Questions of Taxation Framed as Accounting Historical Research: A Suggested Approach

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Abstract: This review essay suggests considerations to be addressed in research design if research on a taxation subject is to succeed as rigorous accounting research, well grounded in relevant historical scholarship. Tax research must focus on substantive subjects that are recognizable as "accounting"; the methods, approach, and exposition must be "historical" to an acceptable standard; and the research must engage with relevant portions of the existing body of accounting historical scholarship. Further, scholarly engagement with the best researchers and liveliest debates that the disciplines of accounting and history have to offer will enrich the treatment of tax in accounting history,


Taxation is a rich research field for accounting historians to explore. There are many problems of tax measurement, reporting, and analysis that are central to the concerns of accounting historians who wish to understand the interrelationships between taxation and accounting institutions and practice. Taxation is, however, a field in which the wider context of public policy, law, and public administration presses insistently on the development of measurement and reporting principles and techniques, and their application and interpretation in practice. This review essay suggests considerations that must be addressed in research design if the resulting research on a taxation subject is to succeed as rigorous accounting research, well grounded in relevant historical scholarship. To use an analogy, this is an essay about where in general and how to aim the research "camera"; it does not suggest how to shoot the photo, develop, analyze, or present it to the discerning public.

I will argue that the accounting historian who wishes to tackle a taxation subject has two primary obligations when framing the particular research questions to be explored. First, the contribution to accounting history must be clear. Taxation is a broad and complex subject. It may be approached in many ways, from the political philosophy of its application to its economic and social effects. These are important frames of reference for examining tax issues, but as accounting historians we wish to know what is it about the research that extends our historical understanding of accounting theory, practices, or institutions? Second, the links to a more general, but relevant, history of taxation must be clear. How does the research draw from and/or contribute to a wider tax history? Tax research done in an accounting history context, just as much as accounting history more generally defined, represents a specialist angle of analysis within wider fields of historical scholarship. The accounting historian, just as much as any historian, has an obligation to engage with the rigorous and rich analysis of leading historians in the wider fields. This is an important part of tracing the gap in the historical literature that the specific research will fill or begin to address.

In this essay, I will consider how influential monographs of 19th and 20th century taxation history written by Anglo/American historians might assist accounting historians to frame relevant tax research questions. Three influential works of US economic, legal, and political history will be considered (Elliot Brownlee's Federal Taxation in America [1996]; Robert Stanley's Dimensions of Law in the Service of Order [1993]; and Julian E. Zelizer's Taxing America [1998]). Two important works on British taxation history by the Cambridge economic and social historian Martin Daunton will be reviewed: Trusting Leviathan [2001] and Just Taxes [2002]. In each case, the essay will outline the major research questions and debates that these important works address in their general historical fields. Then, it will consider the ways in which accounting historians might use these works to assist in the exercise of framing their own research questions.


A tax researcher writing in an accounting history context faces a high threshold to acceptance that a piece of work makes a contribution to accounting history. …