Academic journal article Human Organization

The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis Applied to Big 5(4) Public Accounting Firms' Assessments of Client Internal Controls

Academic journal article Human Organization

The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis Applied to Big 5(4) Public Accounting Firms' Assessments of Client Internal Controls

Article excerpt

It has been increasingly reasoned that language and organizational culture mediate between independent observers and the organizations they are trying to understand. We apply the linguistic relativity hypothesis and interpretive cultural anthropology to probe two discursive styles - metonymy and synecdoche - that may be used by the Big 5 (and following the collapse of Arthur Andersen, Big 4) public accounting firms to describe the internal control systems of their clients. Based upon a test instrument distributed to audit teams and interviews, we find that the more "mechanistic" audit firm cultures employ metonymy, while "organic" audit firm cultures employ synecdoche. Implications are explored.

Key words: Linguistic relativity hypothesis, organizational culture, discursive styles, metonymy, synecdoche, social constitution of reality, internal control assessment, Sarbanes-Oxley Act

My administration pressed for greater corporate integrity. A united Congress has written it into law fas the Sarbanes-Oxley Act]. And today I sign the most far-reaching reform of American business practices since the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

George W. Bush, 2002


Contemporary society is awash in hyperbole that we are following the information highway across the information bridge into the information age and served by an array of knowledge experts (Chiapellow and Fairclough 2002:185; Fairclough 2003:4; Zuboff 1988). Knowledge has, in turn, become "a strategic resource of social power and control" leading to the perception that "knowledge work and knowledge workers are now key issues" (Blackler, Reed, and Whitaker 1993:851), and that "expertise is one of the primary arenas in which struggles to control the organization and management of work are fought out" (Reed 1996:574). Accordingly, the nature of knowledge, expertise, and professional endeavor, especially within the public accounting profession, have emerged as urgent research issues (Abbott 1988:235), as well as the discourse processes implicated in the social construction of professional endeavor (Fairclough 2003).

Orthodox analyses of organizations traditionally treat the focal organization as independent of the observer who is seeking to delineate, describe, and make it coherent. The traditional goal of the observer is to build a better correspondence between observations and the objective reality of the organization. This "correspondence theory" of truth has been increasingly challenged, however, based on the argument that the perspective of the observer is seen as influencing the understanding of the organization gleaned from analysis as much as does the organization itself (Lakoff and Johnson 2003:185-188; Manning 1979).

One product of this latter, or "perspectival view," is a research focus on one element common to all social activity-language-and more specifically, on the way in which language mediates between a focal organization and observers' perceptions of it (Burke 1962; Manning 1979; White 1978). White (1978), for example, stated that language may be seen as the "structure of consciousness" with which individuals seek to describe reality. This position may be seen as harmonious with the "linguistic relativity hypothesis" (Bernstein 1958; Dittmas 1976; Fishman 1960, 1968; Gumperz 1996; Lakoff 2002; Lucy 1992; Pinker 1995; Rosch 1977; Sapir 1929; Stroinska 2001; Thompson 1984; Ulijn and Verweij 2000; Whorf 1956). This hypothesis posits that the language used by people shapes their perceptions of reality, and consequently impacts their behavior. More specifically, Whorf (1956:212-214, emphasis added) reasoned that "we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.. .We cut up nature, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way-an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. …

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