (IASC), and also by Bocqueraz and Walton (2006) who examined the roles of Henry Benson, Douglas Morpeth and Wally Olsen in the creation of the IASC. Rutherford (2007) has provided a similar in-depth history of the UK’s Accounting Standards Committee.

Official histories continue to be published to celebrate anniversaries or milestones within the accounting profession (see, for example, Linn, 1996 and Schneider and Westoll, 2004 in the case of Australia and South Africa, respectively), but it has been uncommon for such historical accounts to be subject to critical comment or challenge. Hammond, Arnold and Clayton (2007) provided an example of critical historiography in interrogating the official history of a major South African public accounting firm, entitled Experiences in Transformation: Work in Progress, by Schneider and Westoll (2004). The silences in the firm’s own history were seen as underscoring the need for a critical investigation, involving oral history, “that not only aims to give voice to the perspectives of the less powerful, but also to reveal the social and economic conditions that produce and perpetuate unequal relations of power and social injustice” (Hammond et al., 2007, p. 275). The “history of the Australian accounting profession” by Linn (1996) emphasised the initiatives and interests of the publisher, the Australian Society of Certified Practising Accountants (now CPA Australia), one of the two major professional accounting bodies in Australia at the time of Linn’s publication. Parker (1997, p. 118) saw merit in Linn’s work as “mercifully free of sociological jargon”, but added that “more use could have been made of the insights of the literature on the sociology of professions”.

Histories of educational developments in accounting are adding to our understanding of the role of educational institutions such as universities and colleges of advanced education or polytechnics. In Australia, for instance, Juchau (2005) provided a general historical narrative of accounting in universities during the period 1955-2002, Evans and Juchau (2009) examined the role of colleges of advanced education in accounting education between 1965 and 1989, and Birkett and Evans (2005) studied the interplay between Australian universities and technical colleges in the period 1944-1951. Burrows (2006), a University of Melbourne insider, rendered an entertaining account of the history of accounting education at Victoria’s earliest university, while Clarke, Dean and Wells (2010) discussed the early years of accounting at the University of Sydney under Raymond Chambers. Such histories, however, are typically of a descriptive nature, thus rendering apt Parker’s comment on making more use of the sociology of professions literature in analysing developments in accounting education.

C&N had included studies of the regulatory process for accounting, including the development of specific accounting standards, under the heading of “institutional history”, but this is an area where research has been only piecemeal. In the special issue, the contribution of Young and Mouck (1996) addressed the importance of historical understanding in the standard-setting process. Young has continued to incorporate historical perspectives in her studies of accounting regulation (see for example Young and Williams, 2010), and other research that takes account of the historical trajectory of the standard-setting process includes the critical analysis of accounting for employee stock options undertaken by Ravenscroft and Williams (2009) and the study of the development of accounting for retirement benefits of Napier (2009c).

Institutional history, particularly historical studies of accounting’s professionalisation project, has offered researchers extensive opportunities to draw on theoretical perspectives from a wide range of disciplines. Researchers need to be aware of developments in these disciplines, rather than relying on the theoretical borrowings of earlier accounting historians. However, research into the professionalisation of accounting has been valuable in stressing the importance of such factors as race and gender, as well as class, in understanding the process in different locations, as well as broadening our knowledge of the process beyond “anglophone” countries.

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