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

Themes proposed in the special issue

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Themes proposed in the special issue

Studies of surviving business records of firms

Surviving business records of the past are found in both public and private archives and repositories of documents and other artefacts. Archival research often involves the identification, examination and evaluation of such records. According to Fleischman and Tyson (2003, p. 32), accounting history scholars who do not choose to set their investigations in the business archive “require a philosophical bent and a glib writing style with which most of us are not gifted”. The authors added: “the majority of us … deploy archival investigation to bring new knowledge to the light of day” (2003, p. 32). As was the situation in 1996, there exists in business archives around the globe “an absolute wealth of archival material to be examined and evaluated” (2003, p. 44).

While historical accounting research involving the study of surviving business records remains an important dimension within the field, the last 15 years or so have witnessed the emergence of a range of published historical research on the nature, roles, uses and impacts of accounting in everyday settings involving various social, religious and other not-for-profit institutions (Hopwood, 1994; Jeacle, 2009). Carnegie and Napier (1996, p. 30) had noted that the archive should be “understood in a wide sense as comprehending not just records of profit-oriented businesses but also those of individuals, not for-profit organizations, the public sector and other entities”, but we did not anticipate the extent of the growth in studies of the surviving records of such a wide range of entities. The archive material available for accounting historians who wish to investigate accounting’s past in the context of social organisations is immense. This has permitted extending the study of surviving accounting records into a diversity of social settings, such as the family home, the place of worship, the school, the prison and the asylum. Accounting history research no longer privileges the realm of business: it now embraces a wider range of everyday settings where accounting is enlisted, consistent with the view that accounting in both contemporary and historical contexts is not just a technical practice but is also a social practice (Miller, 1994; Gomes, 2008). Such research is increasingly using accounting records prepared in languages other than English, and augments the publications in leading English-language journals by scholars whose first language is not English.12 Fleischman and Radcliffe (2005, p. 64) have described this as “non-Anglo-American history” in accounting.

Historical accounting research by Europeans into surviving business records has examined managerial uses of accounting before the end of the eighteenth century to contribute to challenging the view that modern management accounting practices emerged from the beginning of the nineteenth century (see, for example, Edwards and Newell, 1991 and Fleischman and Parker, 1991, 1997). The investigations by Zan (2004, 2005; Zambon and Zan, 2007) of early cost calculations in the Venice Arsenal’s records assisted in shifting the focus of investigations to “proto-industrial settings” during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In Spain, other key projects set in the eighteenth century involved the Spanish Royal Tobacco Factory (Carmona, Ezzamel and Gutiérrez, 1997, 1998, 2002), a sample of 13 large and medium-sized Spanish companies (Gutiérrez, Larrinaga and Nuñez, 2005), and the Royal Textile Factory of Ezcaray (Prieto-Moreno and Larrinaga-Gonzáles, 2001). In Portugal, Carvalho, Rodrigues and Craig (2007) examined the mid-eighteenth century early cost accounting practices of the Portuguese Silk Factory Company.

Researchers were reminded by Arnold and McCartney (2003) of the need to take care in examining surviving business records. In the context of nineteenth century British railway accounting, they referred to the pitfalls that may face researchers who do not examine primary records themselves but rely uncritically on the work of others. The authors even suggested that “in some cases” accounting history scholarship “provides little more than plausible anecdotes” (2003, p. 228). Funnell (2007), however, believed that the errors identified by these authors did not undermine the value of the corpus of accounting history scholarship across all industrial and other settings. Funnell (2007, p. 298) suggested that “the wider accusations” of Arnold and McCartney (2003) “directed at the realms of accounting history beyond 19th century railway accounting should be treated as unsubstantiated”.

The examination of business records has continued to be a mainstay of historical accounting research, with researchers investigating both external financial reporting and the internal use of accounting for costing and managerial decisions. There has been some degree of “confluence” in the application of theoretical explanations to costing methods (see for example Fleischman and Macve, 2002), with researchers realising that theories (such as neoclassical economics and Marxist or Foucauldian perspectives) often emphasise different features of the historical phenomena rather than offering rival explanations. Research in this area has demonstrated the need to tolerate theoretical diversity, in order to avoid closing down areas of debate prematurely.

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