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

Assessing the effect of the special issue

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Assessing the effect of the special issue

In our initial call for papers, we emphasised the importance of theory and rigorous method for historical accounting research. Our own paper (C&N) called for “critical” and “interpretive” histories, stressing that researchers should not take for granted that accounting was merely a neutral technique. Rather, they should identify, assess and critique the ways in which accounting was potentially implicated in complex relationships of power and control, not just within the business setting but much more widely. Moreover, accounting history is not only the history of accounting techniques and ideas, alongside the history of accountants, but also involves a study of the impact of accounting on individuals, organisations and society, and an interpretive understanding of the meanings that have been attributed to accounting at different times. We wanted researchers to examine the “dark” as well as the “bright” sides of accounting, to challenge conventional narratives of accounting progress, to accept that accounting is more than simple counting and calculation. We also wanted researchers to appreciate that accounting’s past needed to be studied within its social, political, economic and environmental contexts, and that researchers should consider how accounting in the past, even if it appeared strange on the surface, might embody activities and uses with counterparts in the present day.

The review of the eight themes has therefore stressed the variety of areas that researchers have explored and the range of methods and theoretical frameworks adopted. We are, frankly, less interested in identifying “stylized facts” (Kaldor, 1961) that can be presented as the “findings” of the large body of historical accounting research that we have reviewed in the preceding section of this paper, than in the fact that, increasingly, historical accounting research around the world has embraced the need for rigorous method and theoretically informed analysis. Historical accounting researchers have declared their adoption of the theoretical ideas of Marx, Foucault, Latour, Bourdieu, Weber and other eminent scholars, as well as institutional theory, the sociology of the professions, legitimacy theory, stakeholder theory, imperialism, agency theory and positive accounting theory. Even papers that do not attach a name to their theoretical approach usually embed their archivally based findings in an analytical or explanatory framework rather than simply presenting the findings as a “factual” narrative.

Having said this, however, we would make the following general observations with respect to the eight themes identified in the original C&N paper:

  • Surviving records of business firms: the significant development of the past 15 years is that researchers have been moving beyond the business, even though long-running debates, such as the roles of accounting in measuring costs and managing people, remain a central focus of research.

  • Accounting records in business history: opportunities for greater collaboration between accounting and business historians have not been taken up to the extent that we had hoped, but there have been interesting developments in the interfaces between accounting history and management, financial and social history.

  • Biography: the contribution of H&S to the special issue particularly encouraged studies of how accounting impacted on the lives of individuals “from below”.

  • Prosopography: this approach remains under-developed in historical accounting research.

  • Institutional history: research into accounting as an occupational category has been more critical of the “traditional” professional project, emphasising class, race and gender as important factors, and escaping from the narrow focus on the USA and the British Empire.

  • Public sector accounting: this has been an increasingly important area of historical accounting research, using a wide range of theoretical lenses. Some researchers are beginning to question the usefulness of the public/private distinction in the historical context.

  • Comparative international accounting history: this is another approach that remains under-developed, although the emergence of accounting historians from a broader cross-section of countries may enhance the likelihood of international collaboration.

  • Innovative methods in accounting history: oral history is now well established, and a challenge for historical accounting researchers will be to engage fully with the digitisation of archives. Opportunities for quantitative historical research remain under-explored.

In the final substantive section of the paper, we consider some issues relating to the future of historical accounting research. Unlike our earlier paper (Carnegie and Napier, 1996), we do not identify specific themes. Instead, we look at some of the factors that may influence different approaches to research in accounting history over the next decade.

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