Is Time Spent, Passed or Counted? the Missing Link between Time and Accounting History

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper takes its inspiration from Voth's [2000] work on Time and Work in England, 1750-1830 which argues that the British industrial revolution led to greater production levels not because of an increase in the productivity of labor but because of the larger amount of hours worked per week. This change led to a decrease of free time in favor of worked time. If this was the case, one might argue, accounting played a marginal role either in increasing the efficiency of the work force, or in disciplining the shop floor to guarantee control of the labor process. This paper argues that if accounting is to gain a crucial position in the history of economies and societies 'time' needs to be expressly posited on the agenda of accounting historians for, at the moment, it seems that the link between time and accounting history is missing. The aim of the paper is to show that if a linear, neutral and objective view of time is abandoned then the possibilities to study the organizational, social and even political roles of accounting will proliferate. This view is illustrated by moving from linear views of 'time' ('time spent') to more relative and constructed conceptions ('time counted').

Focal Texts: H.J. Voth, Time and Work in England, 1750-1830 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000); S. de Grazia, Of Time, Work and Leisure (New York: The Twentieth Century Fund, 1963) and E. P. Thompson, "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism," Past and Present (1967).


Hans-Joachim Voth opens his book Time and Work in England, 1750-1830 with this interesting question: "Did the industrial revolution mark a watershed in term of time-use?" [2000, p. 1]. As Voth rightly argues, the question is interesting as it relates to a twofold set of issues. Firstly, it concerns the productivity of labor. Labor accounted for a major part of GDP during the industrial revolution, (1) and to a large extent still does. Thus understanding whether or not the development of new modes of organizing and controlling production and its outcome had an impact on productivity is a significant issue. Secondly, the question concerns broader matters of 'well being'. It is important to establish the pattern of change in the proportion of time spent at work and at leisure [Voth, 2000, p. 2].

Voth concludes his work by pointing out that:

   During the industrial revolution England began to
   work harder--much harder. The timing and the extent
   of the rise in annual hours differed by location and
   social group. None the less, the finding that emerges
   most consistently from this study is that, by the 1830s,
   both London and the Northern counties of England had
   seen a considerable increase in annual working hours.
   What drove the change was not longer hours per day.
   Instead, changes in the number of days worked per week,
   and in the observance of holy days, were largely responsible
   for the rise in annual hours. In London, the demise
   of 'St Monday' (2) and of numerous religious and political
   festivals were the main factors [2000, p. 268, emphasis

He continues:

      Because annual working hours increased between
   the middle of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,
   GDP per hour grew more slowly than GDP per capita. A
   very substantial part of the increase in output was a
   result of extra toil and not of rising productivity ... If
   our estimates of annual hours are even approximately
   right, the efficiency with which the economy combined
   factor of production grew barely, if at all. It is in this
   sense that the First Industrial Revolution was an 'industrious
   revolution' [Voth, 2000, pp. 271-272, emphasis

The conclusion is clear: it was the proportion of worked hours compared to those dedicated to leisure that changed, not efficiency.

This is an interesting conclusion and an 'industrious' conclusion, given the amount of archival work which the analysis required, for the issue Voth addresses is a difficult one. …