`Visual Images within Accounting Annual Report: a critical Discourse Analysis

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`Visual Images within Accounting Annual Report: A Critical Discourse Analysis


Xun Gong*


Sudhir C Lodh**


Kathy Rudkin***

Paper submitted for inclusion in the IPA Conference, Cardiff, UK

11-13 July 2012

*Mr Xun Gong, School of Accounting and Finance, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia, Email: gong@uow.edu.au

**Dr Sudhir Lodh, School of Accounting and Finance, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia, Phone: +61-2-42213731, Fax: +61-2-42214297, E mail: slodh@uow.edu.au, web: www.uow.edu.au (Corresponding Author)

*** Dr Kathy Rudkin, School of Accounting and Finance, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia, E mail: krudkin@uow.edu.au, web: www.uow.edu.au

Visual Images within Accounting Annual Report: A Critical Discourse Analysis

This study explores contextual messages and socio-political significance of the visual images portrayed through an annual report in the Chinese context. In so doing, Fairclough’s (1993a) Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) is used as the research framework; which focuses on the ways in which social and political domination are produced and reproduced by discourse. More specifically, at the public discourse level, the semiotic model developed by Roland Barthes (1977) is used to explore both the literal and the symbolic messages within the visual texts. While the Chinese capitalist market economy continues to flourish, the communist political regime still maintains its dominant power in the country. This study examines the dual ideological influences that both the socialist political regime and the capitalist market economy have upon the visual discourse produced in accounting annual reports. It also explains how the visual discourse, in turn, constitutes and sustains competing ideological messages.

Visual Images within Accounting Annual Report: A Critical Discourse Analysis

  1. Introduction

The evolving nature of accounting has not only reflected the changes in its technical tools (Carmona & Ezzamel, 2007), but also revealed the ever-perplexing form of accounting representations. Indeed, financial annual reports nowadays carry more ramifications than simply communicating economic events to interest parties and society at large, rather they also reflexively construct reality (cf. Hines, 1988). They are produced in the form of narratives, graphs, and pictures within annual reports; which ultimately “frame and frequently eclipse the technical accounting content” (Davison, 2010, pp.166-7). As such, the traditional financial statements have become subject to criticism for being inadequate and irrelevant in that they may not present a comprehensive view of companies (Canibano et al., 2000). Instead, alternative formats produced in annual reports such as visual texts are considered more interesting and worth further exploration (Davison & Skerratt, 2007). Hopwood (1996) argued that the annual report remains as a largely under researched document, and Llewellyn and Milne’s (2007) call for a rich research agenda on accounting as codified discourse. As such, this study has focused on the visual images produced in accounting annual reports.

The 2010 annual report of China Mobile Limited is selected as the focus of this investigation. The research framework of this study is based on Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). It focuses on the ways in which social and political domination are produced and reproduced by discourse. In particular, Fairclough’s (1993a) has advanced three-dimensional framework for CDA to reveal the contextualised meanings of the visual discourse at three levels: public discourse; discourse practice; and, social practice. More specifically, at the public discourse level, the semiotic model developed by Roland Barthes (1977) is used to explore both the literal and the symbolic messages within the visual texts. To interpret the symbolic messages, three areas of interest are considered to be useful, including (1) Davison’s (2010) four rhetorical codes (physical, dress, spatial, and interpersonal); (2) the two Chinese cultural beliefs (Confucianism and Taoism); and, (3) the use of colour in Chinese tradition. The social practice elements comprise both the institutional arrangements of the Chinese telecom sector and the internal governing structure of China Mobile. The distinctions and overlaps exhibited between the firm’s public discourse and its social practice are then mediated through the discourse practice, the discursive process in which the annual report is produced, distributed, and consumed.

The findings from the public discourse and the social practice1 suggest three sets of competing interpretations: (1) global versus national; (2) democracy versus dictatorship; and, (3) shareholder interest versus stakeholder interest versus stateholder interest. As such, a dual image of the firm is drawn: on the one hand, it has been depicted as a globalised corporation with the democratic management team focusing on the shareholder interest; on the other hand, it has also been portrayed as a national enterprise characterised by the dictatorial role of the party emphasising both the state holder interest and, to a lesser extent, the stakeholder interest.2. At the discourse practice level, these opposite messages are mediated, naturalised, constituted, and sustained by different discursive processes in which the report is distributed and consumed, via: (1) traditional postal service to shareholders; (2) the website of China Mobile Limited; and, (3) the website of Chinese Mobile Communications Corporation. While the first two distribution channels support the connotations of global, democracy, and shareholder interest, the latter conveys the messages of national, dictatorship stateholder interest, and, to a lesser extent, stakeholder interest.

The contributions of this study are three-fold. First, in relation to extant accounting literature, the research has been the first to study the dual ideological implications of annual report’s visual discourse for both a socialist ideology and a capitalist market economy in the context of Mainland China. Second, in relation to methodology, the research has also been the first to apply Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough, 1993a) in exploring the socio-political significance of visual images within annual report. Another innovative move is to incorporate the semiotic model of Roland Barthes (1977) in the public discourse analysis of CDA, which offers the potential for further research combining the CDA framework with the Barthesian model. As such, this research provides an important contribution to both the methodological approach of CDA and a critical framework for future research opportunities to study annual report’s visual discourse. Third, in relation to method, the study has adopted the analytical tools of visual images from not only the artistic discipline such as the rhetoric device of antithesis (Barthes, 1990; Davison, 2002) and repetition (Davison, 2008), and Davison’s (2010) four rhetorical codes (physical, dress, spatial and interpersonal), but also the Chinese tradition including the two dominant cultural beliefs (Confucianism and Taoism) and the use of colour in the context of China. This offers new insight for future studies of visual images in that contextualised messages are considered and applied. However, the study is not without limitations. First, the selection of only one stated-owned enterprise (China Mobile) in one particular industry (telecommunication industry) restricts the extent to which the entire ideological overview of contemporary China can be examined. Second, the fact that only the firm’s 2010 annual report has been explored also limits the scope of both the analysis and the resulting findings.

The remainder of the paper is organised as follows. The next section discusses the background accounting literature in the related research interest. Section three provides a brief introduction to China Mobile Limited, followed by the discussion of the methodological approach for the study in section four. In section five, based on the 2010 annual report of China Mobile, a critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1993a) is conducted with special reference to a public discourse analysis (Barthes, 1977; Davison, 2010). The social practice and discourse practice analyses are briefly epitomised in section six. Convincing arguments and conclusion are drawn in the final sections with a discussion of the research contributions and limitations.

  1. Background literature

It is often said that one picture is worth a thousand words (Reese, 1994), which extends beyond a simple embellishment but serves as a rhetorical tool concerned with communication and persuasion (Smith, 2007). Since neither existing accounting frameworks nor any corresponding regulations have accounted for or possess control over the visual content of annual reports (Courtis, 1997; Davison, 2002; Davison & Skerrat, 2007; Hui & Rudkin 2010; Steenkamp & Hooks, 2011), visual images have now become a powerful rhetorical tool (Graves et al., 1996) for organisations to construct social reality (Hines 1988).
Until recently, the implications of visual images in annual reports had not been well researched in accounting literature as thoroughly as would have been possible with a few notable exceptions. For instance, Preston et al. (1996) focus on the significance of visual images appearing in annual reports from the 1980s to 1990s in America. In particular, they explore different meanings beneath visual images through three theoretical perspectives: interpretivist, neo-Marxist and postmodernist. That is, they first ‘uncritically’ interpret the marketing scheme of PepsiCo from the front cover of its report. Then the ideological content underneath the pictures appearing in Northern Telecom’s report is unveiled in the lens of neo-Marxist criticism. Thirdly, a critical postmodernity suggests images to be produced and reproduced from the ‘real’ and become their own ‘simulacrum’ (Preston et al., 1996). It is these three perspectives, according to Preston et al. (1996), that “open(s) a critical dialogue about corporations and their roles within our contemporary society” (p.135).
Similarly, Graves et al. (1996) point out the rhetorical use of the visual design for American firms’ annual reports in line with the U.S. ‘television epistemology’. Here, visual design for annual reports is not just decorative but carries epistemological significance in the American context. Through identifying the visual discourses with those appeared on television, epistemic credibility has been assigned to not only visual text per se but also financial numbers, thus formulating a mutually reflective and reinforcing relationship between images and accounts.
Preston and Young (2000) also note the reflective and constitutive role of visual images in their “picture essay”. Their study reveals the constructive potential of visual images appearing in the reports of American multinational corporations for the “construction not only of the global corporation but also of the ‘global’” (p.427). While Preston and Young’s (2000) attention was directed towards pictures from a number of international firms, Davison (2002), on the other hand, particularly focused on only one company’s annual report3, demonstrating the rhetorical use of antithesis by annual report designers where “strands of old and new, blue chip plc and Internet company, stability and change, Europe and America are set in opposition, interwoven and displaced relative to each other” (p.607), and thereby depicting a corporate image with “a solid history combined with an active present” (p.597). She then calls for further exploration on a variety of rhetorical devices in corporate annual reports across a larger number of companies.
A special issue of Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal (August 2009, vol.22 no.6) marks the burgeoning interest and offers more insights in visual perspectives on accounting and accountability (Royal Holloway University of London, 2011). For instance, Justesen and Mouritsen (2009) suggest that visual aids interact with and are superimposed on one another to frame a comprehensive and thus more persuasive annual report and forge links between accounting, marketing, manufacturing and operating activities. Campbell, Mcphail and Slack (2009) critically analyse the underlying meanings of the face work in the context of Levinas’ ethics of the other. Davison and Warren (2009) chide some myopia with regard to the importance of the visual in accounting, auditing and accountability and suggest the area of research may be still in its infancy.
This current research in exploring the socially constructed and socially constructing nature of visual images in the annual reports of the state-owned-enterprises (SOE) in the Chinese context rests on the previous work elucidated above. Seminal in this research is Davison’s (2010) inter-disciplinary framework from art theory which initialises four rhetorical codes:

physical (considering identification, physiognomy and stature); dress (providing social and cultural perspectives); interpersonal (considering body language and group portraits) and spatial (making use of props and artefacts and of settings) (p.167)4.

Also of particular interest is Davison’s (2011b) discussion on both the structuralist and post-structuralist insights of Roland Barthes in analysing the multifaceted interpretation of visual images in accounting communication research in general and annual reports in particular. In addition, Hui and Rudkin’s (2010) longitudinal study of the annual reports of HSBC from 1958 to 2008 will also offer significant inspiration to this research.

Summarising findings of the previous research as has been elaborated above on accounting annual reports and visual images, the following four key viewpoints are suggested:

  1. There are both quantitative and qualitative research methods adopted in extant literature. The quantitative investigation primarily draws on the manifest coding of content analysis (see Kuiper, 1988; Anderson & Imperia, 1992; Courtis, 1997; Ewing et al., 2001; Benschop & Meihuizen, 2002; Bernardi et al., 2002; Bernardi et al., 2005; Dimnik & Felton, 2006; Bujaki & McConomy, 2010a, 2010b; Steenkamp & Hooks, 2011) and a few using experimental method (see Cho et al., 2009);

  2. The qualitative work, on the other hand, consists of those applying art theories (see Davison, 2002, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011b; Matilal & Hopfl, 2009; Justesen & Mouritsen, 2009), and those drawing from sociology of knowledge (see Macintosh, 1990; Graves et al., 1996; Preston et al., 1996; Preston & Young, 2000; Davison, 2004; Campbell et al., 2009; Baldvinsdottir et al., 2009; Hui & Rudkin, 2010; Davison, 2011a, 2011b);

  3. While a multitude of researches has been undertaken, only a few relate the use and meanings of visual discourse to history, power and politics (see Tinker & Neimark, 1987; McKinstry, 1996; Hui & Rudkin, 2010);

  4. The contemporary literature on the visual images appearing in annual reports within the Chinese context has been sparse with a few notable exceptions (viz., Hui & Rudkin, 2010).

To fill the void in extant literature, this research focuses on the dual ideological role in the Chinese context that visual discourse plays in connoting both socialist identity politically and capitalist character economically to different readerships (Chinese/ foreign). Specifically, one Chinese state-owned-enterprise, China Mobile Limited, is selected as the focus of our study. The introduction of the firm will be made in the following section.

  1. Introducing China Mobile

Founded in Hong Kong in September 1997, the company (China Mobile Limited) was listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKSE) and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). At the time, the firm was part of and named as China Telecom Limited (China Telecom) which then had the absolute dominance in the telecommunication industry of mainland China. It was not until 1999 when the Ministry of Information Industry (MII) divided China Telecom into four different organisations including China Network Communication Corporation Limited, China Jitong Network Communication Corporation Limited, China Satellite Communication Company, and China Mobile Communication Corporation Limited (CMCC) to promote market competition (Yu et al., 2004), that the wireless division of China Telecom was spun off to become China Mobile, and the company’s name was thereafter changed to China Mobile Limited.

Today, the company has become one of the largest Chinese state-owned enterprises and plays a monopolistic role in the telecom sector of Mainland China. As the leading public telecom operator, the firm’s customer base is now the world’s largest with the estimated amount of 584 million and its market share has reached at 69.3% in Mainland China as of 31 December 2010 (China Mobile Limited, 2011). For the year of 2010, the company reported total revenue of US$73,520 million and net profit of US$18,127 million (China Mobile Limited, 2011), which ensures its continued absolute monopoly in Mainland China.

China Mobile is selected as the focus of this critical investigation for several reasons. First, as one of the largest state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in China, the company is also listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKSE) and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) since 1997, which gives its annual report a twofold readership from East and West. Second, because of its unique transition from an operating arm of the former Ministry of Post and Telecommunication (MPT) to today’s public listed corporation, the company now has a dual identity which, to a great extent, reflects both the socialism with Chinese characteristics and a globalised market economy. Third, while enjoying the political patronage from the central government and accommodating global liberalisation in the mean time, China Mobile has now become the largest mobile phone operator in the world with its customer base of 584 million as of the end of 2010 (China Mobile Limited, 2011). In the first place, the context of contemporary China is chosen as the general background of this study, due to its unique ideological characteristics. That is, while an increasingly globalised, and arguably capitalised, market economy operates in the country since the opening reform in the late 1970s, the political regime under the Communist Party of China (CPC) continues to maintain its dominant power in society. In addition, since accounting not only communicates economic ‘realities’ but also constructs and reflects the ideological context in which it operates (cf. Hines, 1988; Dillard, 1991; Lodh & Gaffikin, 1997), then the question is asked as to whether or not accounting serves a dual role to reflect both the ideology of the CPC and the characteristics of the market economy in the Chinese context. To this end, Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) is adopted as the research methodology.

  1. Critical Discourse Analysis used as a Methodology

CDA is an interdisciplinary approach that views language as a form of social practice and focuses on the ways social and political domination are reproduced by text (Fairclough & Clive, 1995). It requires detailed analyses of both the discursive event per se as well as the underlying social context (Meyer, 2001), making explicit the implicit and dialectical relations between public discourse and social practice (Cortese et al., 2010). Since our study investigates the implications of visual images within annual reports through the lens of CDA, the notions of ‘critical’, ‘discourse’ and ‘analysis’ must be interpreted in contingent ways within this research endeavour, “rather than being contained by a universalist procedure of strict and continuous explications” (Chouliaraki & Fairclough, 2010, p.1217). Firstly, the key term ‘critical’ sees the power of discourse understood with reference to its context which has been, in turn, shaped and legitimised by that power (Leitch & Palmer, 2010; Chouliaraki & Fairclough, 2010). While the specific definition of CDA’s critical attitude has been an object of contestation (Billig, 2003), and subject to various interpretations: “some adhere to the Frankfurt school, others to a notion of literary criticism, some to Marx’s notions” (Wodak, 2001, p.9). Suffice to this study, we adopt Neimark’s (1990) interpretation of ‘critical’ generally as tearing accounting and its accompanying pictures from the positivistic ontology and epistemology, situating the visual images in annual reports as a product of as well as a contributing factor to both a socialism with Chinese characteristics and an emerging globalised capitalist economy.

Secondly, we embrace a broader notion of ‘discourse’ as a form of social practice which “constitutes, naturalizes, sustains and changes” the social structure (Fairclough, 1993a, p.67). It involves “conversational interaction, written text, as well as associated gestures, face work, typographical layout, images and other ‘semiotic’ or multimedia dimension of signification” (van Dijk, 2001, p.98). In particular, our study locates the visual discourse in a joint arena of accounting and visual imagery within a specific social context, viz., visual discourses in socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Thirdly, the ‘analysis’, following on Chouliaraki and Fairclough (2010), is to “focus not just upon discourse as such, but on relations between discursive and other social elements” (p.1215) (emphasis in original). More specifically, Fairclough (1993a, 1993b) champions a three-dimensional framework for analysing a dialectical relationship among the three elements, viz., text, discourse practice, and social practice. Building upon this three-dimensional analysis, Cortese (2006) puts forward a framework for CDA as shown in Figure1.

Cortese (2006) argues that the production and interpretation of text will be filled through analysing both the text per se and the society in which the text is put forward. That is, the analytical framework renders clear a critical examination (discourse practice) of the dialectical relation between the text (public discourse) and its underlying social structure (social practice), bridging an indirect and interactional link “between the local and the global, between the structures of discourse and the structures of society” (van Dijk, 2001, p.117).

With regard to this research and taking into account Fairclough’s (1993a) three-dimensional framework, the public discourse analysis on the first layer involves a detailed analysis of visual images in the 2010 annual report of China Mobile due to the scope and size of the study5. In particular, the semiotic model developed by Roland Barthes (1977) is used to explore the socio-political and cultural significance of the visual discourse. On the third layer, the social practice analysis concentrates on both the institutional arrangements of the Chinese telecommunication industry and the internal governing structure of China Mobile. As has been indicated earlier, due to the space limitation it is not included in detail this paper.

Having explored the first and third layers (text and social practice), the discourse practice analysis on the second layer will be carried out on the basis of the previous two analyses. According to Fairclough (1993a), discourse practice focuses on the “process of text production, distribution, and consumption” (p.78) and thus explores the “connections between the nature of the discourse processes in particular instances, and the nature of the social practices they are a part of” (p.80). At this level, the analysis investigates (1) the specific standards and regulations regarding the production of the text (that is, the annual report and particularly the visual discourse within the report), (2) the stock exchanges and the company’s website through which the annual report is distributed, and (3) the two different readerships (i.e. Chinese/ Foreign) by which the annual report is consumed. Here, also of relevance is the concept of intertextuality (Fairclough, 1993a) concerning the environment in which the report is distributed and consumed.

Finally, the relationship can be made by bridging the three levels of analyses to see how discourses are produced and reproduced in line with the corresponding institutional practice. The above procedure can be summarised in Figure 2.

  1. Visual Images portrayed in China Mobile’s Annual Report: Public Discourse Analysis

Having illustrated the methodolgical procedure in which the resaerch is carried out, the public discourse analysis in CDA is undertaken in this section. In paritucalr, the Barthesian denotation and connotation analytical model (Barhtes, 1977) is adopted with reference to three aspects: (1) Davison’s (2010) rhetorical codes (physical, dress, spatial and interpersonal), (2) the two dominant cultrual belifes in China (that is, Confucianism and Taoism), and (3) the cultural use of colour in Chinese tradition. In so doing, we have elaborated the analysis under the following sub-headings: first, introducing the report’s main theme; second, the denotation analysis of the visual images from the opening pages and inside the report; and, third, the connotation analysis of the visual images from the openning pages and inside the report.

5.1 Introducing the main theme of the report

On the front cover of its 2010 annual report (see Figure 3), China Mobile depicts two strands of ocean waves moving dynamically toward the same direction (the right-hand side), while featuring a montage of icons of the company’s new products and applications. The portrait of ocean waves is not only found inside the report, but also runs beyond the page and drifts into the following two pages (Figure 4).

For example, this image is also followed on page 12 where the ocean wave is depicted as the background image through which the chairman of the company is viewed (Figure 5). Successively, from page 16 to 19, again the two waves are portrayed rushing across both the visual and textual content, forming the backcloth of the caption “Open Dialogue with Senior Management” (Figure 6). Then the question poses itself: what is the purpose, both explicit and implicit, behind the repetitive use of the theme of ocean waves throughout the entire report?

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