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

Comparative international accounting history

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Comparative international accounting history

Carnegie and Napier (2002, p. 694) defined CIAH in broad terms as “the transnational study of the advent, development and influence of accounting bodies, conventions, ideas, practices and rules”.26 Comparative research was explained as typically involving the examination of “some aspect of accounting in different countries” with the mode of comparison taking a number of forms, notably synchronic, parallel and diffusion (Carnegie and Napier, 2002, p. 695). As a means of applying CIAH, seven factors or dimensions were proposed as a framework for structuring the comparative analysis: period, places, people, practices, propagation, products and profession (Carnegie and Napier, 2002, pp. 700-701). These factors were employed in an exploratory case study of agrarian accounting in Britain and Australia in the nineteenth century. The factors were presented as a heuristic for the particular case study, and this may explain why subsequent researchers have not, as far as we can ascertain, specifically employed them as a framework for analysis in other comparative historical accounting studies.

Accounting historians, however, have long appreciated the international scope of accounting history research (see, for example, Brown, 1905, Parker, 1971, and Samuels and Piper, 1985). More recently, Carmona, Donoso and Walker (2010, p. 270), in studying the interface of accounting and international relations in the context of Anglo-Spanish relations, reiterated “the importance of identifying differences when exploring international accounting phenomena in historical contexts”. Nowadays, the international dimensions of accounting are increasingly prominent with the wide adoption of International Financial Reporting Standards, and they are subject to considerable investigation by contemporary accounting researchers and copious comment in the financial and business media. Such recent developments are firmly grounded in a tradition, across centuries, of the transfer of accounting technology between communities, nation states and geographical regions.

Comparative historical research in accounting may involve a range of frameworks or perspectives. In studying the cross-national diffusion of accounting technology, for example, some accounting historians have applied a framework based on a series of questions developed by Jeremy (1991, pp. 3-5) in examining international technology transfer (see, for example, Carnegie and Parker, 1996; Foreman, 2001; Carnegie, Foreman and West, 2006; and Samkin, 2010). These authors were concerned with the transfer of accounting technology by means of the work of particular individuals with accounting knowledge and experience, including early accounting authors in colonial contexts. Comparative research projects may also examine broad developments in particular forms of accounting between different countries, as illustrated by Boyns, Edwards and Nikitin (1997, p. x). Based on their independent prior research on industrial accounting in Britain and France, these researchers presented a parallel study comparing the birth and early development of industrial accounting in those countries in order to gain “an insight into the similarities and differences in respect to accounting integration” (Boyns et al., 1997). At a more general level, Auyeung (2002) sought to examine why “western accounting” was adopted in Japan but not in China in a comparative study of the two Asian countries in the nineteenth century. Comparative research does not just involve parallel studies of developments in different locations. It may also involve investigations of particular aspects of accounting, such as educational developments, in comparison with developments in other professions (Paisey and Paisey, 2010).

CIAH research faces several challenges. First, research across national boundaries almost certainly requires the creation of international teams of researchers, particularly where the research involves the interpretation of archival material in more than one language. Secondly, CIAH research is likely to be more expensive than research in one location (although international collaborative research may appeal to certain research funders). Thirdly, effective comparative research must be based on meaningful comparisons, and this requires considerable advance thought and a sound theoretical justification for the comparison being attempted, rather than a simple choice of two or more countries almost at random. The barriers to CIAH research have meant that the extant studies in this area have tended to be limited to countries closely located in geographical or cultural terms.

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