Abstract: The paper reasserts the importance of biographical research in accounting history by reference to Stephen Zeff's book on Henry Rand Hatfield. It illustrates that depth studies of individual actors offers compelling insights to the history of accounting theory, practices and institutions. Biography also has the capacity to reveal insights which have a bearing on modern day issues.
Focal text: S.A. Zeff, (1999), Henry Rand Hatfield: Humanist, Scholar, and Accounting Educator (Stamford, CN: JAI Press, 1999).
THE IMPORTANCE OF BIOGRAPHICAL RESEARCH IN ACCOUNTING
We live in a world increasingly interested in its past. Public television in several countries offers a regular diet of historical programs, and cable television companies provide a channel devoted exclusively to what its producers believe to be history. Shelves of bookstores groan with the weight of newly-published historical texts and novels. Historians combine university employment with part-time careers as media-based presenters on wind-swept moors and ramparts or in water-logged archaeological trenches. The brightest and the best of graduating classes in history are full-time researchers who can write best-selling historical texts. Thus, at least in the developed countries of the English-speaking world, an obvious appetite for history exists despite increasing concerns about the quantity and quality of history education in schools.
In the more specific world of accounting, however, we find conflicting signals about the state of its history. Despite a relatively thriving but small community of accounting historians, the subject does not appear to have a serious impact on the histories of professions and business. Accounting history is not taught in schools and is rarely contained in the accounting curriculum of universities. Indeed, in the United States where there are thousands of degree-awarding institutions, accounting historians have become an endangered species. Corporate scandals such as Enron, WorldCom and Xerox are criticized, debated and investigated by individual accountants with apparently very little sense or understanding of accounting history. As the old adage goes, history repeats itself.
Paying attention to its history is a major part of the solution to a problem and paying attention to the background and role of individual actors is a more specific solution. The need to study individuals in history is a matter that historians are increasingly recognizing [Jordanova, 2000, pp. 41-42]. Biographical histories not only provide insight, context, and explanation for broader historical issues. They are also popular with readers of history. A biography is a window into a past life and, depending on the depth of research, helps to satisfy our curiosity about fellow human beings. Our instinct for voyeurism means that we are interested not only in great deeds and events, but also in personal habits and weaknesses. Modern biographical research tends to lift the stone to find out what lies beneath it. It observes the privates and lance corporals of the army, as well as its generals and marshals. A recent example illustrates this argument. There have been many biographical studies of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington and his military successes and failures against the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. However, thanks to the research of Urban , we now know of Major George Scovell who was responsible for breaking the communication codes of Napoleon that gave Wellington a decisive advantage in his battles against the French in Spain in the early 1800s.
The same should be true of accounting history. In order to explain and understand accounting practices, developments, failures and successes, we need to know more about the accounting actors who were present. For example, in the development of the public accountancy profession in the United States, the clashes over auditor independence rules between the centralist American Institute of Accountants and the devolved American Society of Certified Public Accountants is explained, at least partially, by the enmity between George Oliver May of Price Waterhouse & Company and Eric Kohler of Northwestern University [Previts and Merino, 1998, p. …