Academic journal article The Accounting Historians Journal

Archival Researchers: An Endangered Species?

Academic journal article The Accounting Historians Journal

Archival Researchers: An Endangered Species?

Article excerpt

In recent years accounting historiography has been enriched by a considerable volume of debate surrounding the chronology and evolution of accounting theory and practice. By virtue of their attempts to explain the processes of change, accounting historians have become identified with a paradigm or world view that constitutes the theoretical context within which their research findings are couched. Scholars have either self-avowed their paradigmatic affiliations or have had their work so classified in the writings of others. Fleischman et al. [1996a], for example, trichotomized the field of industrial revolution cost accounting into three "schools"-the Neoclassical (economic rationalist), the Foucauldian, and the Marxist (labor process). A dichotomized schemata might be employed to distinguish "critical" and "traditional" historians. Critical historians tend to question the objectivity of much primary source material, particularly accounting documents, which can serve the self-interest of those in positions of power. Traditionalists have more faith that surviving business records provide a less partisan approximation of some sort of objective reality. A distinction can likewise be made between the "new accounting history" and older approaches, typically with a narrower focus. The new genre casts a wider net, deploying a variety of contexts to coexist with those economic aspects traditionally privileged in much accounting historiography. Many new accounting historians attempt to amplify the voices of suppressed groups (women, the poor, the illiterate) which have not been heard in mainstream literature.

The current authors believe that recent historiography, be it labeled "critical," "new accounting history," or "postmodernist," has greatly enriched traditional, mainstream, archive-based offerings and has significantly increased our knowledge of the past. On most occasions historical reinterpretation has been achieved in a positive fashion. However, when the way forward threatens to marginalize archival research, disenfranchise various categories of scholars on nonideological grounds, or to restrict methodologies and theoretical approaches, the current authors, as contemporary descendants of the Neoclassical tradition, feel the need to urge restraint.

Our discomfiture with the current environment in accounting history scholarship is discussed in three sections that follow. First, we address the question raised by Miller and Napier [1993] that historians must attempt to eliminate from their narratives references to practices and terminology that exist only in the present. Second, we consider the place of archival researchers in an historiographic environment characterized increasingly by attention to paradigmatic frameworks. Finally, we conclude by identifying the various groups of historians seemingly marginalized in some critical scholarship. We are particularly concerned with the status of archival researchers, potentially an endangered species.


Miller and Napier's article, "Genealogies of Calculation" [1993], has become the catalyst for debate between traditional and critical historians, e.g., Keenan [1996] and Scorgie [1996]. The article has also proven to be a positive contribution from the perspective of engendering fundamental rethinkings about historical methodology. The authors featured four case study genealogies to articulate a comprehensive theoretical approach for describing and evaluating the past.

The discourse in this article reflected Foucauldian rhetoric throughout although the authors assiduously avoided labeling the approach as such in the narrative or including Foucault's works in the references list. This ancestry was evident in their stress on the discontinuities of history; their viewing of historical epochs in terms of "ensembles of practices and rationales;" and their attention to the symbolic aspects of institutions, "the language and vocabulary in which a particular practice is articulated" [Miller and Napier, 1993, p. …

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