Academic journal article The Accounting Historians Journal

Straw Men and Old Saws - an Evidence-Based Response to Sy & Tinker's Critique of Accounting History

Academic journal article The Accounting Historians Journal

Straw Men and Old Saws - an Evidence-Based Response to Sy & Tinker's Critique of Accounting History

Article excerpt

Abstract: In a recent Accounting History article, Sy and linker (S&T) [2005] critique accounting history for its support of "archivalism" and empiricism in light of irrefutable arguments against these "antiquarian epistemes." While tempted to lambaste S&T's article as unfettered social activism rather than evidence-based historical inquiry, we focus instead on the more substantive questions S&T raise. We initially summarize their essential arguments, although some of the statements they make are contradictory in nature. We then discuss fundamental issues and genuine challenges to accounting history posed by the post-Kuhnian critique that S&T and others represent, as well as the nature and purpose of historical enquiry. We reviewed the accounting history journal articles published between 2001 and 2005 and use our findings to evaluate the broad assertions that S&T make about accounting history. We conclude that S&T's critique is unwarranted and unjust, especially when the subject matter of the most recent accounting history articles is considered.

INTRODUCTION: SY AND TINKER ASSERTIONS

Sy and Tinker (S&T) contend that Thomas Kuhn's work on the construction of theory in the natural sciences has created a seismic historiographie shift that has not been acknowledged by accounting historians, whom they characterize as "archivalists" because of their unwavering belief that historical data are capable of objective verification. According to S&T, Kuhn [1970] has proven that empiricism is defunct, notwithstanding that the frauds S&T cite as proof of history's inherent fallibility were themselves refuted by evidence, and that the historical materialism that they promote as an alternative to archivalism also requires evidence before one can accept it as an historical explanation of social conditioning.

S&T also allege that the Kuhnian revolution has been successful among scientists and non-accounting historians alike, and that by basing their conclusions on ineffectual methodologies (i.e., historical evidence and the principle of falsification), accounting historians are in a serious state of denial. S&T describe this alleged widespread acceptance of the fallibility of empirical research as the "triumph of history over philosophy," although they also criticize accounting historians for not engaging with philosophy in the first place. Furthermore, accounting historians continue to address the wrong issues (i.e., the great, white, Eurocentric men of the past), and most importantly, do not embrace an unequivocal moral stance vis-à-vis their subject matter.1 For example, S&T [2005, p. 53] write:

Specifically, we provide a series of examples to remind the reader of the vulnerability of Empirical Science to ideological partisanship; not only in establishing the verity of some ideas, but also in demonstrating the falsity of others. The implication is not merely about distortions of the truth, but more importantly, the need for greater social self-awareness by accounting historians, such that they systematically grasp the terrain in conflict situations, and make an informed but inescapable choice about which side to ally their history. Such an [sic] socio-historical episteme is diametrically opposite to the philosophically naive objectivity that under-girds much archival research.

S&T similarly contend that by focusing on the wrong issues, accounting historians have ignored the repressed voices and social conflicts of the past, the inference being that when they have taken sides, they have allied with the wrong party. As a result, S&T argue, conservative viewpoints dominate the academy, and those with a more progressive spirit have been unable or are unwilling to use the history of accounting to help liberate the world of the present.

S&T infer that a belief in the inherent objectivity of factual evidence is the cause of accounting history's misplaced allegiances. …

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