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

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Impact of the special issue

A commonly accepted means of assessing the impact of any published work is to examine the citations of that work at a particular point in time. Such quantitative approaches to assessing impacts, however, do not necessarily reflect the quality of published works. We used Google Scholar to obtain citation data, as at 7 February 2011, for the six substantive articles appearing in the special issue. Any citation database is open to criticism for omissions and errors, but Google Scholar is increasingly recognised as achieving broad coverage (Meho and Yang, 2007; Harzing, 2008). The results are summarised in Table 1.


The broad scope of C&N assists in explaining the large number of citations of this article in comparison with the others. The innovative nature of the methodological article by Hammond and Sikka (henceforth “H&S”), as a guide to oral history in accounting, and possibly its provocative title, may go some way to explaining its position as the paper with the next highest number of citations. In effect, C&N and H&S were providing guidance to authors, including students and emerging scholars, on how to carry out historical accounting research. The other works by prominent authors in the field were, on the other hand, addressing ongoing conversations on themes and topics that continue to attract regular contributions as part of the everyday fabric of historical accounting research. 6

In addition to an overall review of all citations to papers in the special issue, further analysis was undertaken of the citations of C&N in English language sources.7 This revealed the existence of items that were included twice in the Google Scholar list, items that mentioned C&N only in their references (or as “further reading”) but not within the body of the published works, items that actually did not contain any mention of C&N, and conference papers no longer available on the internet. We also noticed that some works citing C&N were omitted from Google Scholar’s list of citations, though we did not attempt to include these in our overall analysis.8 After making the adjustments necessary to delete these anomalies, a total of 132 contributions that substantively cited C&N remained. About 30 per cent of these were published in Accounting History, and a further eight per cent appeared in Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal.

We found 205 different references to C&N across these 132 contributions, at an average rate of 1.55 citations per contribution: these are summarised in Table 2. The most frequent reference to C&N was as a “general contribution to historiography in accounting”: the authors of these 28 contributions typically listed C&N as one of several reference points for accounting historiography. Table 2 shows that certain subjects dealt with by C&N gained more attention than others. Specifically, eight subjects generated citations from the authors of between 10 and 17 contributions, four of which related generally to “methodology” while the other four came from the eight thematic areas proposed by C&N for developing our understanding of accounting’s past (Carnegie and Napier, 1996, pp. 17-29).9


The most common “methodological” reference to C&N related to the contrast we drew between traditional and new accounting history research, particularly our caricatures of traditional and new accounting historians (pp. 7-8). Seventeen contributions drew on this contrast, normally without criticism, to identify the key differences between these two major schools of thought. This use of the distinction reveals the tensions that had emerged in the literature at the time between accounting historians with a primary concern for the “technical” dimensions of accounting and those who focused on the “social” practice dimensions of accounting. The authors of seven of these 17 contributions specifically referred to one or both of the caricatures of the traditional and new accounting historian.

A central aim of C&N was to advocate critical and interpretive historical research, and 13 contributions referred to this in various terms, for example: “enriched theoretical perspectives”, “inter-disciplinary methodology”, “alternative perspectives” and “a cross-disciplinary perspective”. Several contributions acknowledged C&N as setting a “research agenda”. Two particular methodological directions that C&N had pointed to were studying accounting in the contexts in which it operated (here we were reinforcing a message advanced by other scholars, including Hopwood, 1983), and ensuring that historical research was firmly grounded in the archive, while what constituted the archive should be understood broadly. These comments attracted 12 and 11 citations respectively. Authors appear to have used the references to C&N to add authority to their approaches.

C&N examined a number of “innovative research methods in accounting history”, including oral history. The authors of 12 contributions cited C&N in highlighting the role and advantages of oral history. Ten of these studies actually used oral history.10 Authors referred to the advantages and potential of oral history, noted its under-utilisation in accounting history, and observed that “critical testimony is silenced forever” (p. 29) with the passing of time. The authors of ten of these 12 contributions also cited H&S in addressing oral history and its use in accounting history. The two articles were typically cited in the same paragraph, thus confirming the complementary nature of these works.

The notion of CIAH was introduced in C&N (pp. 27-28), and was later developed as the “CIAH approach . . . to bring together the insights of comparative international accounting and those of historical accounting research” (Carnegie and Napier, 2002, p. 690). Of the 13 contributions identified as making some reference to CIAH, only Carnegie and Napier (2002) actually provided an international historical comparison. The authors of the remaining 12 contributions mainly called for research of the kind they had undertaken to be replicated in other countries or regions to assist in developing a CIAH literature.

Noting accounting historians’ traditional focus on the private sector, C&N located the emerging interest in historical studies of public sector accounting as a part of wider investigations in various countries into the adequacy of public sector accounting and financial management. The authors of eight of the 13 contributions that cited C&N on the subject of public sector accounting commented on the “historical imbalance” (p. 26) of private and public sector accounting research or on the under-researched state of accounting’s past in the public sector. Several authors referred to the availability of primary archive materials in the public sector, where policies for preserving records tend to be more formal than in the private sector.

The authors of five of the 12 contributions on institutional history cited C&N on the concept of professionalisation in writing histories of accounting associations, studying the founders of professional bodies, and investigating how such bodies seek to develop or control accounting knowledge. The authors of three other contributions referred to the call by C&N for historical studies into the development of conceptual frameworks for financial reporting, with emphasis on reforming public sector accounting, particularly the adoption of full accrual accounting from the early to mid 1980s.11 Two contributions referred to the pitfalls of histories of accounting firms written “from the inside” (p. 24).

Generally, then, citations to C&N present the paper as a point of reference that provided justification for a particular methodological stance or choice of research topic. In the minds of authors, C&N appears to have been a source of validation for their work, lending credibility to their research. Few of the citations were overtly critical, although Walker (2008) hinted that the paper (indeed the whole special issue) was insufficiently controversial. In a paper published after we undertook our citation analysis, Gaffikin (2011) has implicitly criticised our emphasis on archival research, linking this to “naïve empiricism” and even “arch conservative historians”.

Of the subjects identified in Table 2, the use of the eight themes addressed in C&N as a taxonomy in conducting literature-based studies is of particular interest in considering impacts and occurred in four contributions (Carnegie and Potter, 2000; Carmona, 2006; Williams and Wines, 2006; Faria, 2008). The authors involved used the themes for classifying components of the accounting history literature in their studies of publication patterns, which tended to focus on the quantitative distribution of publications across the various themes. In the next section, we follow up each of the eight themes by identifying and briefly commenting on some significant contributions to the historical accounting literature since the mid-1990s. In reviewing publications within the eight themes, we have not restricted ourselves to those that cited papers in the special issue, but have surveyed the literature more broadly. We also acknowledge that the historical accounting literature of the last 15 years or so has ranged more widely than the eight themes that we identified in C&N.

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