Rendering the Unfamiliar Intelligible: Discovering the Human Side of Accounting's Past through Oral History Interviews

By Tyson, Thomas | The Accounting Historians Journal, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Rendering the Unfamiliar Intelligible: Discovering the Human Side of Accounting's Past through Oral History Interviews


Tyson, Thomas, The Accounting Historians Journal


Abstract: Two paradigmatic schools are presently exploring twentieth century accounting history. Conventional historians typically examine archival data to determine the origin and development of modern accounting practices. Alternatively, more critical scholars often question the motives of accountants and managers in the design, collection, and use of this same data. Although each school has a different primary objective, both focus on documented events and both usually ignore the more personal, human side of history - the attitudes and perceptions of accountants, managers, and workers regarding accounting numbers and reports.

This undocumented, human aspect of accounting history is best revealed through oral history interviews. This paper initially discusses the benefits and limitations of oral history interviews. It then includes examples from a recently completed oral history project to illustrate how recollections about the past help illuminate aspects of twentieth century cost accounting history that neither conventional nor critical historians have clearly revealed. The paper concludes by identifying three current accounting topic areas that appear befitting of oral history investigations.

Key Words: Oral History, Historical Methods, Standard Costing,

INTRODUCTION

An increasing number of accounting scholars are examining the history of their discipline. In general, scholars undertake historical inquiries to understand the past for its own sake, to explain modern developments, and/or to precipitate social change. Within the field, paradigmatic differences have arisen between two different perspectives on accounting history conventional (traditional) historians who examine business archives to discover the origin and describe the development of modern accounting procedures [Edwards and Boyns, 1992; Fleischman and Parker, 1991; Tyson, 1992 & 1994] and critical historians who focus instead on how the reports were used by owner/managers to maintain class distinctions and social arrangements within the firm [Hopper and Armstrong, 1991; Hoskin and Macve, 1994; Miller and Napier, 1993].' Merino and Mayper [1993, p. 262] have encapsulated these differences as follows: "Critical historical research has provided important new insights by rendering the familiar, strange; while conventional historical inquiries render the familiar, intelligible."2

Notwithstanding the disparities between critical and conventional historians, both typically focus on particular documented events in the past and utilize written material for information about these events.3 This paper argues that oral history interviews can best reveal the previously undocumented, human side of accounting's past - the perceptions and recollections of individuals who designed, implemented, or were impacted by accounting procedures. In doing so, oral histories can illuminate a side of accounting history that has been long neglected. Oral histories can also provide data to evaluate whether conventional or critical interpretations best clarify particular past events. For example, conventional and critical historians typically disagree about the relative importance that economic, social, and political factors have had on recent accounting developments such as standard costing. Conducting oral interviews with individuals who helped to develop and/or implement particular accounting procedures might illuminate the discourse. The value of an oral history project may rely on the unique insights that informants provide about the past or on the belief in the merit of "history for its own sake." In addition, oral history interviews generate newly documented evidence which can be used to evaluate the efficacy of competing paradigms.

This paper initially describes the benefits and challenges of conducting oral history interviews. Specific examples from a recently completed oral history case study are then presented to show how informants' comments can provide unique and revealing aspects of standard costing's development and implementation, insights which are typically unavailable from conventional and critical histories that are based exclusively on documentary sources. …

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