Book Reviews: Accounting as Social and Institutional Practice

By Stewart, Ross E. | The Accounting Historians Journal, December 1995 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews: Accounting as Social and Institutional Practice


Stewart, Ross E., The Accounting Historians Journal


Anthony G. Hopwood and Peter Miller, Eds., Accounting as Social and Institutional Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1994, 265 pp., $19.95)

Reviewed by Ross E. Stewart Seattle Pacific University

In the last fifteen years new understandings of accounting have emerged because the study of accounting has been contextualized within the broad spectrum of the human sciences. This broader perspective has brought a new vitality to accounting research and has enriched our understanding of accounting practice. Accounting research has emerged from being almost exclusively wedded to financial economics and psychology to being more completely interdisciplinary. Organizational theory, sociology, political theory, anthropology, history, philosophy, linguistic theory, communication theory, theology, critical theory, etc., have contributed to this enriched understanding of accounting. Accounting practice is no longer seen as a neutral, benign technology reporting the facts of organizational life. Rather accounting practice is interested, problematic, and shapes the context in which it operates.

Hopwood and Miller have collected together in this book a representative sample of work that illustrates this view of accounting research and practice. The editors have taken work primarily published in Accounting, Organizations and Society and have had the authors condense, rewrite their articles or synthesize two or more articles into one, for a broader audience. Indeed the goal of the series that this book is published in, Cambridge Studies in Management, is to take specialized academic work and make it accessible for a broader audience. The papers are written by academics who come out of a British research tradition, and the contexts of analysis are primarily British except for Thompson, Hoskin and Macve (a U.S. context) and Miller and O'Leary (a U.S. context).

What is interesting for readers of The Accounting Historians Journal is that the papers are primarily historical analyses of accounting. They are historical analyses which explore the actual consequences of accounting rather than its stated rationales, and they explore the social and institutional bases of accounting rather than presuming a purely technical or economic autonomy for accounting. Accounting intersects with concerns such as national and organizational efficiency, industrial productivity, organizational rationality and professionalization. The result is studies that examine "the conditions, capacities and consequences of accounting"

Miner, p. 5

.

Thompson (Ch. 2) and Hoskin and Macve (Ch. 3) both give an account of the rise of double entry bookkeeping (DEB). Thompson's analysis is informed by rhetoric and the institutions of the church, pedagogic apparatuses and the publishing house. Hoskin and Macve describe DEB as part of the changes in information technologies in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Their analysis does not dwell on the technique of DEB per se but rather sees the emergence of the technique as part of broader societal and institutional changes. Hoskin and Macve use Foucault's knowledge-power schema to further describe how accounting is a disciplinary device. Their analysis links the genesis of accounting's modem power to the educational technology of the examination and to institutions such as West Point Military Academy.

Miller and O'Leary (Ch. 4) give a Foucault-inspired analysis of standard costing as a "technology of government." They make connections to the scientific management movement and show how accounting calculations became part of the discourse on the "efficiency" of individuals, organizations and the State. Standard costing caught the individual in a web of calculative norms and standards which enabled a program of government. "Between the worker and the boss was interposed a calculative apparatus that claimed neutrality and objectivity"

p. 112

. Bougen (Ch. 6) uses Foucault's concept of "regimes of truth" in a similar way in a historical case study of accounting in the Remold Company. …

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