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

What is the future for accounting history?

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What is the future for accounting history?

Accounting historians face a fundamental tension: do they see themselves primarily as accounting researchers or, more particularly, as historians? This is of practical importance because historical accounting research is almost entirely a venture undertaken in universities, and the location of a researcher in terms of institution and discipline has a significant influence on that researcher’s views as to what the subject matter and process of research should be. Walker (2009, p. 25) has suggested that “Accounting history is best understood as an expanding and maturing sub-discipline of accounting.” However, it is also possible to view accounting history in more methodological terms, as an approach to understanding accounting issues through a historical lens. Hence historical accounting research cuts across boundaries between financial accounting, management accounting, auditing, governance, social accounting, taxation and other traditional disciplinary classifications.29

Although some accounting researchers working within the historical area have had a rigorous training as historians, many, perhaps most, have acquired their knowledge of historical method and theory more informally through experience. Where disciplinary divisions are strongly enforced in an institution, historical accounting researchers may have little contact with “mainstream” historians, and PhD students undertaking historical research in accounting may receive only minimal research training that is specifically oriented towards the study of history. Although Napier (2009a, p. 45) claimed optimistically that “accounting historians have a more rigorous conception of historiographical issues, such as evidence, the role of theory, the nature of historical explanation, and the significance of narrative to the communication of history” than they did 40 years ago, it is more likely that new accounting historians are trained in qualitative social science methods rather than specifically in the methods of historical research.

Does this matter? In one sense, it does not, if accounting history has grown sufficiently to be self-sustaining within the academy. Some accounting historians will keep an eye on developments in “mainstream” history and hence will be aware of current theoretical, methodological and substantive debates that could potentially impinge on historical research within accounting. Most accounting historians, however, will assess the quality of their work by reference to the standards of the accounting discipline more generally. So long as diverse research approaches are valued within accounting scholarship, historical research will have an important place. The fear of some is that diversity in accounting research is no longer appreciated, at least in the USA, leading to apprehensions of “the quiet but discernable death of accounting history in the U.S.” (Fleischman and Radcliffe, 2005, p. 86). Future research lacking a strong grounding in history, rather than just the social sciences, may be considered irrelevant by hegemonic interests within accounting research at the same time as historians in history departments regards it as lacking in rigour.

And yet accounting is a means of recording economic and more generally quantifiable human activity and is a manifestation of the myriad social and organisational systems that, as Foucault notes, “quietly order us about” (quoted in Simon, 1971, p. 200). Hence accounting is clearly of interest to historians, sociologists, anthropologists and others outside the accounting discipline. Walker (2005a) has pointed out the many ways in which historians are using accounts as their archival materials, and, increasingly, other disciplines are aware of the importance of accounting as a recording and information processing system. Two examples of this are the discussion by James Aho (2005), a sociologist of religion, of the influence of the medieval Roman Catholic confessional on modern accounting, and the examination of seventeenth century French governmental information processing, centred on the figure of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, undertaken by the historian of ideas Jacob Soll (2009).30

Both these authors are based in the USA, suggesting that there may currently be more interest in historical accounting research outside accounting departments in US universities than within such departments. Possibly US academic accountants think that historical research in the field is too interesting (compare Whittington, 1995)? Outside the USA, historical accounting research tends to be valued in those departments that do not slavishly model themselves on prominent US accounting research groups. The growth of theoretically-informed historical research, especially among younger researchers in countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, is spreading to other parts of Europe, particularly countries with a strong accounting history tradition such as Turkey. There are still large areas of the world into which historical accounting research has hardly penetrated, such as Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, but even here we are beginning to see work emerging. Sy and Tinker (2005, 2006) have called forcefully for an abandonment of what they see as the “Euro-centric” dominance of accounting history, and call for more research in the ways of accounting in mainly oral African cultures. Napier (2009b) has reviewed historical research into accounting in the Middle East, and his call for more research into accounting in Muslim-majority countries overlaps Sy and Tinker’s own call in that much of North Africa falls within the “Islamic world” in which Napier is interested.

Historical accounting research is also likely to follow trends in more general research in accounting, particularly of the more qualitative and interpretive type. For example, Walker (2008, p. 311) studied how a growing interest in corporate social and environmental disclosures, and more generally in corporate social responsibility, has stimulated some historical studies. A significant area of growth in recent years is the notion of accountability, perhaps always implicit in studies of accounting but increasingly being discussed as a separate topic. Accountability as a “chameleon” (Sinclair, 1995) is often coupled with corporate governance, and in the legal governance literature an awareness of the possible value of a historical perspective has been promoted by various writers, including Blair (2004).31

An important motivation of historical work in corporate governance is the idea that studying the historical development of a concept or practice can provide useful insights into current thought and practices, and that this will be of value in helping to advance policy debates. Such policy-relevant research should, we believe, be encouraged more generally, because historical accounting research often focuses on processes of change in organisations and society. An understanding of the factors implicated in past change events may allow historians to evaluate current proposals for accounting reform and even to advance their own recommendations (Gomes, Carnegie, Napier, Parker and West, 2011). For example, recent debates over such notions as fair value would undoubtedly have been more informed had participants had a clearer idea of the origins and development of fair value as a term and as a concept. Historians can, therefore, help us recall knowledge of the past, including local, time-specific understandings of key concepts, that the present generation has forgotten. Unfortunately, historical reviews may emerge too late to have much impact on debate, as for example the review of inflation accounting ideas and methods by Tweedie and Whittington (1984) – a valuable study by two scholars who were later to play a significant role in international accounting standard setting, but one that emerged as the debate on inflation accounting was running out of steam. However, if published historical accounting research can have an impact on current debates, such as the question of how far accounting methods are implicated in specific business collapses (Jones, 2011) and general financial crises (Waymire and Basu, 2007), then it will have a clearer role within the discipline and benefit from increased demand for its insights.

The issues that future accounting historians are likely to have to grapple with, beyond the general acceptability of historical research in the discipline, are precisely those historiographical matters that Napier (2009a) alluded to: evidence, theory, explanation and narrative.32 The broadening of the evidence base for historical accounting research has already been mentioned, and the paper by Hammond and Sikka (1996) in the special issue helped to extend the “archive” from written to oral materials. Carnegie and Napier (2010, p. 364) have noted the many different media that have been used by researchers to gain an understanding of popular perceptions of accountants, and all of these are of potential interest to the accounting historian. How far does historical research rely on the survival of artefacts – can the call of Sy and Tinker (2005) to reduce our fixation on the archive in order to research an apparently non-literate African accounting be responded to?

Linked with the role of evidence is the problem so often identified by editors and reviewers when examining research papers (see, for example, Walker, 2008, p. 308, reinforcing inter alia Napier, 2006): “Where is the accounting?” The issue of what “counts” as accounting in its various contexts, and hence is the legitimate object of (historical) accounting research, is one that cannot, indeed should not, be resolved once and for all – we should not, through trying to delimit accounting research, construct barriers that could exclude useful future contributions. Nevertheless, it is legitimate to challenge such contributions to demonstrate how they constitute knowledge about accounting, and its implications for organisational and social functioning, rather than more generic calculations or administrative procedures.

As most historical accounting research is undertaken within accounting departments where the overarching disciplinary tradition is that of the social sciences, historical accounting researchers cannot avoid grappling with the question of how theory informs and affects their work. This may be a potential constraint on the growth of accounting history, since it seems to minimise the value of more traditional historical tasks such as the patient location and transcription of accounting records. On the other hand, accounting historians are likely to reflect on broader issues such as causation, agency and structure that more “mainstream” historians often seem to take for granted. A well-articulated theoretical position can help researchers to abstract from the particular data with which they are presented or which they uncover, to posit the key variables or factors that may be relevant to understanding and explaining the specific phenomena of interest, and to suggest relationships among those variables or factors that may be investigated. Theory is both prior to and posterior to archival work, as it indicates propositions or hypotheses that may be considered in locating, accessing and extracting material, and gives shape and generality to specific findings in increasingly broader organisational settings. Perhaps one of the most important contributions of the special issue was its emphatic endorsement of the calls for theoretically-informed accounting history research that were emerging in the early 1990s, to which many subsequent researchers in the field have responded positively.

Much explanation in history adopts a naive causal and chronological structure: event X happened because event Y happened first, or circumstances Z obtained before event X. Perhaps as a counter-weight to the dominance of causal explanation, some of the “new accounting historians” advocated a different approach to explanation, often summed up as “conditions of possibility” (Miller et al., 1991, p. 395). Here, the explanation takes the form: event X would not have happened (when it did, or perhaps at all) unless conditions A, B, C, etc. were in existence. The search for explanation modulates into a search for the required conditions of possibility, and these can often be found in temporary conjunctions of apparently disparate factors (see, for example, the seminal paper by Burchell, Clubb and Hopwood, 1985). Because of their social science backgrounds, many accounting historians have accepted the need for explanation in history to be general: particular historical events are thus seen as specific cases of some more general phenomenon. Terms and concepts that were originally offered as ways of understanding individual situations, such as “programme”, “problematisation”, “arena” and “constellation”, become explanatory frameworks that are often fruitful, but are sometimes applied unsubtly in new and possibly inappropriate contexts.

One of the main issues in understanding explanation in “mainstream” history is the extent to which the way in which history is written – the “narrative” – itself provides explanatory power. Munslow (2000, p. 121) noted how traditional historians saw their role as telling stories about what “actually happened”, the explanatory force of their stories coming from their correspondence to “reality”. Munslow (2000, p. 123) referred to Hayden White’s challenge to this view from the perspective of linguistic theory (White, 1973; see also Funnell, 1998, and Napier, 2001), and concluded that “historical explanation is not yet a settled matter.” However, the issue of narrative emerges in how accounting history is written. Historical papers often take the form of qualitative case studies, with a general introduction, a theoretical discussion (possibly referring to prior literature), a narrative (annotated to a greater or lesser extent with comments arising from the theoretical perspective chosen by the author), and a final discussion drawing out broader theoretical implications. In accordance with dominant social science methodologies, the history is used to illustrate, refine and even extend the theory. As Llewellyn (2003, p. 697) observes, accounting historians operate at all five of her proposed levels of theorising (metaphor theories, differentiation theories, concepts theories, theorising settings and theorising structures), with “the appropriate level of theorization [being left] open and dependent on the problem under consideration.”

In some cases, authors explicitly espouse what Llewellyn (2003) refers to as a “grand theory” (one that theorises structures) – these are often associated with specific individuals, such as Foucault, Marx, Weber or Latour. In other cases, theory operates more as an analytical or conceptual framework that stimulates the development of research questions, and guides the ways in which historical evidence is identified and structured into a coherent narrative. For example, as already noted, some research into the transfer of accounting ideas and technologies was stimulated by a series of questions posed by Jeremy (1991). These questions did not in themselves posit a particular structure for international technology transfer, but they presented an analytical framework for investigating the issue. In Llewellyn’s terms, this could still be regarded as a theory, albeit at a lower level than the grand theories of Marx or Foucault. A reader of a study that has been shaped by such an analytical framework may find it more difficult to attribute a specific theory or theories to the study, but this is not to say that the study is “atheoretical” (Hopwood, 1985, p. 366).

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