The Science of Accounts: Bookkeeping Rooted in the Ideal of Science

By McMillan, Keith P. | The Accounting Historians Journal, December 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Science of Accounts: Bookkeeping Rooted in the Ideal of Science


McMillan, Keith P., The Accounting Historians Journal


Abstract: This paper presents the discourse of the "science of accounts" as it developed in 19th century U.S. accounting literature. The paper initially emphasizes the meaning which the term "science of accounts" had during this period. In addition, it presents the contemporary belief that this science helped reveal the essential economic ontology, which bookkeeping makes visible. Second, the paper analyzes how this rational institutional myth became institutionalized within the emerging profession's technical journals and its professional organization, the Institute of Accounts. Through reliance on this scientific foundation, the newly emerging profession could gain greater social legitimacy, leading to the first CPA law in 1896.

INTRODUCTION

Accountics is the mathematical science of values [Office, 1887, p. 103].

Inasmuch as other branches of scientific work manifest unexpected life from time to time, so may we assume that there lurks among the foundations of bookkeeping some as yet unapplied principles, which, once brought into play, will change, more or less, the routine of our office practice [Kittredge, 1896, pp. 320-321].

The term "science of accounts" became the most defining and formalizing concept for the body of knowledge encompassing bookkeeping and accountancy during the latter half of the l9th century in the U.S. As the CPA movement began to spread from New York to other states at the end of that century, the idea of the accountant as a scientist dominated the profession's self-image. As promulgated by elite accountants in the Institute of Accounts (IA) and affiliated professional journals, this image portrayed the accountant as investigating scientifically and rationally the political economy in order to explain that economy more efficiently and more truthfully. The affinity between an accountant and a scientist was so strong that writers continually stressed the similarities of actions of accountants and physical scientists, especially practical scientists such as architects and engineers. The "science of accounts" or "accountics," a body of thought that provided a rational investigative method equivalent to any other science's body of thought, permitted the "discovery" of new principles and practices through investigations. Kittredge [1896] demonstrated this presumed thought by relying on the science of accountics to provide new discoveries. This paper will discuss the contextual environment within which the science of accounts was developed and institutionalized in professional organizations and journals. It will be shown that the science of accounts became one of the formalized, rational institutional myths1 that legitimized the U.S. accounting profession within its cultural environment.

The late l9th century emergence of a U.S. accounting profession has been well documented [Wilkinson, 1904, 1928; Brown, 1905; Anyon, 1925; Littleton, 1933; Reckitt, 1953; Webster, 1954; Edwards, 1954, 1960; Carey, 1969; Miranti, 1990; Previts and Merino, 1998]. Most accounts date the origins of the profession in 1886, with the founding of the American Association of Public Accountants (AAPA). This organization, inspired by the professional developments of British accountants, is seen as the most significant influence towards the passage of the first CPA law in 1896. Miranti [1990] has described the period prior to the passage of the first professional law as pitting two organizations, the AAPA and the IA, against one another. Miranti claimed that the IA's affiliation with the concepts of the science of accounts was a significant area of contention between the two. This paper attempts to place in context the concepts of the science of accounts so as to aid in the understanding of the social and technical emergence of the U.S. accounting profession.

The development of the rational institutional myth, the "science of accounts," may be glimpsed through a review of the manner in which bookkeeping was defined in l9th century bookkeeping treatises.

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