Academic journal article Accounting Historians Journal

Ray Chambers and Ernest Weinwurm-Scholars in Unison on Measurement in Accounting

Academic journal article Accounting Historians Journal

Ray Chambers and Ernest Weinwurm-Scholars in Unison on Measurement in Accounting

Article excerpt

Abstract: Drawing on new evidence (Napier, 2002), we examine how ideas on measurement in accounting developed in the 1950s and 1960s. We show that for the question of measurement to be addressed properly, there is a need to consider the function of accounting. The analysis of private correspondence between Professors Ray Chambers (Sydney University, Australia) and the U.S.'s Ernest Weinwurm (DePaul University, Chicago) reveals that those ideas were nurtured in a way not previously disclosed. We provide unequivocal insights into how the latter, a scholar relatively unknown in accounting, mentored the former through the maturation of Chambers' accounting measurement ideas following his 1955 a "Blueprint for a Theory of Accounting" and 1957 "Detail for a Blueprint" articles, his theory matters in general, and other matters in particular being considered by the profession's standard-setters especially in the U.S. The analysis reinforces the differing notions of what accounting researchers perceived as "scientific," from the so-called "Golden Age" theorists' [Nelson, 1973] reasoned thinking based on observations of the commercial foundations within which accounting sits, to the narrower notions emerging from theorists within the economic capital-markets paradigm.


Accounting measurement issues at a high level of generality emerged in the 1950s and 1960s as part of the desire by many to seek sounder principles for accounting practice. They proved problematic and remain unresolved notwithstanding extensive conceptual framework (CF) deliberations over the last 50 years. Consider, for instance, recent concerns expressed as part of the CF deliberations by the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB), specifically over implementation aspects of fair-value measures in International Financial Reporting Standards. Mark-to-market valuations for so-called "toxic assets" became a critical issue during the 2007-2010 global financial crisis (GFC). (1) Resolving that issue among others, such as whether to allow multiple measures or prescribe a single measurement property for reporting assets and liabilities, is alluded to in the references in footnote 1 and the text below to have been politically sensitive and seemingly intractable issues for standard-setters for over hall a century.

Chambers [1955a, b, 1957], along with Mattessich [1957], were early academics who explored at a higher level of generality the issue of measurement in accounting. Chambers perceived the need for practice to be underpinned by more reasoned thinking than mere custom based on special pleading. Accordingly, reference is made throughout this paper to a desire by Chambers and others for a more "scientific" underpinning of the art of accounting. Not long after those 1950s forays, Homburger [1961] and Bierman [1963] discussed accounting-measurement issues, with the latter using the term "revolution" to flag the prospect of a major breakthrough.

Through private, previously unexamined correspondence (1955-1964) between Professors Ray Chambers and Ernest Weinwurm, we te-examine here several recurring measurement issues, in particular that accounting measurement had to conform to the rules of measurement well established in other disciplines [Stevens, 1946]. (2) This new evidence (Napier, 2002) provides insights into how a more rigorous, more "scientific" approach to accounting thought arose in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That evidence also highlights the need for the function of accounting to be determined before any question of measurement can be addressed properly.

In addition to that private correspondence, we also review an unpublished 1975 paper "Accounting, Measurement and Mathematics" that was to be a part of an Abacus festschrift for Ernest Weinwurm. (3) Those materials reveal that what has been published to date about many early theorists' works on those matters is a partial account. …

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