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

Using accounting records in business history

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Using accounting records in business history

Some business and accounting historians are conscious of the synergy that exists between business history and accounting history (see, for example, Marriner, 1980, Parker, 1991, Mathias, 1993, Carnegie and Potter, 2000, Ville and Fleming, 1999/2000 and Fridenson, 2007), although calls for greater collaboration are not uncommon. Indeed, Ville and Fleming (1999/2000) entitled their contribution “Desperately seeking synergy: interdisciplinary research in accounting and business history”, suggesting that “powerful synergies” exist between accounting and business history and pointing to the use of historical evidence in furthering an “understanding of how management accounting systems . . . develop in our leading contemporary corporations” (Ville and Fleming (1999/2000, p. 173). The authors argued, however, that the interdisciplinary literature of the genre was too heavily located in the manufacturing sector.13 In addition, earlier key contributions in the field by Chandler (1977) and Edwards and Newell (1991) have been criticised for being too “progressivist” in concentrating on efficiency-based explanations for management accounting innovation (Ville and Fleming, 1999/2000, p. 174; also see Luft, 1997).

More recently, Fridenson (2007, p. 375) took a French perspective in issuing “a plea for a warm and close relationship between business history and accounting history”. Advocating a “bilateral relationship” between accounting history and business history, Fridenson (2007, p. 375) argued “business history is not a luxury merely for accounting historians, but a necessity” and further stated “that business historians will benefit from closer contacts with the work and researches of accounting historians”. As well as identifying accounting documents as “key sources” for business history, Fridenson (2007, p. 377) referred to accounting renovation or renewal as “key elements for a much broader dimension of change” while noting that “attention has been drawn by business historians to how sometimes accounting instruments and accounting methods last too long”, with implications for inhibiting organisational and social change.

The relationship between accounting history and business history is a two-way process. Analysing citations appearing in 546 articles published from 1996 to 2008 in the three specialised accounting history journals published in the English language (Accounting History, Accounting Historians Journal and Accounting, Business and Financial History), Bisman (2011, p. 169) reported on the “relatively small overall” number of citations to a range of leading business and economic history journals. Of the three accounting history journals, Accounting, Business and Financial History contributed 51 per cent of these citations, reflecting its more diverse orientation. Bisman’s findings tend to confirm the views of Walker (2005a, p. 233), who has argued that accounting history is a “myopic and introspective discipline” that would benefit from “greater inclusivity”, and has suggested that accounting historians “are similarly distant from the sister discipline of history” (Walker, 2008, p. 312). Bisman (2011, pp. 174-175) concluded that the “well acknowledged desideratum for accounting historians to collaborate with, and draw on the work” of business and economic historians essentially “remains an unanswered challenge”. Bisman (2011) also showed that accounting historians are engaging with other accounting research literature and are particularly drawing on broader perspectives offered by sociological, interpretive and critical frameworks, especially given the extent of citations of articles published in journals such as Accounting, Organizations and Society and Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal and, to a lesser extent, Critical Perspectives on Accounting.

Although there is still considerable scope for developing the interface with business history, Parker (1999a, 1999b), Parker and Lewis (1995) and Parker and Ritson (2005, 2011) have been contributing to the emerging literature on management history, a field that has been growing since the foundation of The Journal of Management History in 1995 (Carson and Carson, 1998; also see Wren, 1987). Interdisciplinary research on classical management writers, notably Frederick Taylor, Henri Fayol and Lyndall Urwick,14 enables us “to reflect upon the contemporary accounting conventions and practices that have been contributed to by the classical management school of thought” (Parker and Ritson, 2011, p. 235) and, therefore, acts against the inheritance of “an impoverished understanding of the historical influences on contemporary accounting practice” (Parker and Ritson, 2011, p. 235). Moreover, accounting history, stimulated in particular by the work of Walker (1998; see also Walker and Llewellyn, 2000) on accounting in the home, has been interfacing with financial, social and gender history, for example through the studies of Rutterford and Maltby (2007) on British women’s investment practices, Licini (2011) on Italian women’s wealth, and Walker and Carnegie (2007) on how Australian household budgeting was used to control the “extravagant woman”.

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